Australia's restaurants and pubs prepare to reopen, but it won’t be business as usual

Dominic Beinke, General Manager Hotel Palisade, says his team are ready to "have a dig" and trial reopening the hotel's bistro to guests on Friday. Source: SBS News

Most Australian states and territories will soon allow restaurants, cafes and pubs to open for a limited number of dine-in patrons, but many business owners say they’ll be sticking to takeaway for now.

RoyAl's Chicken and Burgers in Perth usually has a line of customers spilling out the door vying for a seat, but over the past few weeks the venue has been surviving on takeaway and delivery orders - a system the owners aren’t ready to give up.

The owners of RoyAl's Chicken and Burgers say they are not rushing into reopening their dining room.
The owners of RoyAl's Chicken and Burgers say they are not rushing into reopening their dining room.
SBS News

“We’re not planning on rushing into it,” co-owner Ken Craigie told SBS News.

“In a small venue like this, we could only accommodate six to eight diners at a time [with social distancing]. So, introducing the risk of COVID-19, for a watered-down dining experience, isn’t a priority for us.”

Restaurants, cafes, pubs and clubs have been given the green light to open their doors under strict conditions in some Australian states, but many businesses say the much-anticipated reopening isn’t financially feasible. 

In NSW, the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland and Tasmania hospitality venues will be limited to 10 customers, as long as there is 1.5 metres between tables. In South Australia, only outdoor dining is allowed.

Restaurants and cafes in Western Australia will be permitted to open to 20 customers at a time from Monday.

Victoria currently has no plans to reopen restaurants under stage one of the federal government’s three-step roadmap out of the restrictions

Brodie Parish, from Kelly’s on King, a popular Irish pub in Newtown, Sydney, said their licence requires them to have two security staff on the premises from 7pm - even if only 10 people are allowed in to eat.

“The bulk of trade would most likely be evening trade and fall into this period. The cost of security and staff would run at over $120 per hour,” she said, explaining their decision to keep doors closed and continue operating as a takeaway bottle shop.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has conceded that the “smaller step forward” towards reopening the state’s economy would be most beneficial to small cafes and restaurants still offering takeaway services, where some patrons could now choose to dine in from Friday. 

But for many large pubs and clubs, with additional licensing restrictions, opening for only 10 patrons wouldn’t cover costs.

"We appreciate that many large venues won't be viable and won't choose to open but it's only up to 10 people per venue. Even if there [are] multiple rooms or multiple facilities in a venue, it's only up to 10 people in one venue," Ms Berejiklian told reporters.

Hotel Palisade in the Rocks in Sydney will be seating patrons from Friday and are “ready to go”, general manager Dominic Beinke told SBS News.

But even with the restrictions eased, he said their main focus would still likely be takeaway.

“The majority of the business that will come in the next few days will probably be takeaway. If we do have an influx of customers coming in, they are going to have to wait,” he said.

Going from holding about 150 people at a time to 10 will be “interesting”, Mr Beinke said.

"It will be trial and error. Everyone’s new to this, no one is professional at it, no one knows what is going on. We are all kind of rookies, I guess, but we are going to have a dig at it and see what we can do.”

Italian employee Laura Persiani is glad to be back at work at Hotel Palisades.
Italian employee Laura Persiani is glad to be back at work at Hotel Palisades.
SBS News/Naveen Razik

It's good news for Italian employee Laura Persiani, whose temporary visa status means she missed out on the JobKeeper payment while she was stood down. 

"It's going to be strange for the first few weeks to go back and just chat with people, to be honest, but we cannot wait," Ms Persiani said.

The Australian Hospitality Association (AHA) has welcomed the decision to include pubs and clubs in NSW’s easing of restrictions, labelling it “a win for common sense”.

“They are now on a level playing field, now they will now make a business decision as to whether they open considering it's only for 10 patrons,” John Green, director of liquor and policing at AHA NSW, said.

“If we get this right, we can then argue for further relaxations of these restrictions.”

Jessica Wang from Triple Shot Cafe in Surry Hills told SBS News it was a "difficult" decision whether to reopen to eat-in guests.
Jessica Wang from Triple Shot Cafe in Surry Hills told SBS News it was a "difficult" decision whether to reopen to eat-in guests.
SBS News
Triple Shot Cafe in Sydney’s Surry Hills will be opening their doors to eat-in customers, but owner Jessica Wang said it was a “hard decision”.

“My chef is on a working holiday visa and I’m not sure if the revenue can cover his cost,” Ms Wang, who took over the cafe a year ago, told SBS News.

On top of ensuring the wages of her chef are covered, she said she was also struggling to pay rent.

“I think it won’t have a lot of difference in revenue, maybe some people will come help us but some customers I talk to are still afraid to have food in a public area – they are afraid to get infected.”

For Siena’s Italian Restaurant, located in north Perth, reopening their doors is a risk they are willing to take.

From next week, the restaurant - which usually seats 200 customers at a time - will be serving only 10 per cent of their regular patrons at any one time.

“It’s a start, we understand it has to be done slowly,” spokesperson Andrew Parissis said.

“We’ll do 20 people at a time and we’ll give them an hour. Maybe we can get it up to 60 people in a night.”

Siena's Italian in Perth will open for just 20 eat-in patrons at a time on Monday.
Siena's Italian in Perth will open for just 20 eat-in patrons at a time on Monday.
SBS News

The restaurant already has bookings for reopening, with their financial pressure eased by their landlord offering not to charge rent during the pandemic.

Chief executive of Restaurant & Catering Australia, Wes Lambert, said 75 per cent of the restaurant industry has remained open for takeaway during lockdowns.

“Even with 10 to 20 customers, businesses that were already open will just add to their revenue,” he said.

For the businesses choosing to reopen their dining rooms, one thing is clear: strict hygiene practices and social distancing will be at the top of their agenda.

Ms Wang said Triple Shot Cafe will comply by placing reserved signs on some tables to maintain distancing.

“It’s quite exciting because lots of our regular customers have been waiting to have our food, I want to serve them good food and drinks,” she said.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Ms Berejiklian urged those excited about eating out to call ahead and book, instead of waiting in lines.

"The last thing you want is to get the disease or spread the disease as you're waiting in a queue for a service or to purchase something,” she said.

Additional reporting by Maani Tru and Bernadette Clarke. 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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