It’s been a year since President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the Covid-19 pandemic a national state of disaster and while many businesses have not survived the economic devastation of the resultant lockdown, there are also some success stories of innovation and enterprise in the city centre.
Businesses that have closed their doors since the lockdown started on March 27 last year include Jason’s Bakery and La Tete in Bree Street, Jo’burg Bar in Long Street, and Zero21 Social Club in District Six.
Other businesses have been more lucky in their attempts to adapt to the new normal, making the most of the opportunities available to them to ensure they remain viable in the long term.
CEO of the City Central Improvement District (CCID), Tasso Evangelinos, said the organisation changed its operational strategy according to the number of people in the CBD and the lockdown level.
“The CCID’s three operational departments constantly re-evaluated the need and our response to it. For example, during the level 5 lockdown, our safety and security department prioritised keeping the area crime-free but focused on protecting people, properties and possessions.
“As a result, there was no spike in crime in what was then a deserted CBD.”
He said the CCID’s social development department collaborated with NGO partners to ensure homeless peope had access to daily food supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE).
The CCID also launched a four-month #ComeBackToTown campaign to rejuvenate the city centre economy. “The campaign reminded office workers, business owners, residents and visitors that the CBD was open for business and ready to welcome them back to enjoy what our downtown has to offer.”
The hospitality sector was one of the hardest hit industries during lockdown. Despite this, restaurateur and chef Liam Tomlin managed to expand his business, launching Local at Heritage Square, which includes a new 55-seater Mediterranean restaurant, Mazza and a charcuterie bar, La Cantina.
He also reinvented Chefs Warehouse in Bree Street, transforming it into Chefs Warehouse Pinchos & Wine Bar, which focuses on Spanish-style tapas.
Mr Tomlin said he used the lockdown to reassess his business. “We tightened up in areas and introduced new procedures and products. We used the time and space to focus on all areas of the business and improve on what we already do.”
He said the new offerings would strengthen the brand over the long-term. “We won’t be as exposed as we have been in the past.”
He urged other businesses to cater for the local market, “Look after your local market. Buy local for your business when possible, so we can rebuild the economy together.”
Meanwhile, in the first stages of the lockdown, cleaning company SweepSouth in Loop Street, which uses a tech application to connect clients with pre-vetted cleaners, couldn’t operate, and the listed cleaners weren’t able to work.
Owner Aisha Pandor said with the help of investors and customers, they started a SweepStar Fund and raised over R12 million to help support domestic workers.
“We also expanded our offering to include outdoor help, such as gardeners and painters.”
SweepSouth also broadened the professional listings on its SweepSouth Connect platform to include freelance services, from web developers to tax and accountancy services and graphic designers.
“Connect got AI enhancements, too, and now features an in-app in-house-built chat and bot capability that allows customers to connect directly with professionals. We also launched SweepSouth in Kenya. In the SweepSouth Shop, we doubled down on stock and variety, allowing 500% growth for the shop during the two months of hard lockdown.”
She said business owners should adopt an “infinite mindset”. “An important part of being a successful entrepreneur is to build a business with an infinite mindset, rather than a short-term outlook.”
Tamra Veley, founder of Corporate Image, a communications consultancy in Hout Street, said during lockdown, they started thinking proactively.
“We weren’t waiting for clients to come to us; we came up with proactive suggestions and counsel for them.”
Ms Veley said she also ramped up communication with clients, who are mainly large listed companies, and the team. “Resilience and certainty are connected. If you tell people what’s going on and keep lines open and honest, then people have the ability to build resilience.”
She said the main lesson she took away was that if a team is kept together by strong leadership, it can work in any kind of environment, but working remotely is not a replacement for working in an office.
“We may adopt a hybrid model going forward. I think working from home for an extended period is psychologically damaging. You don’t have the same degree of banter, levity and mentorship. It’s time to get back to work.”