THEREâ€™S currently something very fishy in the world of Zimbabwean dining out and itâ€™s not kapenta, kingklip, kob, kabeljou, kedgeree or kippers.
Ending a grand supper last week, the affable owner slid into a seat opposite a delightful dining companion, offered a night cap and whispered: “For Gawdâ€™s sake, donâ€™t give us a good write-up, shamwari!”
Definitely a first in my wide restaurant reviewing experience!
He said a Press pat-on the-head was good for a 100% turnover boost (I was humbled). But his face fell as he said if he doubled volume heâ€™d be out of business in half the time.
I was still lost, until Mr A â€“â€“ joined by business partner Mr B â€“â€“ explained the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority had launched another blitz on prices of meals and hotel rooms.
The owners revealed (confirmed by other sources) ZTA demanded copies of August 1 restaurant/hotel tariffs, slapping a draconian embargo on increases until the National Prices and Incomes Commission examined charges (allegedly within 72-hours.). That body would clear (or otherwise) further price hikes.
This talk took place nearly three weeks later, on August 20, with no word since from NIPC.
ZTA boss Karikoga Kaseke had reportedly summoned operators, reading the Riot Act and had allegedly descended on Silver Spur, Harare Holiday Inn the previous Saturday chastising management over alleged prices hikes.
Thatâ€™s odd. Kaseke is a paid functionary of ZTA, albeit chief exec, but ZTA chairman Shingi Munyeza, is CEO of Africa Sun, which runs regional Holiday Inn franchises.
Why didnâ€™t he just have a quiet word with his mahogany row colleague, instead of publicly bawling out Spur understrappers?
Messrs A&B had bills for identical beef cuts delivered by the same supplier on August 1 ($882/kilo) and last Wednesday ($4 012/kg). Did NIPC approve those hikes or those of every other catering cost centre input from cuts of Aberdeen Angus through artichokes and asparagus, via linen and laundry, rents and rates, salt and sugar, to Zesa and Zinwa?
It presumably gave the green light to hospitality sector wage raises, mid-month, granting a 935% across-the-board increase from August 1 (when tariffs were calculated on the previous monthâ€™s rates!).
Minimum pay in the sector is $2 618; transport allowance $2 080, plus $400 housing allowance, giving a $5 098 package, plus daily meal and â€“â€“ often â€” tips. (Thatâ€™s almost $51 trillion in the former currency, $51 quadrillion prior to Gonoâ€™s first zero-loppingâ€¦for a commis-waiter, toilet cleaner, spud peeler?)
At a store close to A&Bâ€™s eatery, a “twist” loaf was $65 that Monday, $75 by Wednesday and $180 on Friday. That vexes me: someone buying two or three loaves weekly. How do restaurateurs cover those sort of increases, with price lists pegged three weeks earlier?
A&B asked for anonymity.
Next day I had impromptu lunch at Adrienneâ€™s, Belgravia (“the greenhouse restaurant” my kids called it: my daughter now has a weeâ€™un herself).
Memorably good mushroom soup: densely thick with smoky, earthy, fungi in peppery broth was $750.
Owner Nick Mandeya was in his eyrie-like office, probably number-crunching how to survive the cost/control crisis, but highly professional meeter, greeter and seater, Erines, was everywhere welcoming hungry folk still arriving after 2:30.
Sirloin steak at about 350g, grilled medium-rare, was tender and wonderfully tasty, enhanced by a thin ruff of crisp fat and piquant pepper sauce. Chips tasted fine but, sadly, looked re-heated. I liked a fine fresh side salad.
Steaks were $1 350; dearest “main” grilled kingklip fillet, $1 850. They were without chicken dishes, a soccer team having skoffed every morsel of huku the previous day (Beira half-chicken, chips and salad had been $950.) Poultry that day wholesaled at $4 000/kg, so it will, presumably, be some time before chickenâ€™s again “on”.)
Adrienneâ€™s fruit-packed individual apple pies with a dollop of ice-cream are not to be missed and, at $200, I didnâ€™t!
As I write, word comes of several restaurants shutting, hopefully temporarily, possibly until the dust settles over clumsy price controls. August is traditionally a month outlets close, but will they reopen next month, still facing demands to serve meals at less than the wholesale cost of one ingredient?
Call this a conundrum or a Catch-22 situation, itâ€™s a commercial nightmare to “the trade” and confusing to customers who increasingly find outlets closed.
Clearly some places went slightly berserk with prices after earlier ham-fisted attempt at controls were lifted (ironically, those packed every opening!) But most restaurateurs simply try earning an honest living, serving sensibly priced square meals to a public often, these days, unable to source basic ingredients to cook meals at home on often non-existent Zesa.
Bottom line is of course, caveat emptor: let the buyer beware of being overcharged. He or she should vote with feet and wallet if a rip-off is suspected.
By Dusty Miller