4 tactics used by local small businesses to survive the pandemic

“If you would like to know how it feels to be in hospitality during this coronavirus pandemic? Remember when the Titanic was sinking and the band continued to play? We are the band.”

Those were the words on the blackboard outside a restaurant. I’m not sure which restaurant, a friend posted the photo on Facebook. It doesn’t matter where it was, and it may be a cliche, but it’s a feeling shared by many small business owners since the pandemic started.

With all the restrictions placed on businesses during the lockdown, and with people spending more time at home, many small businesses are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.

According to a recent report by financial services company Finfind, more than 40% of South African small businesses did not survive 2020, and keeping to cliche’s, the ones who missed the iceberg, are finding themselves in uncharted waters with change being the only constant.

I talked with a few local small business owners and representatives to find out how they are coping with the changes brought on by the pandemic. Considering their own strengths and unique selling points, each applied a unique approach but mostly used these 4 tactics to survive the pandemic:

Go Digital
Network and Collaborate
Explore all the options


“Fact is, you have to change. If you don’t, you may go under.”

Jorika Rabe – Sitar Cape Fusion Restaurant

If you have ever done a SWOT analysis of your business you probably did not identify the possibility of a deadly virus as a threat to your company but you would know that threats can, and should, lead to new opportunities.

Taking an external threat and turning it into an opportunity can open new revenue streams that can lead to business growth. This is exactly what Jorika Rabe and Liz Buncker of Sitar Cape Fusion Restaurant in Betty’s Bay did.

When the restaurant had to close completely during the hard level 5 lockdown in April, Sitar was only open for about 8 months but they were already famous for their curries. As a busy sit-down and take-out restaurant, there was not a lot of time available to further develop their existing menu but being forced to close their doors changed that.

“Suddenly there was too much time. We used it to try new recipes and started planning on how we could adapt to the new normal. When we were allowed to open again, we could offer our loyal customers brand new items that they just had to come and try like the fig, caramelized onion, and camembert samoosas,” Jorika said.

Sitar Restaurant added a whole new range of samoosas to their menu. The photo shows the milktart flavoured one, which is an original twist on a South African classic – a creamy custard and cinnamon-sugar filled pastry pocket.

Jorika said she expected that their customers would want to spend less time indoors and knew they had to adapt to do things differently in the future.

“We always sold platters for functions, but we changed our packaging and adapted the platters a bit to create snack boxes that people could take with them as ‘grab ‘n go’ items instead of sitting down in the restaurant”, she said.

They also installed display fridges in the seating area and started selling specially packaged deli items like fresh herbs and home bakes including rusks and malva pudding and even included a section with frozen meals. The latest addition is a soft-serve machine. “We will keep changing if we need to. Fact is, you have to change. If you don’t, you may go under,” she said.

To extend your services doesn’t mean you have to change your entire business model but you may have to adapt it to keep serving the needs of your customers as their requirements change.

Go Digital

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need for small businesses to embrace the digital era. In a world where human contact has been limited, the majority of customer interaction has to become virtual. For many businesses, having an online shop or interactive website to engage with their customers has become an essential component of staying open during the pandemic.

“It was one of the biggest pain points our clients had. They suddenly wanted to avoid each other, and us too! We couldn’t allow that to continue.”

Hennie Coetsee, Datastoor

As one of the oldest brick and mortar businesses in Kleinmond, Datastoor first opened its doors as a small mom-and-pop shop in 1995, offering stationery and a printing facility to locals. Over the years the business established itself as one of the largest computer, graphic design and printing companies in the greater Kleinmond area.

Datastoor launched their online shop during the lockdown to help their customers complete their buying journey.

They were so well known and supported by the local community, that for many years they did not even have the need to develop their own website beyond creating a handle to receive business emails. According to Hennie Coetsee, lockdown drastically changed their perception.

In the early days of the lockdown, when only essential services were allowed to trade, Datastoor could remain open because they provided an important service. Some of their clients needed to print the certificates that were required at the time to prove that they were essential workers but did not have a printer at home. According to Hennie it was a blessing that they could remain open but he saw a new reluctance in their customers to come into the business premises. “It was one of the biggest pain points our clients had. They suddenly wanted to avoid each other, and us too! We couldn’t allow that to continue,” he said.

Developing their website into an online store was a natural step to continue providing their clients with the products they were used to buying in person.

“We haven’t added all of our products to the website yet, but it’s already helping our customers and it’s providing us with a new way to do business. This week I sold a computer to an online customer. It’s really working!” he said.

Datastoor was fortunate that they had in-house graphic designers and could easily convert a part of their business into a digital offering, but not all small businesses have the same resources. Whether you make use of a web developer or create your own online platform, there are many resources available online.

For businesses in the Western Cape, a good place to start getting information is the GoDigital portal – an initiative from the Western Cape government to support small businesses in adopting digital policies and move their businesses online.

Network and collaborate

“A lot of our locals were struggling. I started thinking about what I could do to help them.”

Riaan Smook, Foodies and Goodies

During the pandemic, one of the biggest challenges faced by both individuals and businesses is the lack of personal connection with others. As social beings, having physical contact with one another is essential to our wellbeing. We all have a basic need to reach out and connect to others but can easily feel disconnected and alone.

In this environment, networking has become more important than ever.

As a freelance marketer and web developer with an established client base, Riaan Smook already had an online business when the lockdown started but as a local resident of a small community, he was greatly affected by the number of people that he personally knew who were not as lucky as he was.

“I know so many people who lost businesses and employment during the time that all the shops were closed. People a few houses down from us lost their income. A lot of locals were struggling. I started thinking about what I could do to help them. I was thinking about how many people were either making amazing stuff at home or who have businesses without the infrastructure to deliver their stock.

“It triggered some sort of ‘a-ha’ moment because I realized that I had all the skills to develop the back-end of a delivery business. I invested in a delivery vehicle and created Foodies and Goodies. Now I can connect these people with their customers,” said Riaan.

He didn’t only start a new business during the pandemic but by drawing on his own skills and networking with people he already knew, he could also create an outlet to connect members of his community to one another.

Riaan is happy to get out from behind his computer and see a bit more of our beautiful countryside and the local artisans and businesses whose products he delivers, benefit from getting their products to their customers without having to deal with logistics, and getting it done for a fraction of the cost if they tried to deliver it themselves.

Collaboration with others can be beneficial to both parties but you will only be successful if you reach out and connect with your world, whether it is on social media or by talking to people around you.

You need to play an active role in your community to reap the rewards of networking.

Explore all the options

“We saw an opportunity and we ran with it.”

Nicky Wallen, Little Oaks

From penguins to sharks and whales, wine farms, and award-winning restaurants, the Overberg is a tourist’s wonderland but since the national emergency was declared in March 2020 the international visitors don’t come here anymore. Domestic tourism has returned to a limited degree since the start of June but with the country expected to see a third and fourth wave before the end of 2021 and with the off-and-on alcohol ban, the tourism and hospitality industry is on its knees.

According to a recent Covid-19 impact survey of local tourism businesses, more than half of the respondents who participated experienced a complete loss of income for the first 6 months of the year. Another 30% of the respondents saw their revenue decline by at least 50% during the same time.

Little Oaks, owned by Nicky Wallen and her brother Tony Largier, is a supplier of fresh food products. Before the pandemic, all their clients who included luxury hotels, fine dining restaurants, and some of the best wineries in our region, were buyers of their wholesale products.

Like so many others, lockdown affected their business drastically. The orders almost dried up overnight. According to Nicky, their vehicle branding helped them. “People were used to seeing a Little Oaks truck drive down the road. It was all word of mouth. We started getting calls from people asking if we could deliver products to their homes because they wanted to avoid the shops. We already had a supply route set up in most of the towns surrounding us and it was easy to transition to home deliveries. We saw an opportunity, and we ran with it,” said Nicky.

Little Oaks have a logo that’s easy to remember. The vehicle branding helped them to be noticed on the road.

Many wholesale suppliers started doing home deliveries during level 5 of the lockdown, but most of them stopped doing it when restaurants were allowed to open again. Unlike their competition, Little Oaks did not abandon their new customers. “The home deliveries did not only help us during the hard times, it helped us to grow our business. As of January 2021, 50% of our customer base is now regular residents at home.

“By doing what we did, we managed to retain all our staff. We even hired more people,” she said.

According to Nicky, their concerns were not only for themselves and finding ways to keep paying their staff, they realized that the situation faced by the wine farms and restaurants was of great concern because they lost all their income.

“My brother and I were fruit farmers ourselves before. We actually sold the farm itself as we entered lockdown. What our clients dealt with resonated with us, we could really empathize with them and we wanted to help them in some way. We started to include deli items from the farms around us. We already stocked olives and raw honey, but we started selling frozen meals, farm baked bread and wood-fired pizza’s from the farm restaurants and their acclaimed chefs. Our new customers couldn’t believe their luck in receiving food from award-winning restaurants dropped off at their homes. It was a win for everyone involved.” she said.

Final words

All the business representatives I spoke to, used their strengths to help their businesses survive the lockdown.

If you haven’t done so already, consider doing a SWOT analysis of your business and pinpoint all your strengths. You can use the opportunities you create with it to help guide your way around the proverbial iceberg.

Remember, your business is not the Titanic, and you’re not the band.