Cayman’s restaurants struggling for survival

Restaurateurs from across Grand Cayman gather to discuss the challenges their industry is facing while the borders remain closed. - Photo: Norma Connolly

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.”

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  1. I live in the state of Florida. Our Governor is an intelligent and courageous man. He has concluded that the US Centers for Disease Control are perpetuating a hoax on the US and has followed facts surrounding this Covid lie.
    Our state is and has been open for business for quite some time. No mask, no distancing, no quarantine, no forced tabs. There is no sign of a pandemic. Restaurants and stores, and every type of business are open and functioning at our normal pace.
    Despite the fact there are no mask requirements, many of our people have been so scared they still wear them even though they provide no virus protection. Despite our ability to access hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin which is effective for treating COVID-19 and can be purchased cheaply, many continue to take the jab. There are many scientist in the US who say millions of those people will be dead in two to three years from the spike protein in the jab.
    I will miss your island and your people. If I survive the devastation Dr. Fauci and friends have created I would love to visit whatever is left of your home in the future.
    God bless you all.

    • I like Governor DeSantis, but please don’t otherwise associate me with James. He’s making the case for why you’d want to continue to keep us out. But still, there’s a way of distinguishing between the two of us for entry purposes – I’ve been vaccinated.

    • James T, if you want to believe such nonsense that’s fine. Just stay there where you are, surrounded by people who feel the same as you. We don’t want your germs here, nor your attitude that you don’t give a s**t about infecting other people, or bringing covid to a covid-free island.

  2. I’m a US resident who’s visited the Caymans once or more annually for years, and who was looking at looking at purchasing property there pre-pandemic. At the outset of the pandemic, I admired and envied the caution exercised by the Caymans and their good fortune in being able to mostly keep the virus out. 15 months later though, with life returning to normal in the US, high vaccination rates, and low case numbers, the Caymans refusal to adapt to the changed circumstances has begun to look ridiculous. There is no scientific or economic reason why your borders are not open to vaccinated travelers. I’ve been forced to conclude that the reason is political – you’re just not that into us. It must be the case that sentiment in the Caymans just isn’t that non-resident friendly, and it’s caused us to re-evaluate where we want to purchase our winter home. It’s a shame, we’ve traveled all over the Caribbean for years and Grand Cayman had been our very clear preference for a place to put down some permanent roots prior to this.

  3. QUOTE: 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.

    BINGO! I normally come 3-5 times per year. It is by far my favorite place in the world to visit. However, there is no way that I, fully vaccinated for 5 months, would spend 1 single day in a quarantine when I can go to many other islands around the world with ZERO wait. The reduction down to 5 days is worthless. There is no reason to not open up to vaccinated visitors with negative PCR tests.

  4. Valid point. A 5 day quarantine probably would cause a net outflow rather than inflow making the economic problem worse. While proof of vaccination is a maturing conversation, you either believe the vaccine works or you don’t. Anything more than 0 days quarantine for the vaccinated is like saying you are a little bit pregnant.

    • People are entitled to believe whatever unevidenced nonsense they want, but if the government is making policy based on the demonstrably false belief that the vaccines in use in the US “don’t work” then they shouldn’t be surprised that there are negative consequences to their irrationality. I’ve got no problem with adding a negative PCR test to the requirements for entry for now. Most Americans are getting used to these tests and we have to take one to re-enter the United States anyway. But a quarantine on top of a vaccination and a negative test is an absurd and unnecessary burden. You might as well put up a sign at the airport saying “we don’t want your kind here.”

      • That is exactly how I feel. I can add a negative PCR to the requirement but not 1 day of quarantine. Think of the bad message it sends Caymanians also; we want everyone to get vaccinated but we still are saying vaccinated people aren’t safe! Huh?

  5. Classic example of paralyzed new government leadership that overreacts. The damage done to the image of Grand Cayman will take years to reverse. The inability to pull a plan together to reopen simply demonstrates that this new government was ill prepared if elected.

  6. If Tukka is “struggling” so badly how were they able to open the second restaurant in West Bay during this period of border closures?

    Everyone is rushing to go back to the way things were. This is a mistake. We are wasting our energy trying to get back to where we were, rather than charting a new course. An economy that depends on tourism for 30% of its GDP is a big problem. Small problems outside our borders (such as the 2008 financial collapse and in 2020 COVID) causes large problems inside our borders. We should be spending out time, energy and money on diversifying the economy and moving away from dependence on tourism. We need to get our tourism down to 5-10% of our GDP. The next big problem outside our borders is just around the corner….again. Failure to learn from the past ensures we will fail in the future.

    • You can’t diversify your economy by shutting out the outside world. Most of the tourists that come are experts in their respective careers. When they come, they fall in love with the island and want to support those other industries you are now cultivating. Whether it is tech, life sciences, or finance – the ability to come to Cayman Islands, meet the great people, and fall in love with the place is a strong POSITIVE for your plan to diversify your economy – not a negative!

  7. We as property owners, but not residents of the island, will not visit Cayman and spend our vacation money/time in quarantine. We are vaccinated and currently in Europe and traveling through several countries with no quarantine. Please stop being ridiculous, use common sense and open the border to vaccinated people.

    • Great news! We don’t want you bringing your germs here. Anyway, the same rules in Europe (which has a common travel zone due to the Schengen agreement so you can move smoothly between countries) does not apply to Cayman which is free to protect it’s own borders from undesirables and idiots.

  8. We need to open our borders! We should be proud of our 70% vaccination rate. Seriously why do we have to guarantee 14 or 10 or 5 days? Can anyone explain the science behind that?

    Vaccinated visitors are choosing other islands like Turks and Caiocos. We will not get those tourists, investors or high net worth people back to Cayman.

    Where is our CaymanKind? We have spent a fortune on welcoming our tourists but now the message is clear – we do not need you or want you. A very poor message that is not what the majority of Caymanians feel. If we do not open our airports until November maybe the government can pay the rent for all these restaurants?

  9. I am a US citizen with a significant investment in a home and a condo in Grand Cayman. My wife and I are both fully vaccinated and… we used to visit Grand Cayman four or five times a year for a week or so at a time. With the current quarantine rules it’s just not practical for us to visit. We miss Grand Cayman but we must now look for a new vacation home that we can be sure to visit regularly. It would not have to be this way. Very sad for us and sad for all the wonderful people we have met there.

  10. I feel bad for those who own restaurants. We have more than 1/2 our meals at Walter’s place Catch or Aqua. We’ve been going to Cayman for over 30 years and have a winter/retirement home in West Bay that we have not been to for 15 months because, at the moment, we can not get away for more than 2 weeks. In the beginning the government was making decisions based on logic and science now it looks like decisions are based on nothing but fear.

    I do not believe that they will open up before Nov. 1. The government has scheduled repatriation flights through the end of October. Unless they walk that back there will be no commercial flights until after Nov. 1 at best.

    I appreciate how they handled Covid in the beginning but I’m greatly disappointed how they are handling it going forward.

  11. I first visited Cayman shorty after hurricane Ivan and fell in love with the island and its people. My family purchased a condo and visit cayman multiple times a year. We returned to the states on one of the last flights out. Since then we have been supporting the food pantry at our church in cayman and have been a staunch advocate for keeping everyone that is employed by our condo association fully paid.
    It is with a heavy heart that we have decided that our support is not appreciated by a large percentage of the caymanian people and certainly not by the cayman government. We have made our last donation to the pantry and at our next condo association meeting my vote will be to cut back to minimum staff and release all others until government acknowledges that the world is open and comes up with a reopening plan.

  12. We have been coming to Cayman from Maryland twice a year since 2013. Every February and July for 10 days each trip. Booked a house near Rum Point for the end of July this Summer to bring another family. All 15 of us vaccinated. Even if the quarantine is reduced to 5 days, and it doesn’t seem like the current government is competent or organized to even make this decision, we will not come and sit in quarantine for 5 days.
    I know many other families who regularly travel to Cayman. They are vaccinated and will not return under any quarantine conditions.

    The family we are planning to bring this Summer has never been to Cayman. They are asking if the government in Cayman has always been this indecisive and incompetent. Nice reputation Cayman is building. I try to tell them that Cayman is amazing and the people are so wonderful. I do miss Cayman.

  13. Couple of things…
    I’m a physician and I cannot figure out why someone who has had coronavirus would need to get a vaccine… and please don’t try to argue that vaccinated immunity or more effective than natural immunity.

    The Caymans would be nothing but a mostly infertile coral island if it we’re not for “tourists”. As beautiful as the beaches and water is there… Grand Cayman relies on the outside world for its existence… be careful what you wish for!

    • I’m no physician, but I believe the immunity/antibodies from having Covid are temporary.
      Of course, the vaccine immunity isn’t permanent either, as boosters will eventually be necessary.
      Still, it’s no reason to live a life in fear. There are personal choices available now.

      • The fact is the jury is still out on both of these length of immunity questions. What the jury is not out on is the fact that travelers who’ve had mRNA vaccines in 2021 are no threat to the Caymans in 2021.

  14. I had really hoped that after the election that a plan of action would be in place. I find it regrettable as my family as introduced more people to the Cayman Islands than I care to count. However, there is no science in keeping the current restrictions in place. Your neighbor to the north is worth looking at to see what is happening. Most everyone, no masks, no social distancing, and we are congregating in large groups – if there was going to be a problem it would be very apparent. Corona is old news and I feel sad to watch all the unnecessary damage been done for no good reason.