A couple of patrons sit outside Allebnany Restaurant, a Lebanese cuisine restaurant, which opened up seven years ago.

A large green cedar tree, a symbol of the Lebanese flag, is displayed on the wall behind where the band plays in Allebnany Restaurant, located in the neighbourhood commonly known as haya-arat. The entrance to the restaurant is as grand as the place itself, which can seat over 300 people comfortably.

Red velvet ropes line the entrance and a carpet flows underneath the patrons that make their way in. Cosy corner booths, high chairs lining the lengthy well-lit bar that stretches from one end of the restaurant to the other, or a seat on one of the many dining style tables in the middle of the room are all options, depending on the preference of the diner.

In its better days, a reservation was a must to get a seat in any one of these for a night at the restaurant on a weekend or a holiday. The band would play Amharic or Lebanese music for entertainment as its uniformed staff catered to a full house with a signature dish of marinated chicken breast.

Following the unprecedented arrival of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), however, the music has come to a stop in every sense of the word. The sprawling restaurant is empty, the staff cut down from 135 to almost 80 and the specialised restaurant's very existence in question.

"We've been completely paralysed," said Kozhaya Beaino, the restaurant's owner, who also operates the Allebnany Cafe on the opposite side of the same building, which sells Lebanese sweets and pastries. "We need urgent help."

The restaurant opened nearly seven years ago when Kozhaya, a Lebanese investor, noticed a niche in the market. With travelers from Gulf countries, Sudan and Djibouti in constant flow, Lebanese food was a hit; the restaurant's other well-known dish is hummus, a popular Middle Eastern dip made from chickpeas.

"I've been travelling to Ethiopia ever since 14 years ago," he said. "I like this country, and as there were a lot of foreigners at the time coming for work or holiday, I opened this business."

The restaurant, an extensive rented space within the Kokeb Building, was created from a skeleton, according to Kozhaya.

"We built the entire space," he said, "from installing water and electricity systems to the bars, the doors, the kitchen, everything."

It's now been six months since the restaurant has been immobilised by the effects of the pandemic, which had sent its major patrons, expatriates, back home. Its cafe section, though more dependent on local consumers, has also slowed down immensely, according to its owner.

Three months following the first case in the country, the government initiated a series of monetary and fiscal moves aimed at alleviating the economic shock on different sectors in the country. The support would then roll out to the banking sector, which had an injection of 15 billion Br to bolster its liquidity crisis. The tourism and hospitality sector was also granted support in the amount of 3.3 billion Br.

The Goat Cafe in Bole Medhanialem serves customers after closing down its two other branches due to COVID-19.

"This was promising as the understanding was that the government was aware of the plight of businesses," said Kozhaya, "and so we patiently awaited our turn."

Attempts at joining the hotel owners' association at the time were not fruitful, as beds were a necessary requirement and the restaurant could not qualify. Now, after waiting in vain for over six months, restaurants across the city are taking matters into their own hands to make their voices heard. A petition requesting much-needed support from the government is making rounds in the city with over 30 signatures amassed so far.

A sector that seems to have been overlooked, a combination of international and local restaurants, cafes, pubs and clubs are signatories with the likes of big names like Antica, Effoi Pizza and Dashen Terrara Restaurant, a traditional cuisine eatery established in 1976. The request for a lifeline is desperately needed by these businesses.

The formation of the Restaurant Owners' Association is the primary goal, but the petition has taken the forefront for now since many may not make it to see its birth, according to Kozhaya.

The requests in the petition are manifold, but relief from taxation makes the top of the list. This request comes as the government declares a record in tax collection in the newly started fiscal year: 21.6 billion Br in July, 110pc above target.

The Ministry of Revenues, which had recorded an 18pc increase in tax collection in the last fiscal year, scoring 234 billion Br, the highest in the last five years, attributes this to a number of reasons, perplexing as it may be given the economic devastation the pandemic has caused. A more organised tax collection system, better service provision and the strict enforcement of legal requirements are its primary reasons for generating 156 billion Br from domestic taxes alone.

And while there have been certain tax relief policies rolled out due to COVID-19, this sector has barely benefited, according to many business owners, who believe the creation of an association may be able to provide answers.

"The Association is important, because we need to establish a formal relationship with the government," said Selamawit (Sishu) Deneke, owner of Sishu Burger, a restaurant well-known for its gourmet burgers. "It's a way to get attention and support."

Sishu Burger, which operates out of two outlets, has been in business for eight years, and its current lifeline is its loyal customer base that still dines even though a recent road impasse has exacerbated an already bad transportation situation, according to the owner. A corroborating review on the TripAdvisor website reads, "Definitely going back for the food next time...location might be a bit tricky though."

The road where it is located, Alexander Pushkin Avenue, is along the section undergoing construction for the Pushkin Square-Gotera interchange road, started nearly a year ago. Though infrastructure difficulties are far from new, this latest road project has brought water provision to the restaurant to a complete standstill for nearly a year.

Water to run the restaurant is bought for the six days a week that it is open.

"We've been providing consistent quality services for eight years through ups and downs," Sishu said. "But now it feels like we have reset and started from scratch."

This comes on top of the inflationary prices that keep rising in the country, an annual average of which recorded a 20pc rate in August, according to the latest report from the Central Statistical Agency (CSA).

"We can't keep forwarding the prices to the customers," said Sishu. "But it's inevitable if we're to survive as a business. This is another question - what is the road map for this?"

The petition includes a request for a discount on water and utility bills for businesses in this sector.

"It's a way to show that we're here, and we've been contributing," said Sishu. "This shouldn't be the case only when I go to pay my taxes."

Some restaurants, with other revenue streams, have been staying afloat by injecting cash from their alternate businesses, an option that many do not have. But even that is not a sustainable path.

For the owners of The Goat Cafe, COVID-19 came months after opening their third branch in Bole Medhanialem in February. Plans for further expansion were placed on hold, and the owners closed down two branches where they served coffee, shakes, and granola and yoghurt combo meals.

Payments for rent of the venue, paid-up a year in advance, and the cost of refurbishing and designing the interior were major expenses, according to Alexander Hizikias, one of the owners. A grinder for the coffee itself cost over 200,000 Br, taxes included.

"We couldn't keep it open with all the overhead costs we had," said the 25-year-old entrepreneur. "We had to pause the scale-up and focus on survival."

Rent support, a cost for almost all restaurant owners in the group, is requested for a period of six months in the petition along with the provision of soft loans.

The Goat Cafe had seen a burgeoning of its business at its second location across the main campus of Unity University in Gerji, an ideal location due to the university population. With the closure of schools, the well of income had dried up to zero. The cafe is still working with a third additional partner providing much-needed liquidity for its only remaining open branch and its planned roastery.

The request for support may admittedly be a long shot, but forming an association is necessary for any long-term support, according to Alexander.

That may be true as the Ministry of Culture & Tourism, an entity where the petition may head, only has an established relationship with the Hotel Owners' Association and no formal line of communication with restaurants, according to Endegena Desalegn, communications director at the Ministry.

"This is a new question," he said. "It will need to be considered by the government before giving out answers."

The Ethiopian Investment Commission is another place the petitioners are planning to send their pleas. The response there also remains to be seen.

If there are solutions that the Investment Commission can provide, it will brainstorm once the requests are submitted, according to Deputy Commissioner Temesgen Tilahun.

"But even the recommendations of the commissions need approval by either its board or the country's macroeconomic team," he said. "Subsequent to the onset of the pandemic, the Commission supports investors planning to repurpose their operations, but there is no special type of support intended for this sector."

An expert in the hotel industry also views the formation of an association as a much stronger move than any petition.

"The only solution for visibility and support from the government is through an association that legally represents its existence," said Fisseha Asres, managing director of Afro Hospitality Management & Support. "The sector needs to create a two-way street relationship with the government similar to hotels."

Restaurants are more accessible and affordable than hotels and serve a corresponding higher number of people, according to the expert.

"Their value can't be underplayed," said Asres.

The value of restaurants like Allebnany and many others that serve different cuisines from around the world to a city like Addis Abeba is undeniable, and support for the sector may determine whether they will be around after the effects of the pandemic subside.

The plans of the Revenues Ministry for the coming fiscal year, in the case where COVID-19 continues heavily spreading, is to strengthen its online presence as an effort to minimise contact. But the restaurant sector might need something stronger to make it through until then.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 27,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1065]

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