On any given Friday night in Cayman, a diner would be forgiven for thinking that the restaurant scene is booming, with full dining rooms, laden plates, busy waiters and a bustling bar service.
Fast forward a few days to a Monday or Tuesday, however, and it’s a very different picture.
Cayman’s restaurateurs say they are struggling to keep their heads above water, and that they have been running at a loss since the borders closed 15 months ago.
This week, the Cayman Compass met with a group of 20 restaurant owners and managers, all of whom had the same concern – with no clear path to reopening the borders, they don’t know how long they’ll be able to keep their doors open or their staff employed.
“It is important to share with people how difficult it has been and how it could be in the future for restaurants. They see us on Friday night and see that we’re busy, but they don’t know how difficult it is during the week… We’re at 40-50% of what we used to be, and some at 20-30%,” said Cristiano Vincentini, co-owner of Agua restaurant in Camana Bay.
Dependent on residents
Since restaurants were allowed to reopen after lockdown in June last year, they have been dependent on the islands’ estimated 65,000 residents for their custom. In 2019, those restaurants had a share of the record 2.3 million tourists who entered the Cayman Islands that year.
Tukka owner Ron Hargrave told the Compass that in March last year, his restaurants had 65 staff members, which he had to reduce to 12 during lockdown. Some employees who lived in nearby countries, like Cuba, Mexico or Jamaica, went back home at that stage, but he took back 12 staff and now has about 25 at his two restaurants.
“It has been an absolute struggle for the last 15 months,” Hargrave said. “Now the biggest question is, do we close or stay open? … We’re looking at summer, we’re looking at hurricane season – do I put the rest of the staff I have out on the street?”
During last year’s school vacation period, restaurants benefited from people spending pension funds on staycations in East End and North Side, or at Seven Mile Beach hotels.
This summer, however, the restaurateurs are expecting a different scene, especially if the quarantine period is reduced from 10 days to five days for vaccinated travellers, as has been suggested.
Exodus expected if quarantine shortened
Markus Mueri, owner of Abacus and the recently closed Deckers, explained that he and others in the restaurant sector are expecting an exodus of residents who are desperate to visit family overseas or just go on vacation after being unable to leave island since March last year.
He said professionals, who have not had a break from work since the pandemic began, are just waiting for a shorter quarantine period before going off island for vacation. “They are our lifeline. These are the people we have been surviving with over the last 15 months,” he said.
Without tourists to replace them, the restaurants are likely to find themselves in dire straits this summer, with no respite until quarantine is eliminated.
With lockdown proving that employees can effectively work from home, those returning to Cayman after a trip abroad can easily deal with five days’ quarantine. However, for US tourists, who typically get 10 days’ leave a year, this would make too big a dent in their holiday time to make the trip here worthwhile.
Many US citizens who have been in contact with the Compass have said that as long as any quarantine period is in place, they are likely to opt not to come here.
“I hope and dream that by July this summer, the quarantine will be removed [for vaccinated travellers],” Mueri said. “Travel agents and tourism specialists have made it very clear that any quarantine will not increase tourism on the island.”
The restaurateurs are calling for a border-reopening plan, so they can determine when to begin staffing up, what start date to give new employees, and when to begin training new workers. Without that, they said, they don’t know if they should take the risk of continuing to operate at a loss for indeterminate more months, or close temporarily, or go to investors to ask for more money.
The restaurants, in an effort to find local staff to prepare for when the borders reopen, have been in contact with the Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman department to hire Caymanians, but there does not appear to be many applications at the moment, the owners said.
Rising food prices a challenge
Restaurants are also facing the added problem of rising food prices. The cost of meat, for example, has increased by 15% since May 2020, according to the US Food and Agriculture Organization, while cereal prices have gone up 36.6% and vegetable oil by a whopping 124%.
Walter Fajette, co-owner of Agua, said his kitchen’s chef comes to him frequently with receipts for ingredients, exclaiming, “The prices, the prices!”
But the restaurants can’t put their prices up in response to this because the current market is so small and the competition to attract diners is fierce.
With the islands’ vaccination rate at 72%, the restaurateurs are hopeful that the government will soon make a decision on when and how to safely reopen the borders.
Fajette said that people tend to only see restaurants on their busy nights, because that’s the night those people go out, and assume they’re doing well.
“Everyone should ask themselves … could you survive in the business you work in with a daily loss? You still have costs, not just for the business but in your private lives. What if, all of a sudden, your business lost money and you can’t pay your staff? That is what we have been facing for the past year and half.”