• Ramen converts to two-minute noodles that can be heated at home. (Christopher Pearce)Source: Christopher Pearce
From ramen bowls to two-minute noodles and spirits to hand sanitiser: Here are some of the leaps and bounds food businesses are making during COVID-19.
Lee Tran Lam

2 Apr 2020 - 3:24 PM  UPDATED 2 Apr 2020 - 3:24 PM

People book three months ahead to dine at Melbourne's Attica and reservations for its 62 seats disappear quickly. But over a few hours on 20 March, Attica went from being fully booked to hosting 20 diners.

New government restrictions meant restaurants could only seat one diner per four square metres. For two consecutive evenings, Attica served less than a third of its usual capacity.

Chef-owner Ben Shewry tells SBS Food, "Then we watched as nobody else did that.

"Places were absolutely full. But we did the right thing."

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Attica may be one of the world's best restaurants, but Shewry realised its fine-dining format would no longer work as the hospitality industry faced greater constraints amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"We had to change immediately," Shewry says. "We were facing certain bankruptcy if we didn't."

So he recalled his teenage days making bread for Woolworths and cut up Attica's dining tables to turn into bakery shelves. This new incarnation of Attica became key to keeping his 42 employees employed.

Despite not having oven space, baking trays or provers, the team miraculously opened Attica Bake Shop within days. Shewry would sell 300 Vegemite scrolls per shift and make 140 hot cross buns while surviving on three hours of sleep. He served nearly every person who lined up and it was an emotional experience.

They told him, "This is the last treat I'll have for a long time. I've lost my job. I wanted to come here for this last nice thing."

Other regulars who'd celebrated many special occasions at Attica would say, "We've been coming for 14 years, but we've never met. We want you to stick around so you can reopen, so we can celebrate our kids' birthdays.

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Shewry says, "The reaction of the public has been overwhelming."

But as crowds grew, Shewry felt uneasy about the potential health risk and closed shop. "I didn't want to be contributing to that problem, even though we needed that revenue. We decided to focus on the delivery side of the meals."

But now, yes, you can order Attica-quality food and have it home delivered. And despite being an internationally recognised chef with a considerable following, Shewry will likely drop off the meal himself, much to people's shock.

"They're like, WTF?" he says and laughs. "And we're so grateful. It's nice to say 'thank you, you're helping to save our staff and jobs, have a wonderful night, stay safe' and then you're back in the car to the next one."

You can try The Dish that Saved Attica: a spice-crusted lamb shoulder Shewry first served in 2005 when Attica was a struggling restaurant. "It always outsold everything 40 to one," he says. "People still, 14 years later, ask me about it."

He calls it "one of the most delicious things I've ever made" and says it's no coincidence it's on his latest menu. "It's fate. It's trying to save Attica again."

"It's fate. It's trying to save Attica again."

Like Shewry, Shannon Martinez has proudly managed to keep all her staff employed – despite tough conditions. The owner of Melbourne's Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli vegan eateries has adjusted to the pandemic, too, converting Smith & Daughters into Smith & Stuff during the day.

The grocery is a response to the panic-buying at big supermarkets and the unfair mark-ups. She's seen broccolini sold for $12 a bunch. "We charge $3.50," she says. 

"Restaurants are closing down when we have access to the best produce in the country," she says. "We're still feeding people, we're just doing it in a slightly different model."

"We're still feeding people, we're just doing it in a slightly different model."

The store sells items often missing from major supermarkets ­(tinned tomatoes, dry pasta, even toilet paper), plus local produce (carrots, heirloom vegetables, "beautiful chillies") from small suppliers like Northside Fruit & Vegetables. This supports farmers who've lost money from restaurants closing under pandemic restrictions.

It also sells Melbourne Moonshine hand sanitiser. "We could definitely be profiteering off this," Martinez says, but prefers to make it affordable to serve her local community instead.

Sydney's Archie Rose Distilling Co. is also producing hand sanitiser, to provide work for staff affected by the government's shutdown of its bar.

Founder Will Edwards says, "I'm incredibly proud of our team for having turned around this product from concept to launch in under 10 days."

The first two batches of 4,500 bottles sold out swiftly. Staggering demand means all permanent bar employees, and many casual staff, have ongoing jobs.

Sydney's Rising Sun Workshop has reassigned workers, too. Given the government only allows restaurants to serve takeaway and deliveries, owner Nick Smith has turned his dishwashers into drivers to deliver orders.

"It's like a whole new business every day."

He's also tweaked dishes so people can buy the award-winning restaurant's ramen as two-minute noodles that they can reheat at home: the broth is frozen, the noodles and toppings are fresh, and the dish can be assembled in four easy steps. "The take-up has been encouraging," says Smith.

He's also converted the restaurant into a storefront selling kimchi, pickles, coffee beans, local wines, free-range eggs, even toilet paper, at cost.

Adjusting to the government's ever-changing rules reminds Smith of Rising Sun Workshop's unpredictable early days as a pop-up with only one frypan in its kitchen. "It's like a whole new business every day. It's hard to know where it's going to end up next week or the week after that."

But it's promising to see that these venues are, for now, still open and serving their communities.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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