Shockwaves are rippling through the restaurant industry worldwide amid mandated curfews, closings and other restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Greek restaurants are present in almost every corner of the globe, regardless of any and all differences in the culinary culture of each country. From the U.S. and Canada to Australia and Singapore, they impart Greece’s warm hospitality and the genuine flavors of the country.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected their operations, and what about the future? The spirit of Hellenism around the globe can help restaurants, which have long been ambassadors of Greek cuisine and culture, to survive this crisis.
Greek Reporter spoke to some restaurateurs in four continents to find out just how that can happen.
The United States
The nation’s restaurant industry consists of more than 1 million restaurants — about 70% of them small and independent — employing 15.6 million people. Restaurants could very well lose $225 billion in sales and incur job losses in the range of 5 million to 7 million, the National Restaurant Association wrote last week in a letter to President Donald Trump and senior federal lawmakers seeking $325 billion in aid.
Most Greek restaurants are now closed for business and have accordingly laid off their staff.
CEO and co-founder Eric Papachristos, who owns eight restaurants in Massachusetts including the Saloniki Greek chain, tells Greek Reporter that he closed his restaurants three weeks ago and had to let go 400 employees even before the government restrictions came into force.
“I saw what was happening in Italy and the West Coast and I wanted to take pro-active measures to ensure the health of my customers and my employees,” he explains.
Papachristos, who was born in Boston, but spent the next nine years of his life in Thessaloniki, says he is busier now during the coronavirus lockdown than he was before. “I am on the phone all day with so many restaurateurs, non-governmental organizations that I am a board member of, insurance companies, lawyers, accountants.”
Somehow, despite all this upheaval, Papachristos has found time to set up a non-profit organization for laid-off workers in the restaurant business in Massachusetts. The organization, which has raised $55,000 in less than 48 hours, offers people in need a hot meal, with “no questions asked.”
It has also partnered with Boston hospitals to offer health workers free meals during the crisis.
What is going to happen tomorrow, however, is a big unknown, Papachristos says. “Even in the optimistic scenario that restrictions are lifted in a month, I am not sure that people would want to go to a restaurant. Maybe they would prefer to stay at home for months to come until they are certain that the danger has passed.”
Papachristos has left open just one branch of the Saloniki Greek chain, the establishment which is near the Boston hospital. “I am only keeping it open for my employees and the community. It is not a sustainable model, to operate only on a take away basis. It is only a small part of the business,” he says.
“But what we do in that specific branch, where three native Greeks work, is that we play around with the menu. We are now doing a baking pan of pastitsio for the whole family and other things we were not doing before, such as soutzoukakia and mousaka,” the restaurateur explains.
Vasili Kotsovios, the owner of another famous Greek restaurant in the US, the ”Estiatorio Loukà,” tells Greek Reporter that they have temporarily ceased all their operations, even including the takeout service, because ”The health and well-being of our customers and team is of the utmost importance to us.”
Asked about the financial aspect of this crisis, Kotsovios said that there are certain options for financial relief put forward by the government, something that they have been monitoring closely.
However, the restaurateur is determined not to allow this situation to ruin their business, telling us that ”We will utilize our operating reserves, if needed, to float us through this time of non-operation.”
Inspired by this positive spirit, Kotsovios has already told all of his staff that they intend to re-hire the whole restaurant team just as soon as they are allowed to reopen.
In Greece, restaurants are closed, and only take away and delivery establishments are in operation. Pizza and souvlaki bars, which have traditionally relied on take away and deliveries are continuing operations, but tavernas and specialized eateries have closed up shop for the present.
Dimosthenis Gertsos, the owner of Wok Master X in Peristeri, western Athens, tells Greek Reporter “no one was prepared for what was coming.”
He says that take away and delivery services can help, but they constitute a small percentage of his total business.
“Since restrictions were imposed on movement, take away turnover has actually been reduced,” Gertsos notes, and adds that people are increasingly reluctant to spend, since they are apprehensive about the future.”Many have lost their jobs and are short of cash.”
The Greek restaurateur says that the longer the lockdown lasts, the greater the losses for his business.
Until now, takeout was merely an add-on business for most restaurants. Now, with only days of warning, restaurants need to make all of their dishes for takeout, complete with pickup and delivery, and promote it heavily, just to survive.
Greek street-food outlet turned restaurant chain The Athenian is loved for its signature souvlaki wraps and homemade sauces, but like every other restaurant in the UK right now, its doors are currently closed to customers.
But, for founder Tim Vasilakis, this still was not the end of the world. He tells Greek Reporter that the chain made the “tough decision” to modify its business model in order to offer on-line deliveries.
“Our priority is to keep the brand alive. The Athenian should not have disappeared during the closures.”
The chain was launched at the end of 2014, as a small street-food venture offering freshly made souvlaki prepared in the healthiest, most authentic way possible by Vasilakis and his business partner Neofytos Christodoulou, two Londoners born and raised in Athens and Cyprus.
The Athenian has now used a great deal of creativity and launched a “weekly care pack” for customers to take home, loaded with essential foods such as lentils, tomatoes, pasta — and even the most precious commodity out there now — toilet roll!
“Instead of just selling pre-cooked meals we offer these supermarket packages that are very convenient for people who want to cook at home and are not prepared to wait at the long queues in the supermarkets,” Vasilakis says.
He adds that he is now also live-streaming Greek cooking classes on Instagram. Last Saturday, for example, he showed how to make one of The Athenian’s most popular dishes: courgette fritters.
Vasilakis admits that the closure of restaurants in the UK has been simply terrible for his business. Before the crisis, he says, 50 percent of the chain’s turnover was from sit-in customers. “These disappeared overnight.”
“It will be very hard to stay in business for long if the situation does not improve… As it is, we lose money staying open.”
He stresses, however, that The Athenian has an obligation to stay open. “We have a duty to the health workers, the elderly people, people at care homes to continue.”
Restaurants in Australia are now closed to dine-in customers. In Melbourne, the Mecca of Greek cuisine, eateries are only offering take away and delivery. For the restaurant Bahari – The Hellenic Palate, which has been operating for six years, the last couple of weeks “have been devastating,” owner Philip Vakos tells Greek Reporter.
“It happened almost over the space of one week, with a loss of 80-90 percent of trade very quickly. In an industry where profit margins are continuously being squeezed, the effect was felt immediately,” Vakos says.
“We operate on bustling Swan Street, which is in an inner Melbourne suburb called Richmond. Usually it’s very busy, with sporting games and a lot of restaurants, bars and pubs – now it’s a ghost town.”
Vakos, who, besides being the owner is also the chef at Bahari, works with his wife and business partner Helena.
“Reality is, this situation has already brought financial ruin to many small businesses, and who knows how many will reopen once this all settles,” he tells Greek Reporter.
The change has been dramatic, he notes. “We did not have a takeaway or delivery service in place before last week! Within a few days, we simply had to act quick and flip our entire model.
“We have a takeaway menu now, and have made most of our popular items available for order and pickup. We are organizing special deliveries to areas a little further away, and people can also find us on delivery apps like UberEats, Deliveroo & Menu Log.”
Vakos bakes fresh bread every day, and they also offer Lentil & Vegetable Soup and Chicken & Lemon Soup to keep the Greek nourishment going. “We call them ‘Soupa Soups’!” he says. He also bakes the traditional Greek delicacies of moussaka and pastitsio for takeout, and people can also put this in the freezer for later.
“Our aim is to keep people fed, with good, healthy, clean and nourishing food,” Vakos says.
The Greek restaurateur is also keeping spirits high for his audience on social media by posting some cooking tips and videos to inspire cooking at home.
“We have seen so many acts of kindness and support from our fellow Greek-Australians, but also our local customers and loyal diners,” Vakos says. He then goes on to add that although no one can tell what the future holds for the restaurant, “we will continue to fight to preserve our Greek food and culture here in Melbourne.”
Restaurants are still open in cosmopolitan Singapore, but as George Kokkinis, General Manager of Bakalaki, tells Greek Reporter, there are severe restrictions which have reduced the capacity of the Greek taverna.
“There is a maximum number of clients we are allowed to serve at each given time. For example, if a group of twenty people book a table, it would be split on two tables with a minimum distance between the two of one meter,” Kokkinis says.
“The capacity of the restaurant since the restrictions has been imposed has been reduced by 30 percent, which obviously has a significant impact on the turnover of our business,” says the Greek manager, who is originally from Santorini.
The restaurant embodies the merging of Greek traditions and culture; the ‘Bakaliko’ (μπακάλικο) is a traditional neighborhood store full of flavors, scents and colors, while ‘Meraki’ (μεράκι) represents the love, spirit and soul in everything Bakalaki does.
Kokkinis is proud that, until now, staff have been retained despite the crisis. “We will try to stay as we are until the end of April. We are not going to make a rushed move. Our approach is ‘wait and see’,” he says.
He notes, however, that Bakalaki, which employs five Greek nationals, is preparing to launch a delivery service. “People are understandably increasingly afraid to go out, so the obvious thing to do is to take food to them.”
Apart from following all government-mandated precautions, Bakalaki has strengthened its cleanliness and hygiene regime and added more hand sanitizing stations, while it closely monitors employees’ health.
“We are not scared, but we are concerned about how this pandemic is to going to play out in the next weeks and months. The uncertainty of… how long this will last and how long will recovery take?” Kokkinis tells Greek Reporter.