Restaurateur says current crisis is the worst in 40 years
Jean Claude Garzia has been in the restaurant industry in Bermuda for 41 years, but says the last two years have been the hardest.
The sign outside his Victoria Street eatery, JC’s Cafe & Bistro, reads: “At last we are open … again”.
It has been there since the restaurant reopened in May last year after the first pandemic lockdown ended, but still seems appropriate.
“Since the pandemic began, we’ve been hit by stops and starts,” Mr Garzia said.
At one point this year the restaurant was closed for two weeks when a staff member came into proximity with someone who had Covid-19.
“In the end he was fine,” Mr Garzia said. “He did not have Covid-19, but we had to follow all the protocols.”
He opened JC’s Cafe & Bistro four years ago. Before the pandemic, 30 to 35 covers used to be a good night at the bistro. Now 15 to 20 covers is great. And due to concerns about social distancing, people are not getting together like they used to. At this time two years ago, he had 17 Christmas parties booked. This year he had only one booked by early December, and it was a small party.
The rising cost of food is slamming him hard.
“The price of coffee almost doubled,” he said. “Everything has almost doubled. When you put 50 cents more for something in the café shop or the bistro, people complain.”
He can understand their complaints, but he said a case of chicken that was once $90 is now $150.
“That is really expensive,” he said. “And Bermuda was already expensive.”
The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch from Monday to Friday from 8am to 4pm. But to save on operation costs, they are only open for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays from 6pm to 9pm. There is inside dining, or al fresco dining with heaters.
The good news is that the takeout side of JC’s Cafe & Bistro does a ripping lunchtime trade.
“It is untouchable,” he said. “It is perfect. I’m not complaining. I love the place. We created something that was not there before.”
One of the attractions is that everything in the restaurant – pizza, pasta, fish, pastries, desserts – is fresh.
“We do service and quality first,” Mr Garzia said. “Everything is done day to day, not yesterday or the day before.”
A favourite is the beef Wellington, brought over from Mr Garzia’s old restaurant, Beau Rivage, at the Newstead Belmont Hills Golf Resort and Spa in Paget.
“It goes like crazy,” he said.
In July 2020 he had to close his Paget restaurant.
“I was there for 13 years,” he said. “That was a good experience. But the hotel was not that busy. With the fractional ownership, nobody ate much in the restaurant. They all had their own kitchens where they cooked. I relied on local business. It was really quiet in the winter.”
When he closed he had 28 staff members at that restaurant.
“I tried to help place people,” he said. “Some staff members stayed in Bermuda and some left. I kept the ones who were essential and had worked with me the longest. It was hard because they all had families. It was tough.”
He praised the Government for its help with salaries during the pandemic.
“That was a big help,” Mr Garzia said.
But he said people in the restaurant industry are still struggling.
“We are still paying the same bills,” he said. “The rent didn’t change and the electricity went up. We have to survive.”
Jokingly, he said: “If at one point the Government has money, help, help, please! That would be great.”
A friend in the South of France recently sent Mr Garzia a cartoon. It shows a chef carrying a giant knife and fork on his back tied together in the shape of a cross. It is meant to show how the restaurant industry is carrying a heavy burden right now.
“That is us,” he said, pointing to it. “For a lot of restaurant owners right now it is just a question of how long can you stand it.”
Despite the challenges, Mr Garzia has no thoughts of retiring.
“What is retirement,” he said. “It is just a word. I feel like I could go another 20 years without any problem. If any opportunity comes, I will be in there, always.”
The most important lesson he has learnt over his long career is to be humble.
“Be nice to people,” he said. “You choose to be in the food industry, so you have to be nice and be humble. What people want is what you want to give them. This should be everywhere, and with a smile. Show that you love what you do. That is what I do.”
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