Mixed views on the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on Bermuda’s restaurant sector, with predictions that up to 30 percent of the restaurants in operation, won’t make it through to the next tourism season.
When asked by Bermuda Real at the height of the lockdown period earlier this year, restaurant chain owner David Furbert, of Mr Chicken said he anticipates 10 percent of Bermuda’s restaurants will cease to exist in the wake of the coronavirus.
But Rick Olson, who owns and operates Bermuda Bistro at the Beach, who also operates the concession at Horseshoe Bay, said that number could be as high as 30 percent.
“I think 10 percent is an understatement as I don’t believe travel will return for two or three years,” he said.
“This will impact fine dining restaurants particularly hard, particularly the restaurants in Dockyard.
“Restaurants are marginal in good times, so I see closer to 30 percent closing – not counting fast food chains like Buzz etc.
“I expect to lose money next year as well and will continue to fund payroll from private funds,” said Mr Olson.
“I feel fortunate as our business has been locally driven for the last few years and we cater to the local market with take out and delivery.
“There are too many restaurants in Bermuda with our declining population so closures were going to happen anyway.”
On that note he said: “Only the strong will survive.”
We spoke with Mr Furbert right after the lockdown was lifted earlier this year, a few weeks after restaurants were allowed to reopen in Bermuda with COVID-19 restrictions.
“The Hamilton store after we reopened was probably down by 50 percent because we had to close earlier due to the 8 o’clock curfew when we normally close at 10pm. But on Friday and Saturday we’re usually open until 4 o’clock in the morning and we were closing early. So our business on those nights were down as well.
“All the rest of the restaurants in Somerset, Devonshire, St George’s and Heron Bay were all pretty much on par on what they were doing before COVID-19 and it stayed like that,” he said.
“But business was down in the Hamilton in March, including the day of the Black Lives Matter protest march in the City of Hamilton.”
We also reminded him of the video clip showing customers lined in droves outside of KFC, with very few customers outside of Mr Chicken during the Black Lives Matter march and asked for his reaction.
“It never moved me because that’s what we’ve come to expect – it’s always like that,” said Mr Furbert.
“I really can’t delve into the minds of the customer. I would give you a prime example, one year on the 24th of May this guy came in and he asked if he could use the bathroom and we said fine. So, when he came out he stopped to talk to me and the guy told me and we had been open for three or four years in Hamilton and he said this is the first time he had ever been inside of Mr Chicken and that he passed us on a regular basis and he never noticed Mr Chicken. He said mentally, he never noticed Mr Chicken.
“So I know there’s a lot more people like that – if they have been brought up on KFC, that’s where they go. At a time when we’re talking about Black Lives Matter and where we as a people spend our dollars, it does matter.
“But there’s not a lot that we can do about it – changing people’s mentality,” he said.
“For instance, if you look at Heron Bay, which is the oldest branch, the people who live in and around Heron Bay in Southampton – feel that Mr Chicken is theirs.
“I’ve seen parents bring their children and they’re still coming. They are very loyal.”
“Our business doesn’t depend on tourists. We’ve been in business now 35 years. We have some very loyal customers.”
As for the other restaurants, he said: “Mr Chicken in Devonshire is well supported, so is St George’s. Somerset is well supported as well.
“I would say all four of the other branches outside of Hamilton are well supported.”
Overall, he said the economic impact of this global pandemic has had very little impact on Mr Chicken’s five restaurants throughout the island because they cater to the local market.
“Our business is not driven by the tourism industry – our customer base is local,” he said.
Unlike other eateries, he said owning the buildings is another key factor.
“We own our section of the Hamilton restaurant and we own the building in Somerset but we rent the building in St George’s and we have been renting at Heron Bay for 35 years.
“We don’t have the challenges like others that pay rent, so it has got to be difficult for them.
“Most of the people who have got to pay some steep rent they are in the horrors because it’s difficult, especially with COVID restrictions,” he added.
But he said: “I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as people are anticipating but some of them are going to struggle for sure.
“There may be a few but I don’t think it will be more than 10 percent. I feel it’s going to recover quicker than most people think. I think possibly by next May or June we should be getting through this.”
Admittedly, he said the reduced hours impacted their part-time staff the most because they lost hours. But the fulltime staff were compensated through the Government unemployment benefits.
He also noted that Mr Chicken’s latest addition in Somerset “does very well”.
The staff at three of the outlets even compete on Sundays to see which branch sells the most codfish and potatoes on a weekly basis.
At the time of this interview, he said: “Somerset out in front, then Heron Bay and then Hamilton.”
The next time we talk, we’ll be sure to get the latest standings on that one.