• One initiative that has cropped up is called Saving Plates, which promotes eateries newly offering takeaway and delivery. (Saving Plates/Buffalo Dining Club/Instagram)
The next six months is a precarious time for Australia's hospitality industry. This is how we can help support it.
By
Nicola Heath

26 Mar 2020 - 4:01 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2020 - 1:04 PM

On Sunday 22 March, the federal government upended the hospitality sector in Australia with an industry-wide closure to stop the spread of COVID-19. The ban on trading, which restricts restaurants, cafés, pubs and bars to takeaway and delivery services only, came into effect at noon Monday.

It was a drastic move but one that Kate Reid, co-owner of Lune Croissanterie in Melbourne, saw coming.

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"A couple of days before the Grand Prix was cancelled, the rest of the city was dead and it was shoulder-to-shoulder sardines inside the store," she recalls.

"Standing in my shop, seeing how close customers were standing to each other, and across from my pastry chefs, it started to make me feel pretty nervous."

That weekend, she had an emergency meeting with her brother and business partner, Cameron, and they switched to a takeaway operation, pre-empting the government's announcement that came a week later.

At Lune's Fitzroy store, staff now take customer orders through a hatch that opens onto the street. Another staff member helps enforce physical distancing between customers queuing on the footpath. "We're seeing a lot of customers arrive wearing masks, which we love," says Reid. 

Lune has also introduced home delivery, which has proved popular and would, Reid hopes, permit the business to keep trading if there were a total lockdown on non-essential services.

"As long as we can produce and deliver or provide a takeout service, I'm relatively confident we can ride out this crisis," she says.

"We need to adopt these measures to stem the flow of the virus, but it's been a devastating blow for people that require walk-in and sit-down trade for their businesses."

So far, Lune has managed to retain its 70 staff. "We've been trying to reduce everyone's hours by a percentage, so we can keep…everyone in employment," says Reid.

If the takeaway/delivery model becomes unsustainable and Lune has to cut employee hours, Reid takes comfort in the government's decision to double the JobSeeker Payment

"I absolutely adore every single one of my staff," she says. "If we have to reduce staff, I would hope at the end of this that every single one of them would come back and work with us because it does feel like a family. We're not there yet."

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While the last few weeks have been "very challenging", Reid realises it could be worse. "Part of me feels very lucky that we have a business that can so easily pivot to takeaway," she says.

The government-decreed closure "is the right decision," she says, "because we need to adopt these measures to stem the flow of the virus.

"But it's been a devastating blow for people that require walk-in and sit-down trade for their businesses."

Many operators have made the difficult decision to close their doors indefinitely. Others, however, have embraced novel ways to continue trading. Sydney wine bar Prince of York, for example, has hit the road in the Little Prince, a yellow mini-food truck, to deliver its wares around the city.

In Newtown, Continental Deli Bar and Bistro is putting its vintage canning machine to good use, producing tinned soups and cocktails such as the Martini-inspired 'Quarantinny'.

Down the road in Stanmore, Sixpenny has launched a Saturday morning General Store selling sourdough, bacon and egg rolls, and produce boxes. 

In Melbourne, Friday night takeout just got very fancy thanks to Attica at Home, a takeaway dinner for two with matched wines from chef Ben Shewry's award-winning restaurant. Shewry has also launched Attica Bake Shop, serving up such treats as the Davidson plum sweet scroll and savoury pull-apart garlic bread. He's also selling vino from the restaurant's impressive cellar.

In Fitzroy, Modern Indian restaurant Ish is selling vacuum-packed curries to cook at home alongside its takeaway menu, while craft brewer Moon Dog has converted its Preston venue into a drive-through offering burgers and beer.

Other initiatives that have cropped up include the hashtag #SaveHospo and Saving Plates, a website and Instagram account that promotes eateries newly offering takeaway and delivery. In Surry Hills, a dozen or so businesses have joined forces for #StillLocalStillOpen, a campaign that offers vouchers for accommodation, drinks and meals in the local area to be redeemed once the closure ends.

In the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava, loyal regulars have set up a GoFundMe page for neighbourhood café Blencowes Milk Bar and its staff.

Sophie McComas-Williams is a director of Buffet Digital, a digital agency that works with some of the country's top hospitality outlets. She says that most of her clients have quickly shifted to takeaway and retail even though it's a model with "almost no margin at all".

She has some advice for the owners of bars, pubs, cafes, and restaurants who are facing at least six months of financial uncertainty: use the enforced downtime to "work on those areas of your brand you've neglected – your website, your logo, your merch."

Business owners should stay active online, even if they've pressed pause on trading. "It's important for operators to not go dark on their social media audience at this time," she says. "This is a key moment to cement brand loyalty and show your authentic, real self behind your brand.

"Work on those areas of your brand you've neglected – your website, your logo, your merch."

"Don't be afraid to be vulnerable. If you can keep in touch via daily updates on your progress, and keep the conversation going if you do shut down, your customers will be more likely to remember you once things get back to normal."

Chef Darryl Martin runs Barzaari, a restaurant serving up East Mediterranean fare in Marrickville in Sydney's inner west. "My head's still spinning," says Martin of the hospitality lockdown. 

Martin, whose wife, Gabby, is from Cyprus, says that, until regular trading resumes, Barzaari will offer a full takeaway menu from Tuesdays to Sundays.

Diners can take home meals like kleftiko, slow-roasted lamb shoulder served with roasted vegetables, Cypriot rice and tzatziki. They can also pick up frozen portions of pastitsio, a dish of layered spiced beef mince, long macaroni, and halloumi and mint bechamel sauce, to reheat later. Jars of olives and pickles, plus fresh honeycomb, dips and bread are on sale, too.

Martin anticipates that revenue will fall by 90 per cent – a bitter pill to swallow when the restaurant has been profitable since it opened four years ago. Still, the chef is stoic. "It's hard to play victim too much when everyone is in the same boat," he says.

"The main thing that's going to keep us afloat is family. My son's here now, [and] my cousins and their wives are working."

On Monday, Martin had to let go six casual staff, retaining two full-time chefs. "I drove past Centrelink in Marrickville today, and there was literally a 400-metre queue of people trying to get in there," he says, ruefully.

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He hopes that landlords and other creditors will show leniency to struggling hospitality businesses during the shutdown. "We're hanging by a thread," he says. "I'm worried that the rope might snap at some point."

It's a similar story at Rough & Bare, a wholefoods café that employed 35 people across two locations in St Leonard's and Mona Vale in Sydney's north. Owner Anthony Milotic has let go all but six of his employees. "Hospitality is all about customer service and staff make the business. That's the worst part of it," he says.

Like Reid, Milotic saw the shutdown coming and started preparing for it, launching an online shop stocked with retail products such as gluten-free granola and probiotics. He's also offering take-home meals such as curry and ragu, as well as subscriptions for bone broth and gluten-free bread.

At this stage, Rough & Bare is still open for takeaway orders, but Milotic is uncertain if it's a viable long-term option.

On the day he spoke to SBS Food, the kitchen had taken just eight lunchtime orders, down from 120 on a typical day. "The only reason we're staying open is to give staff jobs," he says. "It'd be a whole lot easier to close."

McComas-Williams says it's up to the public to support their favourite venues.

"For customers, the best way to support brands is to share their content, buy takeaway if it's an option, and buy gift vouchers to use at a later date," she says.

"This helps with critical cash flow, and means you'll have something to look forward to once this mess is over."

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @nicoheath 


Saving Plates founder Tristan Lutze and SBS Food writer Sofia Levin are among those who have launched #thegreataussietakeaway. The initiative is inspiring Australians to have a Saturday night in with takeaway food on 28 March to uphold physical distancing while supporting our hospitality industry. 


 

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