Australia

Australian restaurants fight to keep afloat during the coronavirus pandemic - with a sense of humour

The Italian Bowl co-owner Alexi Spyridis wants customers to know they are still open for business. Source: Supplied

Restrictions aimed at slowing the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia have left thousands of previously busy hospitality venues struggling to stay open. But as the country prepares for months of social distancing, some are finding new ways to keep their customers coming back.

The Italian Bowl restaurant in Sydney’s inner west is possibly more famous for its long lines that snake down Newtown’s King Street on weekend nights than it is for its pasta.

But on Friday, five days after the government announced strict restrictions on the operation of cafes and restaurants in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the scene was very different.

Where once tens of hungry Sydneysiders would wait in line for a coveted table in the crowded restaurant, now yellow spray paint marks the spot on the ground where customers are instructed to pick-up their takeaway food from a makeshift delivery window.

Customers outside the restaurant's makeshift takeaway pick up window.
Customers outside the restaurant's makeshift takeaway pick up window.
SBS News

The rest of the restaurant’s dining room - which usually seats 90 people at any one time - has been blocked off, with the furniture permanently stacked to allow for frequent cleaning throughout the day.

“We’ll be down 80 per cent for sure. We used to have a line out the door for dine-in and takeaway … and that’s all gone,” Italian Bowl co-owner Jenny Spyridis told SBS News.

“Newtown used to be all hustle and bustle, now it’s a ghost city.”

Ms Spyridis opened the restaurant in 2005 with her husband, Alexi, and parents Mary and Vince Muscolo. In the days since eat-in dining was banned, the team have turned their attention to take-away, deliveries and selling pasta sauces that can be frozen for weeks at home.

Staff are temperature tested before they come into the restaurant - which is sealed off to everyone but the employees. “We not only need to protect the public, we need to protect our staff,” Ms Spyridis said.

In a bid to keep up their team's morale, Mr Spyridis has installed disco lights inside the now-empty restaurant, loud music spilling out onto the street, while in a series of videos posted to their Facebook page, he dances around the empty venue in a nurses costume.

Co-owner Alexi Spyridis.
Co-owner Alexi Spyridis.
Supplied

“The majority of our staff aren’t from Australia, they’ve got all their family overseas so they only have each other and they only have us,” she said.

So far, the Italian Bowl has only had to let one staff member go - Ms and Mr Spyridis’ daughter - but the owners are worried about what will happen if further restrictions are put in place.

“They’ll get nothing, they can’t survive, they can’t even go home,” she said of her staff who are not Australian nationals. “If we have to close our doors, there’s going to be a lot of heartbreak.”

On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced level two restrictions on non-essential indoor venues, forcing restaurants, pubs, cinemas, and entertainment venues across the country to close their doors.

Within hours of the shutdown, which came into force at midday on Monday, thousands of Australians had lost their jobs.

"This should highlight to all Australians how serious this is and how hard we all have to work together to get this right," he said.

Restaurant chain Lentil as Anything says with the growing number of unemployed Australians, it's more important than ever to continue serving their community healthy food - so they put together a COVID-19 response team. 

The not-for-profit organisation, which was founded in Melbourne’s St Kilda but now has four locations, runs on a "pay what you feel" model, so people with more money to spare can cover the costs for those who are struggling. The ethos is that everybody should be able to go out and have a meal regardless of social status.

"Lentil as Anything is more than a restaurant … the restaurant is a means through which we’re able to provide support and nutrition to the community," coronavirus response co-ordinator Frida Komesaroff said.

"So, when the coronavirus epidemic really started taking off we sat around and said 'what effect is this going to have on the people who come to our restaurant, but more specifically, the people who need to come to our restaurant [out of financial hardship]."

Volunteers have been delivering food from Lentil as Anything to at need community members.
Volunteers have been delivering food from Lentil as Anything to at need community members.
Supplied

The team developed a number of strategies to reach out to their vulnerable customers: pay-as-you-feel meals delivered to your home by volunteers, takeaway meals from the restaurant, long-life vacuum-packed meals and an outreach and delivery service for people most at risk.

They’ve also started recording the phone numbers of regular customers and asking if they would like a phone call to check-in and chat "once or twice a week" to maintain the organisation’s goal of social inclusion.

"We’re really trying to reach out and make sure that people are on our radar and that we can check in with them every now and then and maintain a bit of contact," she said.

"We’ve had over 100 volunteers in the past week sign up to help us out at different restaurants, a lot of them saying they’ve just been made unemployed and want to do something to help."

Healthy vacuum-sealed meals for delivery from Lentil as Anything.
Healthy vacuum-sealed meals for delivery from Lentil as Anything.
Supplied

For businesses, however, the hardest hit will likely be new restaurants that haven’t had a chance to build a loyal base of regular customers.

One owner facing this challenge is Costa Kilikas who opened his dream restaurant, Kreas, in Melbourne three weeks ago.

Immediately after the restrictions were put in place, Mr Kilikas had to let staff go. It’s now just him and his wife, Carlie, battling to keep the souvlaki bar open with takeaway orders.

"I feel like I’m not giving a service anymore, I’m literally handing them food out the window like McDonald’s, it’s not what I opened the store to be," he said.

There is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food, according to Food Standards Australia.

All Australians, including hospitality staff, are encouraged to practice good hand hygiene to minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19. This involves washing hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds.

Australians must stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people. Indoors, there must be a density of no more than one person per four square metres of floor space.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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