Restaurants reopened three weeks ago after a three-month lockdown, but apparently people are still wary about eating out. New safety protocols have been put in place, staff has been retrained and health declaration forms are ready to be filled out—but where are the diners?
Many have chosen to remain in their homes, relying on food delivery or doing the cooking themselves.
“I really was expecting the high-end market to be the first to dine out—having been cooped up for so long in their homes—but I am being proven wrong,” restaurateur Elbert Cuenca told Lifestyle in an email. “It seems to me that the higher the market segment of the customer, the less likely he or she will venture out. Or maybe it has to do with their having cooks at home; I really do not know.”
Cuenca, whose newest venture, the modern French restaurant Metronome, opened last year and was drawing a growing clientele until the pandemic, has been in the restaurant industry since the mid-’90s. He has run a number of dining concepts which gave him a niche in the dining scene.
But he wasn’t prepared for the repercussions of a protracted lockdown. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I can’t predict customer behavior in this pandemic,” he said.
Last month, he posted a plea on Facebook, asking people to “go out and eat in your favorite restaurant. You’ll feel good not only because you’ve pampered yourself, but because you’ve helped a lot of other people in the process.”
He listed down the people who depend on a restaurant for their livelihoods.
“I see employees, typically 20-50 of them for just one branch. I see family members attached to each of those restaurant’s employees . . . I see transport workers each earning from these employees whenever they commute.”
Cuenca listed restaurant suppliers, vegetable farmers, livestock producers, coffee growers and roasters, delivery people—a web of interconnected threads, each thread supporting countless others.
“If I try to do the math, there are thousands of people indirectly benefiting from one restaurant’s success and continued operation. Now, multiply that by the thousands of restaurants in Metro Manila.
“The sad and painful estimate is that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of those restaurants will close down because of this pandemic. This thought is what keeps me from sleeping soundly,” he added.
Glass half full
Despite this, Cuenca described himself as a “glass half full” kind of person, always choosing to look for the silver lining behind a grim situation.
“I guess it is important for me to be optimistic, because our staff and our customers have to sense that optimism. It keeps the overall mood of the restaurant positive and upbeat, which ultimately translates into a more pleasurable dining experience.”
Before Metronome could reopen, Cuenca and his team had to meet new safety protocols stipulated by the Department of Trade and Industry. That was the “easy” part, he said.
“Our restaurants have always deployed high standards for health and sanitation practices anyway. The added processes for our staff, suppliers and customers have more to do with entry to the premises.”
Cuenca’s four-store operation of original brands include Elbert’s Steakroom, Elbert’s Upstairs Bar, Elbert’s Pizzeria and Elbert’s Diner (formerly Sandwich Shop).
At Metronome, they’ve added an active purification system that cleans the air and surfaces of particulates, including bacteria and viruses. “This is our way of addressing the fear of coronavirus being airborne and spread in enclosed spaces via the airconditioning. In addition, we have a neutral air balance, meaning fresh air is introduced into the dining space, while stale air is pulled out through our kitchen exhaust. Proper ventilation has always been an important factor in my restaurants.”
Even with these extra precautionary measures, Cuenca believes it will take time for people to come back. “I do not see them as factors to convince people to venture out. A customer will dine out simply because he or she wants to. Conversely, not having those safety precautions will only make them feel uncomfortable and regretful.
“It will take a lot of time but I feel that the confidence to dine out again will happen organically. We are slowly seeing more and more people in the restaurant, but at a very, very slow rate. Eventually, others will see that their friends and relatives have been safe after eating out, and will eventually follow,” he said.
His social media post struck a chord, eventually garnering close to 700 reactions and being shared almost 150 times. “It was borne out of my concern for everyone affected by the downturn of the industry.”
Cuenca remains hopeful.
“The most I can do now is to remind people continuously that we have dine-in operations again. Other than that, we just need to continue being who we are, providing a great dining experience for our customers, no matter how few they are at the moment,” he said.
Metronome is at G/F, The Grand Midori Makati, Bolanos St., Legazpi Village, Makati City; tel. 0917-1473776; email [email protected]