Food News

Sydney restaurants can reopen from today, but how ready do owners feel?

Social media haters, mixed messaging on law enforcement, a dearth of staff and 496 COVID cases overnight. The 2021 edition of Sydney’s Great Restaurant Reopening looks very different to last year.

Alan Chu outside Mother Chu's. The Taiwanese eatery has operated at its current location in Sydney's Chinatown for 26 years, but is only putting out a few tables for dine-in customers from today. Photo: Hayden Wong

Matt Moran, very appropriately, describes the great vaccination debate as a “hot potato”.

In September, his flagship restaurant Aria was one of the first big-name Sydney eateries to publicly declare it would only accept bookings from fully vaccinated customers. The resulting online backlash was surprising in volume, unexpected for its toxicity, and boggling for its lack of logic.

The September announcement on social media was hardly a political stance from the Solotel group – the parent company that owns Aria – nor a personal one from Moran himself.

Rather, it came on the same day the New South Wales government outlined its roadmap out of lockdown which included select freedoms – including the dine-in experience – for double-vaccinated people, once the state hit its 70 per cent vaccination target.

“I appreciate anyone’s decision to be vaccinated or not. But we’re just following the government guidelines, simple as that,” says Moran. “To get such vocal abuse was pretty hurtful. I don’t really want to keep talking about it to be honest, because it was pretty nasty stuff.”

For the first time since June 26 and after more than 100 days of takeaway, restaurants, cafés and pubs can open their dining rooms to fully vaccinated patrons.

But the 2021 edition of Sydney’s Great Restaurant Reopening looks very different from last year. The state government has abandoned its COVID-zero policy, and the highly contagious Delta strain is still circulating in the community. Overnight, New South Wales recorded 496 locally acquired cases of COVID and eight deaths from the virus.

But bulging reservation books at Aria and Solotel’s 25 pubs and restaurants reflect how the wider, double-vaccinated public is hungering for a return to the dine-in hospitality experience.

“Some [on social media] said, ‘We hope you go broke’, but everyone wants to go out. All the bookings in my venues reflect that. We are very busy in the lead-up to Christmas,” says Moran. “[The critics] were wrong when they said I won’t have anyone in my restaurants.”

Aria general manager Alex Kirkwood, co-owner Matt Moran and executive chef Thomas Gorringe.

(Photo: Steven Woodburn)

But questions remain about how, exactly, restaurant staff are meant to verify customers’ vaccination status. The promised two-in-one integration of the diners’ digital vaccination certificate with the Service NSW app has not materialised in time for today’s reopening.

The hold-up has left restaurateurs like An Phan frustrated. “Nothing has been set, it’s not concrete, it’s not black and white. Considering we’re supposed to open [today], they haven’t given us anything,” says the co-owner of Bankstown’s An Restaurant.

Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello flagged delays in the dual-function app in late September. Today, this function will be trialled in Lismore, Port Macquarie, Tamworth and Wagga Wagga, with a state-wide rollout scheduled for 18 October.

Currently, diners can display their digital vaccination certificates via the Medicare app, or print-outs of their vaccination certificate or immunisation history statement. Those claiming a medical exemption must show a medical contraindication form, or a medical clearance notice issued by NSW Health.

But like many restaurant owners, Phan has no idea how to check the validity of these hard-copy documents.

“If people are going to carry around an actual physical paper copy, we don’t know how to confirm if it’s a real one or an acceptable one. It’s still a lot of grey for us. We haven’t been given any guidance,” she says.

A bowl of phở at An Restaurant in Sydney’s Bankstown.

(Photo: Supplied)

She also says there’s mixed messaging around how authorities will enforce the vaccinated-diners-only rule. Businesses risk a $5000 on-the-spot fine, but NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller has previously said police officers won’t be checking diners’ vaccination status.

“[Authorities] say they won’t be policing it, but we don’t want a fine either. How much are you going to resist a customer who’s adamant about coming in to eat? We don’t want our front-of-house to have to debate politics. That’s not our business. Our business is to serve you a bowl of phở.”

An Restaurant is no stranger to dealing with health authorities during the pandemic. The restaurant was visited by a COVID-positive couple in July 2020, triggering a four-week closure and a deep-clean of the premises.

It’s also located in Canterbury-Bankstown, a council area labelled a “COVID hotspot” during lockdown. But despite the past three months of pejorative pandemic-era labels, 88.6 per cent of the population has received one dose of the vaccine, and 68 per cent are fully vaccinated, and the LGA has the highest population of persons aged 15 and over in the state. Its fully vaccinated rates are far ahead of other, less populous, non-LGAs of concern such as Randwick (63.4%) and Sydney (58.4%).

What’s more, at An Restaurant, all staff are fully – and voluntarily – vaccinated. Waitstaff, runners, kitchen hands and chefs are aged from 16 through to their 70s, come from a predominantly Vietnamese background, and hear stories from Vietnam where supply shortages have stymied the vaccination roll-out in the one-party state.

“The mentality was, why wouldn’t we get it done? They’ve seen how difficult it is in Vietnam to get vaccinated, and especially for our front-of-house staff, they just want to be protected for themselves and their families,” says Phan.

And despite the lack of clarity regarding vaccination passports, she maintains An Restaurant staff have done everything in their power to ensure the safety of patrons and workers, including reducing dining room capacity from 230 to 50 to comply with the four square-metre rule, and wearing masks and gloves during service.

“An Restaurant has a duty of care not only to our staff but to our customers as well,” she says. “We’re going to do as much as we can to ensure they’re not only enjoying their food, but are doing so safely.”

In Chinatown, however, Alan Chu is being “cautiously optimistic” about reopening. Today at his Taiwanese eatery Mother Chu’s, he’ll only put out a few tables for customers to dine in. He’s looking to Singapore, where despite an 80 per cent vaccination rate, the south-east Asian country recorded its highest daily infection numbers since August 2020. It’s since reintroduced some restrictions, and reduced dining groups in restaurants from five to two people.

“It’s something we have to decide day by day. We have an idea we’ll slowly open more of the restaurant, but at the same time we have to see what the current situation is, because lockdown could happen again,” says Chu.

Alan Chu’s parents, the late Paul Chu, and his mother Aileen Chu, at the 1995 opening of Mother Chu’s in Sydney’s Chinatown.

(Photo: Supplied)

Mother Chu’s has operated at its current site on Chinatown’s Dixon Street for 26 years. It’s built a loyal following for its Taiwanese breakfasts, where families, elders, and students flock for yutiao (fried doughnuts) and shallot pancakes. A large cross-section of its customer base are from non-English speaking backgrounds, visa-holders who don’t have Medicare, and elders unfamiliar with technology – in short, demographic groups that face challenges accessing online vaccine credentials.

“Just think of an elderly Chinese grandpa or grandpa. How do they access their digital vaccination certificates?” says Chu. “They’ve had difficulty getting their Dine & Discover vouchers.”

Culturally and linguistically diverse members of the community have overcome language barriers and poorly translated information about Australia’s vaccine rollout to get vaccinated. But they’re once again being left behind in efforts to return to a pre-COVID normal.

“​​Australia’s a multicultural country, and a large majority of our population aren’t from English-speaking backgrounds. We pride ourselves on being open and accepting of all races, so when something like this occurs it’s unfathomable,” says Chu.

The numbers tell how much the Chinatown restaurant has suffered in the past few months. Pre-pandemic, Mother Chu’s would churn through a 25-kilogram bag of soy beans every two days to produce its signature house-made soy milk. Nowadays, they’re lucky to use up the whole bag of beans in a week.

Then there’s the staffing metric. Most of the restaurant’s 15 staff, mainly students from Taiwan and China, had to return home, and are unable to travel back to Australia. Mother Chu’s is now staffed by just four workers, including Chu himself. It’s another reason he won’t fully open the dining room: there are simply not enough bodies to staff the floor.

It’s the same double-bind that José Alkon finds himself in. He’s submitted a local council application for an extra 30 outdoor seats to service Pepito’s, his Peruvian taberna (restaurant and bar) in Marrickville.

Masked-up front-of-house staff at Pepito’s in Marrickville.

(Photo: Supplied)

More bums on seats equals a more financially viable COVID-safe restaurant model, but there’s an industry-wide staff shortage borne from closed international and interstate borders, and – more critically – workers who’ve left an industry notorious for its stagnant pay and poor conditions. “A lot of people in the industry are burnt out and are perhaps not wanting to return,” says Alkon.

But at Pepito’s, he’s retained all his staff throughout the past three months of takeaway. In fact, just before lockdown, the venue was due to celebrate its first birthday. The eatery is set to reopen on Thursday.

“Everyone is so excited and pumped to give some customer service,” he says. The smiles may be hidden behind masks, but in this day and age of living with COVID, a smize is as good as a smile.

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