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Social distancing with stuffed pandas in Bangkok restaurant.

TWO months into lockdown during corona time, and I’m entering a state of mental derangement, if not going totally gaga. It’s not just the closure of all restaurants and the fact that I can no longer eat out several times a week and report my findings to foodies everywhere – it’s also the social distancing and working from home thing.

Panda self-distancing at Maison Saigon in Bangkok

Previously I would have riffled through my wardrobe to find something smartish to wear, applied a version of a Bond Street maquillage (including mascara) and sallied forth into the worlds of fine dining, casual and family style dining, fast food and cafe culture. Now I sit in front of my computer at home, and discover what’s going on in the world from the internet and WhatsApp. My customary attire, when not wearing pjs, is a tee shirt, trousers with an elasticated waist, and stompies from Bata. Work and home, thanks to technology, no longer need to function independently.

In times of crisis, Zimbabweans like to ‘make a plan’ to overcome hardship. Many restaurateurs have remained positive during the lockdown by supplying take away meals, either for curb-side collection, or delivery, with an extra charge. If your store cupboard is depleted, or you just can’t face washing up last night’s dishes and cooking another meal, support your local restaurant and order your favourite take away. Russell Macdonald from popular Sabai Thai Restaurant says that business has been brisk, especially at weekends.

Lesley Orford at Alo Alo in Arundel Village cannot keep up with orders for pies, samoosas and hors d’oeuvre platters of chicken strips, fish fingers, crumbed mushrooms, halloumi cheese and devils on horseback. These can be collected, but if you’re under lockdown in the suburbs and without transport, Lesley’s partner, Adrian, will arrange a personal delivery.

While restaurant owners will all have different ideas on how to weather the storm during lockdown, some time should be spent planning a new layout for a 50% occupancy when customers return to dine in. Creative ideas on how to maintain safe social distances between guests in restaurants abroad include placing well-dressed mannequins and cardboard cutouts in the shape of humans on empty seats.

In Bangkok, Maison Saigon has placed stuffed pandas next to customers to maintain healthy distancing, and elsewhere background noise is piped in to create a convivial atmosphere where there’s space for only 10 diners. In the cafe at Shaboten Zoo in Shizuoka, Japan, cute stuffed animals are seated alongside customers. It wouldn’t surprise me to be sharing a table with a stuffed wildebeest or even a teddy bear when next eating out in Harare.

Stay engaged with your customers by adding to your website and social media channels. Try live streaming on Instagram and YouTube and share simple recipes to connect people with your brand, reminding them how much they enjoyed eating out at your restaurant.

During lockdown I’ve spent many happy hours on Instagram, watching cookery demonstrations from chefs, notably @ctodiwala Chef Cyrus Todiwala and @telltalefood Julius Roberts, chef turned farmer. Their videos are entertaining to watch, and the recipes easy to follow. So share some kitchen tips without giving away any secrets, and use this as a great marketing tool.

Following a meeting earlier this week of representatives from the Ministries of Health, Tourism, Home Affairs and Industry and Commerce with the Covid-19 Task Force and a number of restaurateurs, the news from tourism personality and publicist Stan Higgins is that steps are being made to re-open restaurants.

I’m looking forward to abandoning my lockdown loungewear wardrobe, and visiting fine dining restaurants again. There are likely to be some changes, but nothing more challenging than sitting next to a stuffed wildebeest.

A Matter of Taste Charlotte Malakoff

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