Well know the local chef and conscious economically and environmentally restaurateur, Chef James Diack explains why sustainable practices – for both customers and industry players – might be the key to surviving the current economic downturn.

As South Africa steers further into economic downturn, the pressure that consumers feel as their money doesn’t go as far means that entertainment budgets are often cut. The ripple effect of this means that restaurants close, jobs are lost, and more pressure is placed on the fiscal system. There has to be a way to save these jobs – and he believes that sustainable practices are the key.

James is the founder of The Brightside Group which has four restaurants in Johannesburg – Coobs (Parkhurst), Douglas + Hale (Parktown North), Il Contadino (Parktown North) and La Stalla (Melville). Brightside Farm, where James was raised, is run by his mother Janet and provides 95% of the produce served at each restaurant – thus, the name The Brightside Group.

“What we have seen over the last 12-18 months is not only a decline in customer spend but also a change in how customers are eating. Smaller plates, single courses and a glass of wine instead of a bottle are all ways that consumers are justifying the spend on non-essential items to themselves. As such, we’ve had to adapt – not only have we changed our menus to suit the changing consumer eating habits; but behind the scenes, we’re working even harder to streamline our already-low cost base even further.” says Chef James

Choose your suppliers wisely

One of the ways they have been able to keep delivering value to their customers through the economic downturn has been by making sure their supply and costs are kept as low as possible. Some costs are out of our control – diesel fuel, Eskom tariff hikes, maize prices, water and rates have all gone up. “We source 95% of our ingredients from the farm, and what we can’t farm ourselves, we source from suppliers who share our passion for provenance. Sometimes, we even barter with produce and save on Rands spent,” adds James.

Reducing production costs

On the farm, they plan the usage of tractors to minimize diesel use and strategise deliveries from farm to restaurants to be streamlined and efficient. They have also made sure that all staff on the farm completely understand what they are trying to achieve, and they conduct their daily jobs as least wastefully as possible. This goes for everyone from the tractor driver, the vegetable garden labourer, to the ladies making cheese and preserves, and to the staff looking after the animals.

Recycling of waste

Another aspect of our products which has always been part of our daily lives is recycling our waste. The fact that they have livestock on the farm means nothing from the gardens goes to waste. Plus manure for fertiliser!

Menu adjustments

“Not only have we (for the first time) introduced a pasta and wine special across all four of our restaurants, but Coobs also has a provenance menu. Although the prices might be reduced, the food is as generous and tasty. And, because we’ve managed to keep costs down behind the scenes, we can keep delivering this value to customers.”

Coravin wine by the glass

Consumers want to drink great wine by the glass but these days a bottle is too expensive. Enter the Coravin wine preservation system. The restaurant teams use this for some of the more expensive wines – it pours wine without removing the cork from the bottle, thus preserving it. It enables people, who can’t necessarily buy a bottle, to enjoy a glass. “We can now open a bottle of expensive wine and keep it for up to three months – reducing our wastage costs significantly,” explains James.

The bottom line is, we’re all under pressure. However, as “they say”, this too shall pass. The key, for most South African restaurants right now, will be to make it to the other side. From cutting costs in the supply chain, to changing how we serve dishes, this has become our survival strategy. We ALL want to make it to the end of the downturn, with as many jobs intact as we can. And I believe this is how we can all do it.

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