Restaurant News

The first of June marks a strange new beginning for these restaurant operators

The industry that’s been forced to its knees is getting back on its feet, and fortified with a resolve that's a hallmark of the sector.

By Yvonne C Lam
The bar at The Everleigh, Melbourne.
As a date, 1 June, 2020 will not go down in history in Australia. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country's death rate has, for the past few weeks, hovered around the 100 mark, a remarkable statistic for a population of 25 million. It's the tenth week of a nation-wide lockdown, and its intended health consequences – flattening the curve – have appeared to work.
But for many restaurant operators, 1 June marks a strange new beginning. As restrictions progressively ease around the country, as of today, restaurants, cafés, bars and pubs can seat 20 diners in Queensland, 50 in New South Wales and 80 (80!) in South Australia. For the first time since 23 March, Victorian restaurants will be allowed to welcome up to 20 patrons into their dining rooms.
The owners and chefs are under no illusion that venues will operate like in pre-COVID times. The tape measure has almost found its place in chefs' knife rolls as they dutifully measure the required 1.5 metre spacing between tables. But the more extreme regulations as portended by industry bodies – disposable cutlery, Perspex shields – have not come to pass.
Hospitality, by its very purpose of feeding, entertaining and welcoming guests, is the best-placed industry to help transition society to a life that more closely resembles normality.
But something's shifted. The restaurants that reopen this week know their value and worth in the community. They've fought hard to ensure the survival of their businesses and the people they employ. The industry that's been forced to its knees is getting back on its feet, and fortified with a resolve that's a hallmark of the sector.
Inside The Everleigh, Melbourne. Photo: Supplied
It takes an enormous amount of energy and money to shut down a venue. It's not just a matter of turning out the lights; there's administration to take care of for stood-down staff, deliveries to pause, rent to negotiate. "What people don't realise is while everyone was shut down, the meters were still running with so many aspects of the business," says Michael Madrusan. Together with his wife, Zara, he runs Made In The Shade, a collective of Melbourne bars and pubs including The Everleigh, Bar Margaux and Heartbreaker.
"We're still paying 50 per cent of our rent, which is pretty crazy," says Madrusan. The past few weeks, he says, have been the loneliest time for venue operators.
Today, Victoria enters stage two of its easing of lockdown restrictions. It's the last state to permit dining in restaurants, cafés and pubs, with a limit of 20 patrons at a time, and a maximum of six diners per table. In pre-COVID times, Fitzroy cocktail bar The Everleigh would be crowded with patrons seven days a week, but the Madrusans have decided to open from Thursday to Saturday only, starting this Thursday, 4 June. It's a practical decision; it's also one that's borne from a confronting reality. "We lost quite a few staff. There's no money to pay everyone," says Madrusan. "We don't have enough of our team to run seven days a week like we used to."

"Like we used to." The past-tense form creeps into numerous conversations with chefs and owners. For Madrusan, thirsty punters used to walk in off Gertrude Street, pull up a stool at the bar and order a cocktail. To comply with Victorian guidelines, when The Everleigh opens, patrons can only order an alcoholic beverage with a meal, not just "snacks". Bar seating is out, tables are 1.5 metres apart, and the dining space must allow four square metres per person. The Everleigh will only accept bookings, with prepayment required for the $65-per-person set menu. "Those stragglers who want to grab a Manhattan at the bar aren't going to be able to do that," says Madrusan. "That's what makes me the saddest."
As the last state to welcome back diners, Victorian operators have kept an eye on venue reopenings around the country, and they're alarmed by the stories of no-shows and last-minute cancellations by their interstate counterparts. Sáng By Mabasa in Sydney's Surry Hills reported two cancellations in one night by the same customer. At Yan in Wolli Creek, a booking for five turned up with four diners. Further compounding the situation was that the diners were all nurses. "In normal circumstances, that's ok. But any small change like that, people should make restaurant operators aware, because one person out of 10 diners is 10 per cent of your business that night," says Yan owner Narada Kudinar.
Omnia in Melbourne's South Yarra isn't taking any risks. For the first time, the bistro is introducing an $80 cancellation fee for no-shows or cancellations less than 24 hours before the booking time. "We didn't have that in place before because we always had a waiting list and walk-ins. But now that's gone, we just can't take the chance," says executive chef Stephen Nairn.
Sydney's Firedoor is going the next level, implementing a 72-hour cancellation policy to cover the full cost of the $120 set menu for those who don't honour their reservations. "No-shows have long been a nightmare for restaurants, but with reduced numbers, it's a question of survival," says head chef Lennox Hastie. "The margins are so thin, it only takes a few no-shows to make the business unsustainable."
Omnia executive chef Steve Nairn. Photo: James Morgan
Weariness may be the feeling that described the industry in late March, when businesses were told to buckle down for six months of restrictions. But that's given way to wariness and, dare they feel it, a little hope. Before they can welcome diners, restaurant operators are bringing back staff stood-down during the health crisis.
In the lead up to opening, Madrusan faces the daunting task of re-schooling staff in the art of service in line with strict hygiene practices. He has a rigorous week ahead of mock service trials, and sifting through the 33 pages of the Victorian governments' hospitality industry guidelines in the age of coronavirus. "But look, we had the team back in and training as of [Friday], and that was really, really positive to see. Some of these kids have been in isolation for at least two months and just seeing their faces, and just being around," – he lets out an incredulous chuckle – "human beings and people – it was crazy."
As restrictions lift, Jake Smyth, co-owner of the Mary's Group, has been personally calling staff to ask if they're available and willing to return to work. When New South Wales allowed 10 diners in restaurants on 14 May, three of his venues reopened, and there was a clear boost in trade. From today, under further easing of restrictions in New South Wales and Victoria, he'll reopen larger format venues, Mary's Underground and The Lansdowne in Sydney, and Mary's Melbourne. Business will lift further, Smyth predicts, but he's more buoyed by the prospect of welcoming back staff to the fold.
"The difference between JobSeeker and JobKeeper [payments] is not enough for people to be thrilled at [staying at home]. They're thrilled at coming back to work. They're thrilled to have a purpose. They're thrilled at having a reason to get out of bed and brush their teeth and get dressed and look their goddamn best," says Smyth. "We're getting there. We're a long way from good, but we're actually, in a way, great."
Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth, co-owners of the Mary's Group. Photo: Supplied
Remarkably, Yan has retained all its staff during the pandemic. Only one worker out of its seven-strong team qualified for JobKeeper payments. The rest agreed to temporary pay-cuts. This, combined with a generous three-month rent-free period granted by the landlord, has allowed Yan to weather the storm so far. "If it wasn't for that, I don't think we could make ends meet. We're just happy to be working," says Kudinar. "It's a really underrated pleasure to pay bills."
In mid-May, the Sydney restaurant opened to 10 diners. This week, they can open to 12. At night, takeaway orders flood through from 5.30pm to 6.30pm (Kudinar says in the early days of lockdown, Uber Eats was its highest paid creditor – the delivery service infamously takes a 35 per cent commission). At 7.30pm, a dozen diners walk through the door for the night's only available sitting. "When you have a half-empty dining room and people are speaking really quietly, you don't get that rush of feeling as you would with a really full restaurant. But I'm still happy, don't get me wrong," says Kudinar.

Tables spaced 1.5 metres apart at Sydney restaurant Yan.
Thus comes the next big challenge for during this lockdown grey-zone: maintaining that special restaurant atmosphere, while ensuring the safety of staff and diners. From 20 May in South Australia, restaurants were allowed to set up to 10 diners inside, and 10 outside. But it's only this week, with venues allowed up to 80 diners, that Adelaide's Africola is reopening. "It's not an easy thing. We don't just open the doors and go, 'Oh, we'll just dust off a couple of menus and it'll be right.' For us, if we're making these changes it has to be schmick, it has to be an awesome time," says chef and owner Duncan Welgemoed.
Simple gestures of hospitality diners once took for granted – having water glasses refilled, a sommelier's tableside chat about wine – are out, as is taking a prized seat at the counter that rings Africola's open kitchen. The customer service elements that remain will be intensified. "For us, it's about making this experience even more so, so people forget about the fucking pandemic but also have a really, really good time, and for us to be absolutely responsible in the delivery of service and food," says Welgemoed.
Duncan Welgemoed chef and owner of Africola, Adelaide. Photo: Simon Bajada
"We call it organised chaos," says Smyth. Behind the Mary's brand of tattooed waiters and Slayer-blasting playlist is a team drilled in high standards of service. "We've got to run a tight fucking ship off the level of chaos we achieve at our venues. That's the reality, otherwise it's not chaotic, it's not lively, it's not rambunctious. It's just shit."
For Omnia's Nairn, the business of hospitality is now a two-way street. "If you come in wanting to have a good time, I'm going to give you the best meal of your life. If you come in and you're closed up and I've got to unravel you, and you're going to rip me apart for what's not right…"
The restaurant is in the midst of a deep clean before opening, tables will be alternated between dinner sittings, and the kitchen has been reconfigured so that chefs are placed 1.5 metres apart. That being said, bookings are only taken via phone and email in order to create a personal connection with diners even before they step in the restaurant, and his sous chef has compiled a restaurant-friendly playlist too: Paul Kelly for lunch, uptempo Motown for dinner. "We're going to ensure we create a buzz, but we'll do so safely."

The dining room at Mary's Newtown.
Just because they can reopen, it doesn't mean all restaurants will. In the Federal Government's three-step framework for easing restrictions, the four-square-metre rule for hospitality venues is a constant. Even when restrictions allow up to 100 diners, smaller-sized restaurants will be hampered by their floorspace.
In pre-COVID-19 times, Anchovy in Melbourne's Richmond could seat 35 people. Under today's relaxations, they can only accommodate eight. For chef and co-owner Thi Le, it's simply not viable to reopen as a restaurant proper.
After running Anchovy for five years, lockdown has forced Le to explore new directions for the business. "When we closed I said to [partner and co-owner Jia-Yen Lee] : 'We shouldn't treat this situation as if we're fighting against COVID. We should treat this as if we're opening a new restaurant and do something fun and exciting.'" Anchovy, the coronavirus edition, exists as a pick-up spot for khao jee pâté [Laotian baguettes stuffed with sausage, green papaya and herbs] and Laotian take-home meals, and Le couldn't be happier.
"Right now, I'm actually enjoying putting things in sandwiches, making sausages and cooking suckling pig. I'm doing things I wanted to do five to six years ago, but didn't have the confidence to do." Plus, without all that restaurant window-dressing – heating, air conditioning, glass washers – they've halved their electricity bills.

Anchovy's Thi Le with Laotian sausages.
Chef and restaurateur Jerry Mai is taking a wait-and-see approach. While the Victorian government has been – fairly or unfairly – criticised for being too stringent with its restrictions, Mai is grateful that they waited until June to allow restaurants to open to 20 diners. It would have been impossible to operate with just 10 diners. "You'd have to really flick those tables, and make people spend $100 a head to make any money. And coming out of a pandemic, I don't imagine many people will have $100-plus a head to spend for dinner," says Mai. The reopening of her Vietnamese restaurant Bia Hoi this Wednesday is the litmus test. Its location in a Glen Waverley shopping centre means there's high pedestrian-traffic, with potential diners flitting between retail shops and supermarkets. Annam and Pho Nom, two other restaurants in her portfolio, are trickier – both are in the Melbourne CBD, which has fallen quiet during the pandemic.
The entrance to Annam in Melbourne's CBD. Photo: Sarah Anderson
The restaurant industry has been the most visible economic victim of COVID-19. It's too early to predict how, or how many, businesses will emerge from the crisis. But here's the rub – rarely does one enter the industry to make a buck. "This pandemic was a really eye-opening experience for me. It really made me think, 'Why am I in hospitality? Why am I doing this? I should become a plumber because I'd make more money'," says Mai. "I've been trying to get out of this industry for a long time, especially in my youth, but it just drew me back."
Those who do it for love rather than profit have the most to lose, and they'll do anything to ensure their survival in the new world order. "We've offered flexibility to the customers all the time, and it's been dining on their terms for a large extent. Now as operators we need to protect ourselves a little bit more, and that goes with charging people no-show fees, things like that," says Welgemoed. "For restaurants to be the majority of entertainment for people nowadays, we have to have those assurances or else the show can't go on."
And for operators, the battle, tough as it is, is worth it. In Victoria, 20 diners might not sound like much, but it's more than zero. "We just need to remember that this week is better than last week, and if that's any kind of sign, things are definitely looking up," says Madrusan. He says diners need to show kindness and empathy if they choose to dine out this week, and into the future. Do: turn up for your booking. Don't: leave a one-star review on Zomato. "People need to understand the hospitality industry has been through the ringer and tested to the limit. If there's an opportunity to drink and eat at your favourite venue, it's good to remember they fought to be there," he says. "That's something the consumer needs to remember – that it wasn't easy."