Key takeaways: Operating in the New Normal forum

Published on 12 June 2020

Photo: by Daniel Mahon

As dine-in restrictions on restaurants, cafes and pubs in Victoria are gradually eased, the experience of reopening has been a mixed one for business owners and staff. We brought together three figures to share their insights and thoughts in a free industry forum held live on Zoom on 10 June.

Jerry Mai, chef and restaurateur of several popular Victorian venues including Annam and Pho Nom, Justin Hemmes, CEO of Sydney’s Merivale group of more than 70 restaurants, pubs and bars, and Wes Lambert, the head of the national Restaurant and Catering Association, addressed the theme of Operating in the New Normal. Here are some of the key points they raised in the forum.

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Know the guidelines

Many businesses will be familiar with the Victorian Government’s guidelines for hospitality on reopening after the lockdown. If you want plain-English explanations of the guidelines and what they mean, Restaurant and Catering Association (RCA) provides them on its website. It also has a Coronavirus Information Hub that links to FAQs and other resources.

Wes Lambert of the RCA recommends getting very familiar with these guidelines so that there’s no chance of any outbreak at your venue.

“It’s very inexpensive to be COVID-safe,” he said.

Guest registration, for example, can be as simple as a piece of paper. Or, if you do want to use an app to manage your registrations, he recommends Guest HQ or GuestCheck. Apps can also help you stay on top of your privacy requirements to destroy all guest registers every 28 days.

Reopening takes time to get right

Justin Hemmes recommends you start planning now for your reopening and, if you’re already open, for the next stage of restrictions being lifted. It will take much longer than you think to be ready.

He highlighted things like checking that kitchen equipment is working properly, rebuilding your team (some of whom may not be in Australia anymore), writing menus for a new season, and training staff to make sure they’re well-versed in the restrictions.

“Don’t think you’re going to walk in and open up,” he said. “It’s not a reopening, it’s a first opening.”

Communication and clarity are paramount

Good communication with both your staff and your patrons is critical during the lifting of restrictions. Staff need to know their obligations under the guidelines, so they can reassure guests. Likewise, guests need to know what to expect when they dine out again, from the booking right through to what happens when they visit a venue. As an operator, don’t assume your patrons are familiar with the new rules. Lots of things are different about dining out now. If a person feels safe in your environment, they are more likely to return.

“It’s in all of our interests to get this right,” said Hemmes. He emphasised that the sooner the hospitality industry can prove that this works, the sooner more restrictions will be lifted.

Jerry Mai flagged that some guests have had difficulty adjusting to the new restrictions when they visit her venues. Greater community understanding about what dining out entails in this transition period will make it easier for venues to provide a good experience.

Give your guests something memorable

Hemmes was quick to point out that people are looking for a great time when they return to venues, after so long cooped up at home. He encouraged venues to do what they do best: excellent hospitality that you can’t get elsewhere.

An example he gave from one of his venues, Mr Wong, was rewriting the menu an hour before opening to ensure that live seafood, something the restaurant was previously known for, was available, signalling that the restaurant was offering a true dining-out experience.

It’s not the end of the pivot

While the easing of restrictions on dine-in trade is certainly welcome news, even when venues return to full capacity, filling all the available seats may remain a challenge. Lambert pointed out that with domestic and international borders still closed – perhaps into 2021 in the case of overseas travel – the effect on hospitality will be significant.

From destination fine-diners through to those venues that get the halo effect of tourism dollars, the downturn in revenue could be anywhere from 25 to 50 per cent, in his opinion.

Every business will have to think about how it diversifies its revenue, so that full tables aren’t the only way you balance your books.

“Plan for the worst but hope for the best,” Lambert said.

Think about bigger-picture changes

The Restaurant and Catering Association is putting forward a number of suggestions to governments to make it easier for hospitality venues to return to profit. These include changes to fringe benefits tax around business meals, GST being added to the final customer bill (rather than included in individual items), and a capital gains tax waiver for small businesses which may have to sell following the end of stimulus measures.

RCA is also recommending a tapering of JobKeeper, which is due to end in September, for key industries hardest hit by the pandemic including hospitality, accommodation and tourism. There are calls to carry the scheme through to December 2020 or even March 2021.

If you want to support these lobbying efforts, Lambert recommends becoming a member of the industry association that’s most relevant to your business.

By Emma Breheny

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