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Businesses in survival mode

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TALI FEINBERG

“There is an unreality about it. We have been a busy little place, a home-from-home, the centre of something. Now, we are like a vacuum, an empty space with everything in place but without life,” says Simon Godley, the owner of kosher cafe Frangelicas.

Like many small-business owners, life for Godley changed forever from one moment to the next. “President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address on Sunday 15 March 2020 was the starting gun for the effect on our business. All functions and table bookings were cancelled, and sit-down customers gradually reduced to almost none. We are now totally reliant on take-away and retail-shelf sales – roughly a 70% reduction.

“There was a further reduction of sales on Monday [23 March], and we will have to close on Thursday for three weeks, which means we won’t have any sales at all. But we have also been busy putting plans in place to keep us ticking over, looking after our staff however we can, and considering our options – even if it means “mothballing” Frangelicas for a time. We do believe we’ll come out stronger,” he says.

There have also been positive aspects to this uncertain time. “Numerous customers are supporting us in different ways, which we are extremely appreciative about. The Beth Din kosher department is launching an exciting initiative in support of us, as well as waiving fees. Our takeaways have increased dramatically. Our staff have been great – and they have the most to lose.”

Where to from here? “We have to manage our way as best we can as things unfold. We are fortunate in having an excellent management team and staff. We have an optimistic approach that we’ll be okay, but of course, it’s the national picture that worries us,” says Godley. To other small business owners, he says, “I’m sure we’re all thinking along similar lines. It’s not a great situation, but the alternative is far worse. The community has already supported us so much, and we know that it will continue to do so, where and when it can.”

Indeed, Rabbi Dovi Goldstein of the Kosher Desk says, “Over the past week, the kosher department has been hard at work to find ways to help kosher restaurants in real terms. Therefore, we have approved a payment holiday for all SME [small and medium-sized] food services [excluding supermarkets] for the month of April. This will mean we won’t be charging any fees to kosher restaurants at the end of this month except for the direct mashgiach [kashrut supervisor] and label costs if required. We will be monitoring the situation closely, and evaluating the needs on a month-to-month basis. We have also been working with a marketing company to provide an online platform to advertise kosher restaurants’ products, menus, and specials which we will promote to our community online.”

Cherie Milosevich, an independent travel agent in Cape Town, says, “It’s been a disaster. Overnight, basically, all bookings were cancelled. Everyone wants their money refunded … [there is] lots of lost remuneration to agents and airlines. Independent travel consultants have been hit really badly – no work, no pay. It’s times like these when people who have used the internet [to book trips] that they need us agents. It’s better to be able to talk to a travel agent than call centres. I have tried to help whoever has needed help, even though they didn’t book the original ticket with me. Most of my clients have reassured me that they are definitely going to start travelling again. I can only be hopeful that this will happen in the not too distant future.”

Photographer Nikki van Diermen says, “Things escalated very quickly. I had a wedding booked in Italy in May. The bridal couple went from being cautiously optimistic that the wedding would proceed, and one week later, the wedding was postponed. About a week after that, all my local wedding bookings were postponed. All weddings for the rest of the season have been postponed until next season, as have all my smaller scale lifestyle sessions for the next two months.

“It all seems surreal. I feel like the actual financial and emotional implications are yet to be felt properly. I’m managing the obstacles one day at a time. I encouraged all bookings to be postponed as opposed to cancelled, thereby ensuring that I have some sort of future cashflow to plan around,” she says. “At this stage, it’s all so unpredictable. I will be using my time in lockdown to build my skills as a photographer, but also to focus on how I can be a better wife, daughter, mother, and friend – and to count my blessings daily.”

For other small-business owners, the closing of essential institutions means the end of the road for their businesses. Kevin Koz, the owner of Nutty Scientists South Africa, says that the impact was immediate. “I’ll never forget that Sunday night [15 March] when the president said that schools must close.” His company is a leading provider of interactive programmes for children of all ages related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning, and it needs schools and events to operate.

“That night, in about three or four phone calls, all my work for the upcoming months was postponed or cancelled. Financially, I have forgone all bookings for March, April, and May. This includes contracts with the Rand Show for R180 000 and school workshops to the value of R150 000. Fortunately, my overheads are low as they are directly linked to events. I pay staff only when they are required on a contract basis.”

For him, it has also been the loss of a dream. “It was my passion. I built it up for five years and more than 250 000 children have done our workshops and seen our shows. I always wake up in the morning excited about my work and hands-on science.”

He may revive the business in future, but for now is looking at other options. And in the face of it all, he still feels the lockdown is the right move. “As a community, we need to stick together by not sticking together,” he says.

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