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Network News • 25-11-2021

Is eating out still affordable?

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 25th November 2021

This is a time to visualise lavish end-of-year parties, yet due to pandemic rules and the high cost, less people are booking places at restaurants for merriment. Instead, it is becoming the norm for the management to provide staff with free food and drink on the business premises for all. There are solemn speeches about the business and its extolling strategies ahead while junior staff indulge in extra drink teasing their managers - singing and sporting party hats because it is all free.

In the recent past, when no masks were de rigueur, hugs and handshakes at work places were permitted - now the mood is more cautious and mostly formal.

Prior to March 2020, the popular custom was for in-laws to be invited to lavish meals in-house, savouring slow-cooking treats endowed with plum puddings and other delicacies - a gazillion calorie dessert.

Now with instant ordering online of fast yet tasty delivered food, most never dream to let our wives or girlfriends cook for the occasion, let alone plan a party. Imagine a time when preparing a glorious full-scale Christmas meal took - on average - a back-bending 27 hours to prepare. Nostalgia of Christmas eve fun reminds us of sweet worries, like waking up at 5am only to discover that the fat turkey did not fit in the oven or that the asparagus was not fresh. Would our partners and loved ones want us to throw in the kitchen towel and instead surf our smartphone to book for outside catering – perhaps in some traditional farmhouse restaurant where hearty meals are served by smiling waitresses with tinsels in their hair?

For the purists, the lure of home cooking is immeasurable such that the carving and serving of the triumphant turkey bordered with red chipolata sausages and impregnated with the famous sage and chestnut stuffing becomes by rite the honorary task regaled to the head of family. But this romantic scene is mostly a by-gone memory - perhaps never to return.

Today, it’s rare to find a good restaurant which can guarantee a table given the high demand and fewer tables setting because of restrictions enforced by health authorities. Perhaps our nostalgia owes its roots to the Victorian age, having been a British colony for so many years.

In this fast world of Netflix dinners, we lost the pathos of the bread winner, sitting proud at the head of the table, acting out the role of the pater familias — the Dickensian icon set in the Christmas Carol novel — judiciously dividing among his grateful family the bounty that his toil and acumen have provided. Such memories from the past form the liturgical objects of our Christian beliefs that have honed our subconscious during past festive periods.

Such gatherings conjure forgotten feelings of a convivial spirit. Now, food is being served and alas the nuclear family is absent. No more that sentiment of staying at home and toiling in the kitchen for so many hours that gave the chef a deep satisfaction seeing many smiling faces around the decorated table.

Serving a homemade Christmas dinner can be a thing of Dickensian fantasy, as modern versions seem to have gone through some kind of transmogrification machine that lead us to cherish their currency.

Perhaps this introverted feeling is fuelled by an increasing fear that the incremental cost of food is becoming unassailable. Pensioners, youths and middle-aged people complain that the COLA mechanism offering a €1.75 weekly increase does not cut it. Many notice food and grocery costs are spiralling upwards. This is hurting everyone much more than ever before.

It is no surprise that both the Chamber of Commerce and the Malta Chamber of SMEs have spoken with huge concern about the projected increases in the cost of imports and exports due to our insularity. Even so, it is the sign of times as in the U.S. inflation is currently above five per cent while it is over four per cent in the EU.

Finance minister Clyde Caruana is expected to announce a separate mechanism to compensate society’s most needy for the rising cost of living. Sources said the new mechanism will be separate and over-and-above the cost-of-living adjustment mechanism where those who feel the pinch of rising costs can be compensated separately.

This also links to the main theme of festivities. A lavish lunch for Christmas in a posh restaurant does not come cheap for those on a tight budget, so their options are limited. Still, some will decide to throw caution to the wind and forget cholesterol levels by drinking prosecco at an affordable pizzeria, where simple pleasures include gorging a dome shaped Calzone, deliciously filled with an exquisite cheese mix, ham and truffle oil - all baked in a wood fired oven. The treat will be followed by chocolate covered profiteroles or liquid mint ice cream solidified with liquid nitrogen.

Definitely in this pandemic age, the option to book lunch outside is tempting yet sobriety make us act cautious as infections are again on the rise.

Readers may well lament that simple pleasures in life are burning holes in their credit cards. Is it fair for locals to pay the high vat rate on food and drink when other neighbouring countries are charging lower rates? The trophy goes to Luxembourg as it charges a rate of 3% on food and 17% on alcoholic beverages.

Now that the tourism industry is limping forward with low occupancy rates, can we follow Greece’s bold experiment in 2013 and drop the vat rate to 7%? This article argues that over-charging vat is like burning the candle from both ends and will cause the catering sector to implode if remedial action is not taken to tackle challenges lurking under the surface. In conclusion, this is the time of year when most restaurants resort to decorate in glittery kitsch which is a wonderful thing - if only better salaries are paid to catering staff once brisk business starts benefitting from a lower vat rate.

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 25th November 2021
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