Running Restaurants in the New Normal – Harpo Gooneratne Speaks to the Tourism Alliance

29th October, 2020 News and Updates,Opinion Pieces

Harpo Gooneratne is a name that is synonymous with great restaurant and entertainment experiences in Colombo, having created successful brands such as The Bayleaf Italian restaurant, Harpo’s Pizza, Park Street Mews Restaurant, Curve-Tapas Bar & Restaurant, Colombo Fort Café and The Commons Coffee House. Last year, he took on the mantle of President of the newly formed Colombo City Restaurant Collective (CCRC), an industry organization that consists of Colombo’s leading restaurants.

Colombo’s restaurant and bar culture has grown significantly in the recent past, becoming a key experience in the city for tourists. Foreign visitors have made up a considerable portion of the audience that patronise these establishments, and the loss of tourism has definitely had a noteworthy impact on the sector.

Speaking to the Alliance about the CCRC and the challenges Colombo’s restaurants are facing in the current climate, Harpo had many interesting thoughts and insights to share. Below is an excerpt from our discussion with him.

Q: What can you tell us about the CCRC?

A: The CCRC is an organization registered with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), and our current membership consists of 40 restaurants and cafés based in Colombo.
The main objectives of the CCRC are:

We also hope to establish links with similar local and international professional organisations to share knowledge and foster friendship and co-operation. We welcome all Colombo restaurants, cafés and food courts that are registered with the SLTDA or that have an eating house licence, to join the CCRC.

Q: What has the CCRC being doing in the past few months, and what does it hope to achieve in the future?

This year, the entire industry has been plunged into uncertainty and difficulty due to COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown period. We couldn’t operate our businesses for months, and we have all felt the impact very strongly. The CCRC took an active role to lobby the government for a moratorium for the restaurant industry, and we are pleased that some restaurants have been successful in getting it.

We organised seminars with health authorities for the restaurant industry, to educate and create awareness about additional safety and hygiene protocols that need to be followed during this period, and we are continuing to work with the PHI officials to ensure the safety of all.

The food and restaurant industries are very closely linked with the entertainment industry. As such, we believe that it is important to create events and spaces that allow these industries to shine and showcase products and talents to the public. We are currently in the process of planning a significant event towards the end of the year. We feel that the industry definitely needs a boost, considering all the challenges we have had to face. We envision that a collaborative festival which celebrates food, wine and great music will be appealing to a large audience, and we are certain that the industry too will participate with much enthusiasm.

We will continue to work with related tourism bodies, as well as government and private sector entities which have a direct impact on the restaurant industry. Education and training are important areas for us, as we believe in the need to continuously upskill our staff and improve the service standard. So, we will continue to organise workshops and seminars, in collaboration with industry specialists.

Sustainability is another area we are very passionate about. This is in terms of both sustainable operating practices such as reducing single use plastic and purchasing sustainable ingredients, as well as the sustainability of the industry.

Q: We know that the period of lockdown was particularly hard on hospitality businesses, including restaurants. Now that the industry has resumed operations in the ‘new normal’, what are the major challenges, as well as new opportunities?

A: I believe that one of the main challenges many of us faced was the difficulty in paying staff salaries. As a body, a priority of the CCRC was to protect jobs and retain staff through the difficult period. We lobbied for support from the government to be able to pay our staff, and for reductions in rent at government owned complexes. Now, although most restaurants have opened for dine in customers, many events have dried up, there is a drop in footfall and customers are spending less.

In terms of opportunities, we can see that many young people who have great talent and skill, when it comes to food, are showcasing their capabilities now because they have been forced out of the corporate life. As a result, there are a lot of new pop-up restaurants, food delivery operations and food products hitting the market.

With less importation, we restaurateurs need to look at how we can develop certain ingredients locally. I think that is another great opportunity for those involved in or looking to get into food production.

One of the more positive things that came out of the lockdown is the growth in food delivery services. People began developing their own apps and setting up delivery companies. We definitely see the delivery component getting bigger and bigger, with some customers still being hesitant to step out into public places.

I believe that the growth in delivery services can complement the in-restaurant business. For example, if you like the food you get delivered from us, the next time you want to go out to a restaurant, you will remember us and be encouraged to visit our restaurant. In the same manner, if you eat at our restaurant and enjoy the food, you will be inspired to order food delivery from us.

Q: Since many city restaurants generally depend on the patronage of foreign tourists, what should they be doing to target more local customers during this period?

A: We can see that many restaurants are taking a turn towards more localised fare – changing menus to cater to the local palate. As certain ingredients will become less accessible with restrictions on imports, we will need to utilise more local ingredients to create delicious and appealing dishes. Discounts and promotions are also important to help keep our head above the water. I think for many of us, the focus has simply been on breaking even.

I think the next year is going to be very difficult. But we have to come up with new ways to engage with our customers and drive business. We can look at tourism related food adventures and experiences for locals and educational experiences for children. Farm experiences such as ‘learn where your food comes from’, cinnamon and other spice experiences are just some of the things we can pursue.

Q: How should the industry be using this time to improve, uplift the sector?

A: Now that we have more time on our hands, those of us who own and operate restaurants can focus on areas such as the supply chain, procurement processes, improving the bottom line, etc. We can tighten the ship and expand areas of the business that we may previously not have had the time to work on.

This is also an ideal time to engage in staff training programs. Paying attention to the little things that may have been ignored before.

Q: What is your personal vision for the restaurant and food industry in the country?

A: I believe there is so much more we could do with food, wine and entertainment here in Sri Lanka. As a country we need to be more like Singapore or Malaysia when it comes to the food and restaurant culture. For this to happen, we need to introduce policies that make it easier for overseas restaurateurs to come over. We need better rental agreements, better entertainment, better indoor as well as street venues, and we need to foster the café culture. I see so much potential for our industry, and together with the membership of the CCRC, and other invested parties, I hope that we can see some positive change in the next couple of years.

Note (02nd November 2020): This interview was conducted prior to the current quarantine curfew prevailing in parts of the island.