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Merchants Street Feature

 

Trips to London are fun but they are also an eye-opener. In this city of millions, if you open a shop selling bananas in the middle of Oxford Street, you still become ridiculously rich. In fact you’ll be stripping whichever banana-producing country you are buying from of its stock within minutes. It seems as if all good restaurants are packed all the time. There is so much opportunity for those who want to work and work hard. People spend, spend, spend regardless of what seems to be an ongoing recession. I would not, for the life of me, want to live in the Big Smoke but it has so many lessons to teach us.

In Valletta, our capital city and as big in total area, probably, as Oxford Street, you can plough your life savings into a property rental and then spend the rest of your life trying to justify it financially. The place is a mess and not just because of what we see going on superficially: the works, the dust and the knocking down of that horrific ‘city gate’.

With Valletta it seems as if even new and exciting things are being done badly. In Merchants street you now find tables in the middle. They seem to have been placed there by the central government. The idea is good but the tables look horrendous. Do we not involve designers when doing this stuff or is everything just led by our infamous ‘tendering process’?

So many shops are closed and not just temporarily. They are dirty and abandoned and have turned into receptacles for our rubbish. ‘Owners’  - a good bunch of them actually renting at ludicrous rates from the government and then subletting at stupendous sums, an illegal but very common practice – sit on empty property waiting for the moment when someone rolling in money comes along and snaps them up.

Currently in Republic Street, there is a property for sale at €20 million. It has been there, empty and dirty, for more than a year now. How on earth can you get a return, in Malta, with our tourists and locals, for that kind of sum?

You need to fleece your customers of course. That is how you do it. You charge too high prices. You sell the same items sold in the UK for £70 for €100 when, obviously, you would not have bought it at retail prices. You pay your staff a pittance and then complain because they are not ‘good enough’ or not interested in your business enough. Your business, of course, is making money.

Moreover, the offices in Valletta are slowly but surely moving out to other areas which make more logistical sense and which do not depend on sudden traffic diversions and the availability of parking. Traffic diversions have killed passing trade: the Maltese are a lazy bunch and we absolutely hate to walk. With summer upon us, walking means that by the time you get to your destination you have had your life sucked out of you and your sweat sucked out of your armpits and into whatever fabric you are wearing.

Tourists are always taken to the same places. Unless they have done their homework, when it comes to restaurants (and most definitely, the low-cost flying ones do a lot more than the charter flight ones) they always end up in the same three spots.

Every time I visit, I notice that the Valletta restaurant stalwarts are packed…with politicians, top-level civil servants and union leaders. How does this work? Their lunches are interminable and I keep seeing the same culprits everywhere, leading me to think that they simply have lunch out daily.

Our lunches are anything but cheap. The minimum you can get away with, at a decent place, and with a glass of wine thrown in (although these ones I see opt for a bottle) is €20. The bills get put on ‘expenses’. Best case scenario that’s €80 a week if they eat out four times

Not much, you may be thinking, until you realise that hey, you’re actually paying for that aren’t you? This is, no doubt, a very superficial analysis of spend but I challenge you to do it and see what sumsyou come up with. They have no problems with getting into Valletta as they either have offices there or their driver drops them off and waits. So, apart from the lunch, there is the staff cost of the driver, the car and fuel. Who’s paying for that? You are. The less money that goes on taxes, obvious or not, the less money you have to spend. So you eat out less. I met a minister/parliamentary secretary at one of these absolutely favourite Valletta restaurants some weeks ago. ‘I’m not cheap!’ he told me, two seconds after being introduced ‘That’s the wine I like to drink!’. I was shocked at his lack of awareness of how words like that come across.

Restaurants and cafeterias cannot survive on just these men in suits. They need the common man and woman, the office worker, to be sustaining them. They need regulars. Tourists help but the fallout from the Air Malta situation is going to be huge: six hundred employees looking for jobs, another fifty or so from Selmun Palace, another hundred from Go. That’s close to another thousand people who once had decent salaries, unemployed. Moreover, the less tourists Air Malta brings over, the bigger the repercussion; less seats on flights means less tourists, less eating, less spending of the foreign cash.

Most friends who own restaurants are despairing. They say that the Maltese turn up in the evenings in groups of ten, then occupy a table all night with a platter, or a plate of pasta and possibly a bottle of cheap-end wine. They are embarrassed to chuck them out but if somebody is not embarrassed enough to make me lose money (a badly occupied table is worse than an empty one because it still costs you overheads) then why should I not move them on? If they want to drink wine and eat some cheese then maybe they should stay at home. We have a harsh but very true saying in Maltese: min ma jiddejjaqx jahralek f’idejk, tiddejjaqx iddellikulu ma wiccu.

We also suffer from the small-population syndrome. We do not have millions of potential customers so mostly every single new place that opens (and there are precious few risking it) tries to cater for ‘everyone with everything’ and consequently does not get a single things right. Pizza, pasta, wraps, ‘Chinese’ as well as the brilliant Maltese way: if the guy across the road is doing well with kebabs, then I’ll open a kebab shop too.

Sadly, it is always the best people who get it worst: a good friend of mine who runs a brilliant but tiny café in Valletta told me she is seriously considering either leaving the country or going to work in full-time employment. ‘I’d make more money’ she said. How horrendous it is that she is probably right.

The Valletta local council has a very good reputation for being well-organised and customer focused. They also have a great website which includes events.

Full article: http://planetmona.com/opinions-on-planetmona/52-social/3576-thinking-of-investing-dont-bother

 

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