Literally, biting the hand that feeds them

If you get peckish in Malta, you will not suffer from hunger pains for very long, there is no danger of fainting from malnutrition, nor will you have to travel far, because places serving food seem to spring up magically overnight on every street corner

There is a percentage of the population which has a substantial discretionary income after all living expenses and bills have been paid. Generally speaking, they are well to-do people over 55 whose adult children have left home, the professional classes, those with two good incomes, business people and those who have rental properties. 

This is the demographic which can afford to eat out on a regular basis and the target consumer of many of the country’s eateries. And boy, do we have a range to choose from.  Robert Fenech, writing in the website, said a review of the licences issued by the Malta Tourism Authority shows there are currently 837 restaurants (plus 1,077 snack bars, 188 take-aways, 56 kiosks and 480 bars, amounting to a total of 2,638). 

However, since sports clubs and political/band clubs (kazini) which have a licence to serve food are not included in this figure, Mr Fenech estimated that the actual figure is closer to 3,000. 

Basically, if you get peckish in Malta, you will not suffer from hunger pains for very long, there is no danger of fainting from malnutrition, nor will you have to travel far, because places serving food seem to spring up magically overnight on every street corner. This is an observation which has long been noted, but which has now been confirmed by actual figures. 

Not only that, but if you plan on eating out, especially on the weekend, you better make sure to make a reservation, and on special occasions like Mother’s Day and Christmas, advance bookings are imperative because places fill up quickly. 

It was therefore a source of great amusement mixed with sheer incredulity that we read this week about a survey by the Association of Catering Establishments (ACE) which came to the rather bizarre conclusion that “restaurants are barely making a profit”. 

The comments showcased the crème de la crème of Maltese sarcasm and put downs, but the greatest indicator of just how preposterous people found this statement was the number of laughing emojis… over 1, 300 laughed out loud from behind their phones and keyboards. 

The remarks by Joe Public covered all the issues which have been pissing people off ever since restaurants re-opened after COVID. After keeping them in business, with the help of government vouchers and because without travel, we had nowhere else to go, those who love dining out (our favourite form of socialising), have become more and more irate. The rise in prices began creeping up, slowly but surely, and systematically.  After blaming COVID and the disruption to the supply chain, the owners began blaming the Ukraine war, which has now become a sort of standing joke. “€6.50 for a glass of wine? Ħeqq, x’tagħmel, the war, hux!” 

Restaurants cannot shift the blame on their electricity bills because they were given subsidies along with everyone else. In fact, the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) has just told the government that “the energy subsidy which has kept Maltese electricity prices stable, as those of other countries skyrocketed over the last 12 months, is ‘critical’ for the Maltese hospitality sector’s competitiveness.” 

But let us give them the benefit of the doubt here. If it is true that the study which asked 400 owners of restaurants, bars, snack bars, takeaways and kiosks resulted in the conclusion that they are not making a profit, how have they remained open? And why on earth do more restaurants/cafes keep opening up in an already over-saturated market. Isn't anyone doing their market research? Do they have money to burn? Are they masochists? 

None of it adds up really, hence why (when everyone stopped laughing), the immediate knee-jerk reaction was the allegation that some of these establishments must be nothing more than a front; a vehicle for money-laundering, which registers a loss on paper, while dirty money is used to build up the business, paying everything in cash, and thus is “washed” and regurgitated into the economy as “clean”. 

There were also blunt accusations that fiscal receipts are rarely given, which means the owners are not declaring and paying their VAT, but pocketing it instead. 

Looking at it from another angle, what was ACE actually thinking when it commissioned this survey? I think the whole thing was very badly timed and ill-advised from a PR point of view… at a time when you can barely go out to eat at an average restaurant without it setting you back €100 per couple, telling us that you are not making a profit is rubbing salt into the proverbial wound. 

Take it from me, this survey has not done restaurant owners any favours at all.  As portions keep getting smaller, the quality of the food can be great one week and terrible the next and the service is always a gamble, while we are being asked to pay €15 or more for a humble salad. So, this is really not the best time to whine that you are not making enough money. 

The reason behind, and timing of this survey, I was told, is because the government has floated the idea of increasing the VAT on food in the upcoming budget. That suggestion elicited the inevitable reaction that well, they will simply raise their prices even more then, passing it on to us, and those who were not paying their VAT will still not pay it. 

A similar fear is hovering around the news that due to soaring inflation the COLA increase will be a whopping €13 per week… for, as past experience has shown us, who will be ultimately paying the cost of living adjustment to employees’ wages if not us, when we require a service and are faced with a stiff price increase? 

The Chamber of Commerce has already warned that higher wage increases will cut into profit margins, so if restaurants were complaining before, what are they going to do now? And why, in the face of this stark reality, do more restaurants/eateries keep opening up? 

Place your answers on a post-it and the winner will get a free meal at one of the 3,000 places which serve food in Malta. 

Time for the civil service to end their half days? 

Among its many proposals to the government in the run up to the budget, the Chamber of Commerce has come up with a suggestion which has long been touted, but no administration has ever had the nerve to implement - removing the half days for the public service. 

“Businesses do not operate on half days during the summer, so how can they be properly served by government departments that do?” said Marthese Portelli, the Chamber’s CEO. 

The Chamber also proposed that an independent audit of the roles and responsibilities of all those working in the public sector be carried out in order to identify duplication and waste. 

I have my doubts how do-able removing half days is after the decades long practice which has been enshrined in our Mediterranean culture (I can already envision a major rebellion, with civil servants walking out en masse and storming the doors of Castille). 

A serious audit, however, is long overdue… as is doing away with the ‘job for life’ mentality which means that whether you do your work or not, your position is safe.   

Many years ago, I worked briefly in a government department so I know that it can be staffed with very efficient, diligent people but it can also be lumped with good-for-nothings, who pile their desk with mounds of official looking files, occasionally fiddle with a few papers to appear busy and basically spend the day trying to avoid doing any work at all. 

I remember being told not to “do too much” for fear it would make the lazy ones look bad. One of my most vivid memories of that office was that of a 20-something guy snoozing at his desk at 10am, and I had a flash forward, picturing him still there 40 years later, becoming part of the furniture, still snoozing, as the telephone rang and rang and rang while some hapless citizen tried in vain to get some information. Suffice to say I did not last very long there. 

Before the PM makes any more high-sounding speeches about the economy, he better does some house cleaning first; it’s time to start separating the wheat from the chaff.