Food News

I opened a restaurant during a global pandemic

At a time when dining rooms across Australia have closed, these restaurants owners, against the odds, have opened their doors.

The meatball sub with beef and pork polpette, tomato sugo, sarsa verde and Parmigiano by Rocco's Bologna Discoteca.


Josh Fry is the head chef at sandwich joint Rocco’s Bologna Discoteca in Melbourne where business is booming. Here, fried-bologna sandwiches – potato buns stuffed with a mortadella-like deli meat – are hot orders; so too the meatball subs. To responsibly manage growing queues, staff have sticky-taped crosses at 1.5-metre intervals to mark where customers should wait.

The current health and economic crises are not optimal conditions to launch a business, especially in the beleaguered hospitality industry. But Rocco’s Bologna Discoteca opened on March 26, just three days after the Federal Government’s nationwide closure of restaurants came into effect. And against the odds, it’s taking off – each day, 300-plus sandwiches are churned out by the three kitchen staff.

But this isn’t the restaurant Fry planned on leading. Another wine-bar-restaurant, backed by owners Zoë Rubino and Emilio Scalzo, was on track to open at the current site on the Easter long weekend. “Everything had been put in place,” says Fry. “Menus written, wine lists written, full-time staff hired. We were ready to do staff inductions, and open the doors and get it going.” Hearing the news about restaurant closures was soul-shattering, he says. “It was a kick in the pants. All that hard work – we didn’t know what was going to come of it.”

In the shell of their almost-restaurant, they opened Rocco’s in a matter of days. Fry debuted the sandwiches at wine event Soulfor Wines in 2019 and had entertained the idea of making the sandwiches into a pop-up business; COVID-19 forced this romantic idea into a real-life business solution. “It was nuts. We put all our time and energy into one project, and flipped it on its head and went in a completely opposite direction in a short period of time,” says Fry. “In the time of takeaway, it’s slotted in right away.”

It’s rare to hear about a restaurant launching on its scheduled date; it’s stranger still when it happens in the midst of a global pandemic. March 24 is the fateful date many dining rooms closed, but for Ricky Murai, director of Sydney’s Neko Neko, it signalled day one for the vegan ramen restaurant.

In early January, Murai was visiting his homeland Japan when reports of a mysterious virus in China made the news. In mid-February, when the WHO gave the virus an official name, COVID-19, he commenced renovations on his Newtown restaurant as the virus continued its march across the world. In mid-March renovations were complete, but the global outlook had darkened considerably: Italy was the new epicentre of the virus, Australia’s death count was slowly ticking up day by day, and rumours of a pending nationwide lockdown were swirling.

But delaying Neko Neko’s opening was out of the question. The restaurant was three years in the making ever since Murai approached his friends, the owners of Neko Neko’s flagship in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, about opening a Sydney outpost. Too much time, care and money had been poured into the project. “When I heard the announcement [about the forced closure of restaurants], I had no surprise,” says Murai. “I was glad we could still open with only takeaway.”

He says business is 70 per cent less than expected, and without some urgent rent relief from his landlord the business will only survive for the next 12 months. Still, he’s thankful for the support from customers thus far. “We get so many customers who were so excited that Neko Neko is now available,” he says. “We can see there are so many fans of the Melbourne store in Sydney too.”

If there’s a winner from the lockdown, it’s packaging companies. Murai had to quickly source takeaway containers to ferry the restaurant’s ramen, curries and teishoku meal sets. Same too for Rocco’s Josh Fry; instead of patrons packing the restaurant’s 150-seat capacity dining room, it’s piled high with burger boxes. “It’s set up ready to go,” he says. “It’s a weird thing to see.”

There are other challenges that lie beyond Biopak boxes and physical distancing rules. Produce suppliers, hit hard by the downturn in the hospitality industry, have reduced the frequency of their deliveries. Third-party delivery apps, which both Neko Neko and Rocco’s have signed up for, take hefty sale commissions.

But still, Fry concedes this is the reality for restaurants for the foreseeable future. “For the moment, the buzz of a dining room is no longer,” he says. “We’re getting used to this new climate. This is how restaurants have to juggle.”

Neko Neko Newtown

381 King St, Newtown, NSW

Open Tue–Sat noon-2.30pm, 5.30pm–8.30pm

Rocco’s Bologna Discoteca

81-83 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, Vic

Open Wed-Thu 5pm-9pm, Fri noon-9pm, Sat-Sun noon-6pm

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