Reopened Restaurants Report Israelis Are Still Reluctant to Dine Outside

Israel’s restaurant sector is expected to be particularly hard-hit by the economic crisis, and some 4,000 of the country’s 14,000 restaurants are expected to close shop this year

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Customers at a cafe in Jerusalem, May 27, 2020.
Customers at a cafe in Jerusalem, May 27, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Israeli public isn’t hurrying back to restaurants, which were permitted to reopen a week ago, statistics provided by restaurant owners show.

“I thought that in the first few days after we reopened there would be insane demand, but sales are down dozens of percent and are currently 70 per cent of what they were in our pre-coronavirus days,” says Ronen Nimni, owner of the Cafe Cafe restaurant group, which has 15 chains and 300 outlets. “Anyone who has been outside lately has seen that people are acting as if there’s no coronavirus, and therefore we believed there would be a stampede to restaurants and coffee shops. It’s still not happening,” he said.

Nimni believes that “people are apparently afraid. Sitting at a coffee shop or restaurant necessitates a certain mental state. In addition, a certain percentage of the public is experiencing financial challenges. If people don’t have money, they don’t want to go out for entertainment.”

Tal Stern, who owns the restaurants Tony Vespa, Taqueria and Magazzino, also says business hasn’t gone back to normal. “We expected sales over the weekend to be better because there was a feeling that the story is over,” he says. “It’s true that if you take a photo of bars or the crowds at the market it appears that a lot of people are there, but the restaurants are seeing fewer people. Businesses built around take-out are having an easier time than restaurants, where people need to reserve a spot and sit for an extended period.”

Stern says his restaurants’ sit-down revenues are down 30-40 per cent, though this is offset by an increase in takeout.

Head of the Israeli Restaurants and Bars Association, Shai Berman, says that bars had a good weekend, particularly those that draw a younger clientele.

“Restaurants on the other hand had disappointing results. Last Wednesday, when restaurants opened, they had a good number of reservations and the atmosphere was festive, but by Thursday reservations were down. On Friday, when the news broke of a potential second coronavirus infection wave, reservations shrunk even further and restaurants reported revenues down by 30-50 per cent,” he says.

Revenues were down the most in Jerusalem and areas dependent on foreign tourism, but even in Tel Aviv and the most popular restaurants reported revenues 30-40 per cent lower than a usual weekend, he said.

“I believe restaurants have been affected more than coffee shops since the former often draw an older clientele, who are thinking twice about whether to leave the house. In addition, restaurants are a more expensive form of recreation,” he says.

Regarding the reports on potentially high rates of infections among foreign workers, and given that Israeli restaurants employ some 5,000 asylum seekers, primarily as dish washers and cleaners, he said the association has instructed restaurants to have workers tested. “Restaurateurs are being very fastidious about testing and about maintaining virus regulations for opening businesses,” he says.

A waitress serves food at a restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, May 27, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

However, there have been numerous complaints about restaurants, bars and coffee shops not adhering to the government’s coronavirus-control regulations. Restaurants have reportedly not been ensuring that customers wear masks, and workers themselves are seen without masks inside restaurants.

Stern counters that the government has kicked up enforcement efforts, and says he knows of a take-out business that was fined because of a customer on site without a mask.

Israel’s restaurant sector is expected to be particularly hard-hit by the economic crisis, and some 4,000 of the country’s 14,000 restaurants are expected to close shop this year. Even in average times the sector is relatively high risk, with only 60 per cent of businesses lasting more than two years.

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