It has been 12 months since the novel coronavirus was first detected in Georgia. It was about the same time two CB colleagues, Celia from Lisbon and Chiara from Naples, arrived for a brief visit and joined us for what would be one of our last food walks of the year.
Later, we went to one of our favorite restaurants, Aristeaus, where four guys at a table casually sipping wine broke out into goose-bump-inducing polyphony while we dined near the fireplace on shkmeruli, kupati, dambalkhacho and a bottle of fine rkatsiteli. As dinner memories go, this ranks highly not only for its serendipitous brilliance, but also because it would be the last time we would ever eat there – the restaurant closed for good in late 2020.
Walking down streets, past shuttered businesses – temporarily or otherwise – we are reminded of Georgia’s rags to riches story, where a borderline failed state radically transformed into one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with tourism its fastest growing sector. It is no coincidence that the culinary revolution we have been so excited to be a part of has occurred alongside the growth of tourism.
As 2019 drew to a close, the statistics office was tallying over 9 million visitors to Georgia, nearly double the number of 2015, adding more than $3 billion into the economy. Newspaper travel sections around the world were saturated with “Georgia On My Mind” headlines about the country’s glorious food and “cradle of wine” culture.
It is an evolution that permitted entrepreneurial cooks like Ana Dondua to pursue her dream of crafting pan-Asian dishes and chefs like Keti Bakradze to expand and open a bistro and an Italian restaurant. These passion-driven restaurants were established for locals and would not have been possible to operate a decade ago.
“There is a whole infrastructure built around restaurant economics,” Ana says.
There were less than 40 reported cases of Covid-19 when the government suspended direct flights to Georgia last March, and by April the country saw a 95 percent drop in visitors. As restrictions were gradually lifted in May, quarantine-fatigued locals packed Tbilisi restaurants, many of which were fined several thousand dollars for violating minor Covid-19 regulations. Outside of Tbilisi, however, we saw restaurants operating unmolested, packing tables that were served by maskless staff.
As summer kicked in, Tbiliseli made their annual exodus to the seaside, leaving the capital’s restaurants high and dry, and spreading Covid-19 to Batumi where both the public and authorities totally disregarded the most basic social distancing norms. The result was predictable. Georgia, which once had some of the lowest infection numbers in the world before summer, had some of the highest per capita at the end of the season.
Betsy’s Hotel was established long before a tourism industry existed, when there were only 600 rooms in a city smoldering from civil war. By 2020, it was struggling to compete with the thousands of rooms and hundreds of Airbnbs that had appeared in only a few years; when the pandemic arrived, owner Steve Johnson was forced to lay off his staff and give up the rented half of his hotel. He can’t say what his plans are until the pandemic passes. “I will need $40,000 just to restaff, restock and restart the hotel,” he says.
Not all hoteliers and restaurateurs can afford to take a wait-and-see approach. Ana Dondua held out as long as she could before selling her Pepperboy assets. “I went through hell when I decided to sell my lovechild,” she confides.
Shota Burjanadze, founder of the Restaurant Association, claims that before the first lockdown there were 10,000 restaurants operating in Georgia. Today, there are around 700, which he says are surviving off delivery and takeaway. In early February, he organized a protest demanding the government allow restaurants to reopen. Two hundred owners joined him in a 24-hour delivery and takeout strike, threatening to disregard government restrictions and reopen despite the fact that daily infection rates continued to be in the hundreds.
“We are losing so much. With a vaccine, it will take us two years to rebuild. Without one, who knows?”
Authorities buckled to demands and announced restaurants could reopen February 15, but only on weekdays with outdoor seating. The 9 p.m. curfew would remain in force, leading many to question the point of opening at all. To ensure employees make it home before curfew, restaurants must close around 7 p.m., right around the time when the average Georgian starts to consider dinner. Moreover, snow storms and sub-zero temperatures made outdoor dining hospitable only for penguins and polar bears.
Under such conditions, Kristo Talakhadze, co-owner of Ezo (and a CB guide), hasn’t even thought of trying to reopen the courtyard restaurant. But her team has started a new enterprise: Up Donuts, which makes delicious, fluffy “Berlin-style” doughnuts stuffed with a wide variety of homemade jams for delivery. For Kristo, diversifying is a means of survival. Ezo, like a reported 80 percent of restaurants in the country, is located in a rented space.
But even those who own their spaces and have outdoor seating, like Bina 37, won’t bother trying to reopen until all restrictions are lifted, although owner Zura Natroshvili says he will probably wait until tourism returns. “I don’t believe locals have the purchasing power now,” he contends.
The new Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced that on March 8, Tbilisi restaurants will be permitted to operate indoors on weekdays, although the curfew will still be enforced. On the one hand, a gradual reopening brings a sigh of relief for many restaurant owners who have hung on this long and can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. But 11 people have died of Covid-19 in the past 24 hours – 11 more than the total number this time last year with a vaccine nowhere to be found.
Georgia is part of COVAX, the international vaccine-sharing platform that is not yet meeting its aims. Health ministry officials announced the first doses would arrive at the end of February but as the month drew to a close they said they had “no idea” when the vaccines would arrive.
Shota Burjanadze bemoans the 20 years of hard work Georgia has done, only to see it come crashing down. “We are losing so much. With a vaccine, it will take us two years to rebuild. Without one, who knows?” he says. This is why he and other restaurateurs have been pushing so strongly to get restaurants opened again, despite the risks.
Ana Dondua understands the frustration but is not convinced the risks are worth it. Restaurants will reopen and may be forced to close again, just like last year. Human lives are at stake.
“As a business, you take responsibility towards your customers, employees and society in general,” she states. “The entire world has had to knuckle under. Why is Georgia any different?”
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