The unprecedent coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc in every sector, and disrupting every area our lives. The hospitality industry in SA was left with a bitter taste in the mouth. This is after the SA government announced strict new measures ordering all bars, restaurants, and shebeens to operate from 9am to 6pm, in order curb the spread of COVID-19.
Establishments that sell alcohol are also prohibited from hosting more than 50 people at a time. Failure to adhere to these rules could result in a major fine or up to six months in jail.
Founder and CEO of the Rockets Group, Sean Barber, is a renowned restaurateur in Johannesburg. His background however, couldn’t have been further from hospitality. Barber qualified as a CA in 2003 and had a brief stint working in New York and London as an Investment banker. ‘I didn’t enjoy that and wasn’t very good at it to be honest.’
He moved on and worked for Paramount Pictures for a couple of years. ‘It was an incredible job heading up their finance department, but it was still in finance. You can make movies, or you can make tractors, finance is finance. I longed for something creative, and that spurred my move into hospitality in 2007.’
Thirteen years later, the Rocket Group successfully runs 12 establishments in South Africa, ranging from the upscale Rockets restaurants, super chic male grooming salons, Rockets Man, Rockets Lolita’s, and Rockets Express stores.
We caught up with the restaureuter who shares a candid and sobering view on life as a business owner( in the hospitality industry) in the time of the #coronavirus, his love for the restaurant business, and some of his favourite things, (he is a big fan of DJ Maphorisa).
What do you think has set Rockets apart from other restaurants over the years?
Rockets subscribes to a concept of what I like to call “Sensory Restaurateering”. We are in the business of ‘art on the move’. It is the only industry in the world that appeals to all five senses at the same time. How the food looks, how it tastes, how the restaurant or bar smells, what music are you playing, is it at the correct volume, how have you decorated your shop so that it is pleasing to the eyes…these and more are all factors that I think contribute to a sensory experience, and are all factors that need to be attended to at all times in order for a restaurant to be truly successful, and more importantly, continue to be so. We live and die by this philosophy, no matter if it is a club, restaurant, coffee shop, or hair salon we are running. When someone’s senses are taken care of, at all times, in all aspects, then you are on the right path.
What do you love most about the restaurant business?
That’s easy, but the answer is twofold; Firstly, I love my customers. To be a good restaurateur you need to have a love of people and a strong desire to please. That has never dissipated in me since my first meal in 2007. We are in the business of the provision of positive experiences. To see our art form be the factor to someone having an incredible night, be it a birthday, a function, or just a romantic dinner for two, is the most gratifying part of our business.
Secondly, I love the dynamism of our industry. Hospitality is the most creative of all industries. Nothing is ever the same, from one day to the next. That provides a challenge to the best in the business to be able to accommodate whatever the industry throws at you.
How are you coping with the effects of the coronavirus on your business, what measures have you put in place?
Honestly, no one saw this coming and it’s been debilitating—nothing short of catastrophic. We run 12 stores and in our Bryanston restaurant alone, we have 141 staff members. And now with the new restriction that it’s been cut down from 100 to 50 people—there is no room even for customers. It’s clear why government is doing this, and I understand because hospitality is where the virus is easily spread. They are doing everything they can to make it impossible to stay open. It’s not feasible to have 50 people in your establishment and to not be able to sell alcohol after 6pm.
Income generation capacity has been cut down by 80 – 90%, making it hard to pay rent and salaries. So the next directive is to put staff on unpaid leave, to cut costs. Almost 90% of our workers are on unpaid leave and it's not ideal because they have families to feed and most of our workers earn below R10 000 and some even below R5000, so they clearly haven’t been able to save enough to get through however long this will be.
Advice to large and medium establishments is close for now, put staff on unpaid leave and focus on paying the rent to keep store open and for staff to have a job to come back to.
It’s pretty gloomy out there, but this is the reality, and we will rise above this, all we can do for now is just take it one day a time.
Sean Barber’s favourite things
Spending time with my wife and kids.
Liverpool – and not just now that it’s easy to support them…I’ve supported since I was 4, and we only have one title since then.
I love great hotels, my best being Nobu in Ibiza and the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong.
The ocean – specifically Umdloti in Durban where I grew up surfing.
Local SA Music – we have a beat like no other place in the world, and we pioneer different sounds. Favourite local artist and producer at the moment is DJ Maphorisa.
Lamborghini’s – all of them.
Netflix – if the pressure gets too much and I need to escape, any good series on Netflix works for me. At the moment, its Suits Season 8.
Colognes – Anything by Tom Ford that has a vanilla component.
Sneakers – Not too many colours, and have to be sparkling clean.
Peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches.