While tourists made up a considerable percentage of restaurant clientele in normal times, since the closing of Cayman’s borders restaurants have had to adapt to a narrower client base of just local residents and have had to use innovative ideas to draw in customers.
Ristorante Pappagallo in West Bay is one of Cayman’s high-end restaurants which saw a high number of tourist footfall prior to the pandemic.
Owner/manager Vico Testori said in summer the percentage was about 50/50, but that number went up to 70% tourists/30% locals in the winter season, especially with their larger functions and destination weddings during the winter season.
At the start of lockdown in March they decided to initially close up shop.
“We thought it was safest to close down and see what direction the government was taking,” Vico said. “After three weeks we decided it was best for morale and cash flow to start doing delivery and pick up.”
Vico said that the restaurant was open for foot traffic shortly after lockdown ended.
“As you can imagine, business was way off from normal, and all the restrictions made it a bit difficult, but it was good to be back, and it felt one step closer to normal,” he stated.
Some staff were let go, as Vico explained: “We had to terminate some contracts ahead of time, some staff decided it was best for them to go home to be with their family, but we were able to retain our main core staff.”
Vico said he wanted to give a big shout out to his staff who he said had proven “invaluable”, helping to adapt the business model to work under the current norm, with senior staff working on a reduced salary so they could help stretch resources a bit further and assist other staff members where needed.
Tourist shutdown “unimaginable”
Not having any tourists to the island for some time in the future is a scenario that he never imagined possible.
“We made it through hurricanes and financial depression, but we always had tourists, so we will need to adapt and work with the local market, and with a lot of restaurants in the same position, it will be unsustainable in the longer term,” he said.
At this point, the government has done a great job to keep the island safe and restart some sectors of the economy, Vico said, adding:
“At some point we need to have a system that would allow tourists to come back, even at a reduced rate. Now would probably not the best time and it will involve some risk, but maybe we can look at the other islands which are open and see what they are doing? At some point we would need to do it if we expect the restaurant sector to survive and recover. I also believe that the government will need to be an integral part of the recovery process, and have a dialogue not only with the big operators but also the small ones which are probably more vulnerable in these times.”
Vico foresees the immediate future for Pappagallo as relatively good, what with holidays coming up in November and December and people remaining on island. However, he felt that with most businesses concentrating on weekends, it was a bit more difficult to manage with staff and food and not viable in the long term.
“If the situation remains the same, we expect business to contract at the start of 2021,” he said.
Other restaurants also saw the benefits of getting up and running after lockdown.
“Even though there were a lot of moving parts to deal with, Paradise Pizza and Tillies were fortunate to be able to operate a delivery service very quickly,” Gerardo Gonzalez, from the culinary team at Palm Heights, said. “We were able to synthesise our menus to adapt to delivery, with Tillies brunches proving to be a popular delivery request.”
Engaging with customers was a top priority for the restaurants, to ensure they maintained a relationship with their customers and brought in new customers also. Reaching out via social media, the team also quickly geared up to doing deliveries of food for those in need within the community. Working with entities such as Meals on Wheels as well as individuals who were working hard to ensure the most vulnerable in the community were fed, they produced 500 to 600 meals daily at the peak of the crisis.
Opening back up to inhouse diners has meant a careful adherence to the latest guidelines, which, Gerardo said, has been a “constant evolution” in how they provide dining to their customers.
Tourists have always been a huge part of their clientele but the team at Tillies and Paradise Pizza have been creative in their efforts to make sure they were listening to customers and have energetically produced theme nights, such as their ‘Mambo Italiano’, creating a complete experience of dining, music and fun for guests.
“Even though we have not had any tourists, we have been exceedingly grateful to each guest and the community for their support,” Gerardo confirmed. “Tillies is a restaurant for travelers and locals alike and we need both for long term sustainability, but at the moment we have to roll with the situation. We are constantly expanding our calendar moving forward to create engaging and enticing experiences for people to come and enjoy.”