Some 275 workers are now out of jobs after the Trotters Restaurant Group took a decision to temporarily close its operations until the Government allows the food sector to return to in-house dining during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In justifying the decision on Saturday, Trotters Restaurant Group CEO Peter George Jr said the temporary closure of his restaurants was a “purely economic decision,” as he is now strapped for cash.
Six restaurants belong to George’s group of companies, including Trotters (which has two outlets), Amara, Buzo, Blue Star Diner and Tommy’s.
In a media release on Saturday, George said it was with a “heavy heart“ that he was announcing the suspension of his restaurant operations effective August 2 at 9 pm.
“Our business is predicated around world-class, experiential dining and as much as we have tried, there is no viability in just curbside and take-way operations. We stand ready, if and when that time comes, to resume full dine-in operations.”
Although Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley partially reopened the restaurant sector two weeks ago, George said that this was simply not enough to sustain operations.
“I can’t afford to sit here and absorb these massive losses every single month with no idea of what is going to be happening in the future,” George told Guardian Media in an interview.
“Curbside and take away just does not work. Some restaurants may choose to remain open but a business of our size with multiple locations, it is difficult to run cost-effectively in these conditions.”
George has been an outspoken critic of how the Government has managed the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.
Earlier this year, he wrote to both the Prime Minister and Finance Minister Colm Imbert, outlining “a $6.45 billion TT COVID-19 Marshall plan” aimed at stabilising citizens’ financial positions, as well as incentivising and stimulating business activity to assure the continuity of the society.
Addressing his own chain’s future status, he said his workers will be indefinitely furloughed.
“We will remain closed until dining reopens. This is until the Government reopens and I don’t know when that is,” George said.
He added that “it wasn’t an easy decision to make” and he knows how seriously impacted his staff will be.
“I have always told them that anytime this could stop. There is not much more that we could do. The business simply does not have the resources any more,” he said.
“This is 16 to 17 months. People who were promised salary grant support for the month of May have not received that support in August. It tells you clearly where this Government’s head is. I have to support the rest of my business and hope it survives if and when it reopens.”
Asked to give a specific figure on how much money he is losing monthly, George did not. He, however, said that with the temporary closure, he would be saving money.
“No one will get paid, from landlords to suppliers. The business has waved the white flag. We will have to do as much as we can and speak to suppliers and tell them that the business continues to lose money with take away. I told the staff their biggest concern should not be their jobs now but that there is a business that can be saved.”
Just last week, an internal memo dated July 23, 2021, from George to workers at his restaurants on vaccinations surfaced on social media. In the memo, George said while the company respected everyone’s right to freedom of choice when it comes to their health and their body, the group had to take several decisions ahead of the resumption of indoor dining.
The memo stated that all staff who are unvaccinated will be required to wear double face masks, face shields, which will be provided by the company and provide a PCR test every two weeks at their own expense. Failure to do so will result in the staff member being left off the roster.
Bookstore owner Nigel R Khan also sent a similar internal memo which was also leaked on social media. Khan told his staff they were at a heightened risk to the virus and its variants because of their engagement with the public.
“Effective 2 August 2021, all members of staff both engaging with the public and backline staff are duly encouraged to become vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus or subject themselves to a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test every fourteen (14) days, at personal cost,” the memo said.
Staff were also mandated to wear face masks and face shields, practice social distancing and bring their own hand sanitiser to keep on them at all times. The first testing period will be 14 days after August 2, the memo added.
The policy has prompted the Joint Trade Union Movement, National Trade Union Centre of Trinidad and Tobago (NATUC) and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs (FITUN) to write to the American Chamber of Commerce, Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce and the T&T Manufacturers’ Association seeking a meeting with the business bodies to discuss a vaccination policy.
However, Chaguanas Industry and Commerce president Richie Sookhai has said that although the chamber believes the population should be vaccinated, business owners should not strong-arm their employees to take the vaccines.
Asked to comment on a voice note which has been circulating on social media in which Sookhai’s stand was commented on, George said he has nothing against Sookhai and has never met him but he (George) stands by his position that employees should be vaccinated in order to safely operate the business.
He also said he has not forced anyone to be vaccinated but noted that he also has to ensure he provides a safe work environment for all his employees, adding the same must also be provided for customers.
“I have not forced my staff to be vaccinated. The Government has made it clear to businesses that we need to vaccinate or we will not open. That's the space within which we have to work. We have done everything to ensure that staff understands what vaccination is. We respect staff's choice not to get vaccinated,” he said.