Open for business: owners talk reopening

Published on 3 July 2020

Photo: Whisky and Alement interior

“After all of this, if we make it through, we'll be ready for anything.” Victorian hospitality operators have just experienced some of the toughest months of their careers. But despite the immense challenges and ongoing restrictions on their ability to trade, one thing is for certain: opening up has re-energised operators and many diners. We spoke with a range of businesses around the state to hear how they’re feeling about reopening, how they continue to adapt and what they’ve learned over the last month.

Scott Pickett, chef/restaurateur, Estelle, Matilda 159 Domain, Lupo, Pastore, Pickett & Co, Melbourne

The 20-people-per-space restriction is a challenge, but all customers have been very understanding and respectful of the limitations that are in place. We've seen some continued interest in our nightly takeaway dinners as well as great results from our recent partnership with the new delivery platform, Providoor. I'm still trying to work out exactly what a QR code does, but apparently they're working well too.

Nick Peters, general manager, Acre Farm & Eatery, Burwood East

We reopened the farm at the start of June and it’s been great to see a steady stream of people returning to wander the grounds. We’ve been offering a set menu only in the Farmhouse restaurant and the response from guests has been overwhelmingly supportive. However, having people cancel larger bookings based on updated guidelines is frustrating. We’ve noticed about 10 per cent of visitors to the rooftop are visiting the restaurant; pre-COVID this was more like 30 per cent. People are enjoying the open air and a visit to the farm, rather than necessarily wanting to sit down for a meal.

I’ve managed to find alternative work for staff that were going to struggle during the shutdown and that weren’t eligible for JobKeeper. We’ve also kept the farm alive and have been working with a couple of different groups to deliver fresh food boxes every week to help people dealing with food insecurity. This is something that we will continue with in earnest. The rest of the staff are champing at the bit to get back to work and we’re really looking forward to get back into the swing of things.

Lili Tu, co-founder, Rice Kitchen, South Melbourne

It was really good at the beginning of the month when we’re reopened for dine in again. However, things have changed this last week. It’s been so tough for the industry already and the latest spike in COVID-19 cases is really concerning. I was hoping that people would come back to work by mid-July but now it will be delayed. It’s getting very quiet in South Melbourne again. The situation here is very similar to the city, I think. Many offices are closed and people are also thinking of closing permanently as they now work mostly from home.

We will not give up. We are looking into changing our business model, changing our menu to offer a Vietnamese breakfast and lunch and working with a coffee roaster. The four-square-metre rule limits us to nine people inside, so dinner service is not an option for us anymore. We have to utilise the outdoor space during the day to survive, as we still have the crowd who come to South Melbourne market. Online, we created a new cheat-at-home kit so everyone can make bánh cuốn – fresh Vietnamese rice rolls. The response is really great. We hope to launch at-home kits for phở and bún soon. Our homemade sauces are also doing well, especially the chilli sauce. People said they love it with almost everything from noodles to dumplings to pizza and pasta... not cereal though.

On another positive note, the customers are very supportive. They are happy to work with us to comply with the new rules. It’s great to see the familiar faces again and hear how much they miss our food. We have been lucky to not having any no-shows. People have been very kind to us.

Phil Wood, culinary director, Pt Leo Estate, Merricks

We've now been open for over a month and it's still such a joy to see guests back in the space enjoying themselves. Our guests have been more than happy to adhere with the new requirements, and seem to be comfortable and dining well. I can honestly say the only teething issue has been dry hands from all the sanitiser.

Pt. Leo Estate

 

Brooke Hayman, owner, Whisky and Alement, Melbourne

We’ve been overwhelmed with both the amount of support and the amount of work that’s required to keep things going. The bar has reopened with a reduced capacity of 13 people, down from 90. To ensure customers are not deterred, we are now offering table bookings for the first time. Hospitality means being as hospitable as possible, and it's been gut-wrenching to have to turn customers away. 

We’ve also found it difficult juggling new offerings as we head out of lockdown. Diversifying has been key to keeping the business afloat with such limited bar capacity, and we will need to continue this until social distancing requirements are lifted completely. In addition to our previous offerings of whisky classes and bar service, we are also offering virtual whisky tastings and a small online bottle shop. With our reopening we’re all breathing a sigh of relief. How nice it will be to talk to someone face to face, even if we can’t nose whisky bottles, and share a taste of our favourite dram, we’ve found ways around this and we look forward to a bit of good old-fashioned bar service.

Eliza Brown, CEO, All Saints Estate, Wahgunyah
Reopening has been tough but also exhilarating after a long hiatus with just my brother, sister and I here at All Saints Estate. It’s a quiet place when nobody is around. I forgot how much I love the buzz of hospitality and the anticipation of welcoming and serving customers. Finding out about their lives and their love of wine and food. We have been reinvigorated by the enthusiasm and excitement of people when they were finally able to return, their beaming faces were a joy. One comment I loved from a gentleman that dined with us: “Was that the best meal I’ve ever had or is it because I’ve missed going out?” I don’t really want things to go back to normal because it’s nice to hear such happiness and appreciation from people after all the hard work.

Charlie Carrington, chef and owner, Atlas Dining, South Yarra

After having a three-month break it felt like opening an entirely new restaurant again. I really enjoyed the experience of starting fresh and I feel diners are more appreciative than ever. It was super-tough to have to cancel a lot of guest bookings due to the tighter restrictions but we were stoked that most guests were understanding of the fact that it was a tough thing to do for all restaurants.

Matt Dempsey, restaurateur, The Belfast, Conlan’s Wine Store, Port Fairy; Tulip, Geelong

Our local community has been incredibly supportive since we reopened. Regular diners have been very understanding of the restrictions we face in running our venues but I have been staggered by the number of customers who have absolutely no idea of the strict protocols in place for all hospitality venues. I’ve had countless calls and walk-ins who are unaware of the restrictions on venue capacity, table sizes and, until recently, the restriction on serving alcohol without food. I’m not too sure how this happens; perhaps it’s a lack of information in mainstream media.

The other slight concern I have, perhaps more now than at any time during this crisis, is that a recent spike in numbers in Melbourne over the past few days could put us in a potentially tricky position, particularly with upcoming school holidays. I wonder how many people will go regional over this period and whether outbreaks will occur in small communities.

Cam Nicol, co-owner, Noisy Ritual, Brunswick East

It’s been an incredibly challenging few months. My business partner Alex and I have had to contend with things going on our personal lives (house moves, new kid, lockdowns and home-schooling), so finding the necessary time to manage the business through shutdown, the effects on staff, a pivot to online sales and delivery, and now a reopening (of sorts) has been pretty full on.

The process of getting ready to reopen has been a lot to manage, with new hygiene and social distancing protocols, a new food partnership with the Social Food Project, a new booking system and trying to market a constantly changing offering as we react to changing restrictions. We were unsure of how it would feel reopening but having some people and laughter back in the place quickly reminded us of why we do what we do.

With only 20 guests allowed in venues, nobody's making any money; it's just enough income to keep chipping away at some overheads (with the government still covering the majority of staff wages through JobKeeper). We were optimistic that moving to larger numbers would mean we could start to envisage a path to transitioning staff over from JobKeeper when the program ends, but now that restrictions have remained in place that path remains a lot more unclear.

But of course we remain optimistic that people will do the right thing, numbers will remain low (despite a hiccup or two), and the process of reopening can continue to happen over the coming weeks and months. After all of this, if we make it through, we'll be ready for anything.

Jessica Zamora, co-owner, The Independent, Gembrook 

We’ve had such a memorable amount of support from our locals that dined with us as soon as we opened. Being an owner-operator, this gave me such a sense of relief, a certainty that we were going to be alright. By looking at the first two weeks of opening I knew we would survive on the other side of COVID-19. I have so much gratitude to our locals and regular diners.

Mat Janes, general manager, Innocent Bystander, Healesville

It’s been great to have customers and our team back in the venue and have a real buzz about the place. Most guests have been understanding of the new constraints and grateful of our adherence to the COVID guidelines for hospitality. We‘ve had the occasional guest get upset because we couldn’t accommodate extra guests or extra time in the venue. But on the whole it’s been overwhelmingly positive and our guests have benefitted from a high level of service and have been spending more freely on food and wine. The continuation of the 20-person limit has been a blow, but nothing we haven’t got used to in recent months. We can’t wait to have more guests (and staff) back soon.

Searching for what’s open near you? Use our map as your guide to Victorian hospitality’s recovery, from dine-in venues to takeaway and more.


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