Published on 1 June 2020
Lockdown restrictions eased in New South Wales from 15 May. The latest rules allow restaurants, cafes, pubs and clubs to reopen and serve up to 50 patrons at time, allowing four square metres of space per person.
We asked four Sydney food and drink identities to share with us their experience of lockdown and the reopening period as Victorian operators prepare to open their doors.
“I feel like I’ve been constantly coming up with a new business plan each week. And for each new plan you have to advertise to the public, the staff need to be instructed, new systems have to be put in place, packaging often needs to be ordered, new menus need to be written – all the while knowing that whatever your current plan is, it may only last for a week or two before you need to start the process again. It’s a little bit exhausting really.
“That said, it has been lovely having customers back in the space and feeling the atmosphere of running a restaurant even if it serves half (or fewer) customers than we are used to. Nearly everyone seems to be very pleased to be out again, albeit with a little wariness.”
“We stayed open for takeout and home delivery throughout this period. We remained open so we could keep feeding our many staff and allocated a roster of job sharing so they have enough for basic living costs, as many were not eligible for JobKeeper allowances. In that time we also supported and donated to the larger international student community, emergency workers and anyone that needed a hot meal pro bono.
“I believe this has helped us get back on our feet faster than if we had shut completely. Rent still needed to be made, even if it had been slightly reduced, and suppliers needed to be paid. We made sure our suppliers and staff were paid first.
“With dining reopening now, we are having to make decisions about putting extra staff on the floor and in the kitchen all the while seeing how those numbers will work. It doesn’t work at the moment, however we do it so that our diners know that we are back and we are starting that flow again.
“I don't think we will know for sure how the outlook of the trade will be until we are a year down the line. I think those people who are flexible to the opportunities will be the ones to bounce back and make the most of this period. I think there will be a return of the neighbourhood restaurant and many creative chefs and restaurateurs doing fun and interesting concepts who may not have had the opportunity or funding to do so pre-coronavirus.”
“For our venues that are perceived as drinking, party and entertainment spots, the transition has been a little harder for the younger demographic. Venues that are known as bar destinations with DJs and entertainment must now be experienced in a different way by these customers.
“There have been some guests who are very interested in the safety practices and how we are upholding restrictions and guidelines. We had a couple last week at one venue that wanted a full list of what we were doing to make the venue hygienic. These guests seem very appreciative of the safety measures and want reassurance. For the most part, this type of guest is around 40 years or older.
“Guests have been understanding as the teams navigate how to implement the ‘new normal’. The mentality of perfection has been replaced with one of understanding and support. For instance, an item out of stock previously would have upset most guests, now they are extremely understanding. We have not had any negative feedback or guests leaving unhappy, despite this being a learning curve for our teams.
“The staff are far more upbeat now that we have guests. The light at the end of the tunnel has lifted everyone’s mood. Mental health of our team has been a big consideration, so it’s great to see that even the limited guests in our venues have really helped lift spirits and keep our staff positive.
“Having the right amount of staff on has been a constant challenge, especially when we are fighting for every dollar. We normally have up to six chefs in our kitchen, so cutting this back to one has meant slightly longer wait times for some guests. We now must review our staffing daily which takes time. Before lockdown, this was an easier task as we had some structured staffing models in place.
“The overall afternoon and night trade has been considerably less than we expected in some locations. The lack of tourists or office workers near some of our sites has meant that easing of restrictions is great, but unless customers return it does not help.
“The biggest challenge has been crowd management. With limited seats, we can sometimes be spending more time turning guests away than looking after our 10 guests inside the venue. At one venue we had 10 guests (our legal maximum) and constant crowds trying to enter. We had to continually refuse these guests and ask them to not line up. This is difficult and goes against everything we are trained for. We love to host and welcome, but instead have spent considerable time moving people on.”
“I have seen no masks anywhere but on back-of-house kitchen staff, and hand sanitisers are few and far between. The Gantry do a cute hand sanitiser trolley (like a Champagne trolley) of gin-distillery-turned-sanitiser options.
“With table settings, I fully expected that tables would be bare, and that cutlery would be in rolls and that hand sanitiser would be freely available, but no. So you need to trust the operators to have done everything properly.
“In regards to dining sittings, they are generally around 90 minutes. It means the six-course offerings are pretty fast-paced, but then health authorities suggest getting in and getting out. With social distancing, some restaurants that have opened as private dining allow people to do what they like within the four walls. The most successful in my experience is Chiosco by Ormeggio, where faux hedging has been placed between tables as opposed to insensitive Perspex screening.
“Most Good Food Guide restaurants have implemented four- or six-course menus at prices ranging from $75 to $195. More casual restaurants and cafes are doing an edited menu of their greatest hits.
“Operators can’t wait to get more people back in. They are concerned about being able to deliver hospitality and a sense of conviviality and atmosphere in near-empty dining rooms. Diners have just noticed how small their credit card bills are, without all those dining out bills and office take-away lunches and coffees. They’re really thinking about how much dining out will be necessary to them in the future, as their incomes shrink.
“After one deeply depressing experience this week, my considered view is that I’m not ready to dine out in restaurants until restaurants are ready for diners. I wiped down my own table and wiped all my cutlery and glasses, because I didn’t trust the staff to do it. Staff were anxious, and constantly pressured by walk-ins who wanted to get a table when they were up to their limit (“come on, we won’t tell anyone”).
“A second experience elsewhere was markedly more rewarding; it was just so nice to be in a professional, cared-for environment where you could trust that the necessary measures had been carried out. I do feel that dining out over the next few weeks – until we get to the 100-minimum mark – is going to be a Venn diagram of your own threshold for risk, your household budget, and how desperate you are (what you will put up with in order to get that dining experience).
“To me it’s all about trust, more than ever. They trust us to stay away if at risk, we trust them to keep us safe.”
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