Many restaurants in the UAE experienced an uptick in business over the last quarter of 2020 as homebound residents opted for dinners over travel.
This may have, in turn, lulled us into a false sense of security – but just because it's a new year doesn't mean the pandemic is behind us.
Earlier in February, Sticky Rice's Amena Rakkuson, popularly known as "mama", died of Covid-19 – a reminder that restaurants stand to lose much more than just business.
"Covid-19 devastated the entire Sticky Rice family, it went through 95 per cent of the team," anonymous food critic Food Sheikh tells The National.
"I hope it reminds people what destruction the virus can bring and why it is everyone’s responsibility to look out for one another.”
With new daily cases surpassing 3,000 earlier this year, the Dubai Government introduced precautionary measures, including limiting the number of seats at restaurant and cafes, and banning brunches. And experts are pleading with restaurants to abide by the new restrictions for the safety of everyone.
"We know that social distancing works. We know that staying away from large crowds works. We know that face masks and hand sanitisation work,” says Food Sheikh. “The fundamental purpose of the recent rules imposed on restaurants is to stop large groups of people gathering in confined spaces.”
The blogger urges restaurants to show caution and practise restraint for the time being.
"Although brunches are temporarily banned, common sense extends that rule to similar promotions, such as Friday 'long lunches', or five-course menus with unlimited drinks. Different names do not affect what they really are and it’s the end result that is the issue.”
While these restrictions may reduce the number of diners who can be seated at a table – seven in Dubai and four in Abu Dhabi – it does more good for a restaurant in the long run, says Reif Othman, chef and founder of Reif Kushiyaki.
“It’s in everyone’s interests to abide by the regulations, so that we can see a relaxation next month,” he says.
The chef has a designated member of his team that monitors changing municipality regulations and enforces them across all the restaurant's branches.
These restrictions have reduced revenue (Reif Japanese Kushiyaki in dar wasl mall is currently operating at only 40 per cent capacity), which is why he urges landlords to be more understanding by increasing outdoor seating areas, and diners to abide by regulations.
'Guests should be kind and patient now, more than ever'
Another incident that surprised the food community this month was CZN Burak's temporary closure for Covid-19 breaches. The restaurant has since explained the popularity of its celebrity chef caused people to crowd around him to get selfies. But it took the closure as an opportunity to revise safety measures.
It is a reminder that the onus of being safe when dining out doesn’t just fall on the restaurant, but on everyone involved.
“Customers need to understand that restaurants bear the consequences when guests don’t follow rules. Guests should be patient and kind more than ever – not entitled,” says Andre Gerschel, chief operating officer of hospitality company Loud Table.
If not, they could risk the temporary or full closure of the restaurant itself, he says.
Samantha Wood, founder of impartial restaurant review website FooDiva.net, further reminds diners to be more understanding towards staff.
“Some restaurants are running at reduced staff levels so service could be a little slow. On top of that, due to management of food costs, not all dishes may be available,” she says.
When it comes to visiting popular restaurants, she advises reserving well in advance and, if you change your mind, cancelling with adequate notice.
“No-shows are a dirty word now more than ever," she says. “Finally, if the experience has impressed you, make sure you tip in cash. Many team members at some point over the past year have had to work on reduced salaries so every little bit helps.”
Advice for restaurants and diners
During a difficult time for small, home-grown companies, Gerschel advises restaurants to stick to their roots.
"It's easy when you're bleeding money to try and do everything or anything, but this isn't the time to create a co-working ghost kitchen Japanese fusion spa inside your burger place. Focus on your core offers."
Food Sheikh also urges restaurants to stick to their principles and standards – but be flexible under the circumstances.
“Challenge your current business model. What else can you sell? Meal kits, recipes, expertise, groceries. Think outside the box. Keep costs low but be fair to your team members. Talk to your banks, investors and landlords. Stay positive and busy.”
Meanwhile, Gerschel and Food Sheikh encourage diners to support local restaurants in any way possible. “Visit them, order from them – but do it safely so the government can get this virus under control,” says Food Sheikh.
"Every fil to a home-grown restaurant counts," says Gerschel.
Those flouting rules need to take a step back and understand that there are repercussions to their actions.
As Food Sheikh puts it: “Not only is this disrespectful and runs the risk of significant fines and other penalties, there is also the far greater risk of spreading the virus to someone who won’t be able to survive it. That is a heavy burden for anyone to carry.”