Restaurant News

“I’ve been closed twice as long as I’ve been open”

For Melbourne restaurateurs following the roadmap to Victoria’s new COVID normal, waiting for the city's reopening is one form of pain; the yawning chasm of uncertainty that stretches ahead is another.

By Yvonne C Lam
Lee Ho Fook chef-owner Victor Liong.
For Melbourne restaurateurs and chefs, one sobering fact cuts through the haze of lockdown: for 2020, they've been closed longer than they've been open.
On Sunday the Victorian government released its five-step roadmap to guide the beleaguered state out of stage-four restrictions, and towards a new "COVID normal".
The gradual easing of restrictions depends on a decrease in new cases. For the hospitality industry, the next date of note is October 26. By then, if the daily average is just five COVID-19 cases, cafés, restaurants and bars can reopen to dine-in customers, albeit at outdoor seating only, and with density limits in place.
By November 23, if there have been no new cases across Victoria for the two weeks prior, up to 50 diners will be allowed to dine inside.
Melbourne restaurateurs and chefs understand the public health measures are necessary to suppress the virus, but having been in and out of lockdown since March the latest news is still a bitter pill to swallow. They're enduring the fifth week of stage-four restrictions, where trade is restricted to takeaway only and prospective customers are limited to a five-kilometre radius.
Late November, when restaurants will start to have some semblance of those around Australia, seems a long, long way away.
"I'm taking it on a day-by day basis," says Victor Liong, chef-owner of Lee Ho Fook. "I feel like I'm suffering through a quiet trauma here."
Like his city compatriots, it's been a long time since Liong served a room full of diners. "Except for those four weeks [in June when] we could open for 20 people, I haven't cooked for a full restaurant since 23 March.
"I've been closed twice as long as I've been open."
There's a gnawing sense of uncertainty of what lies ahead. Liong has been playing with numbers and figures, and war-gaming various scenarios to predict the future of his restaurant. Takeaway is keeping his staff employed at least, but it's not a sustainable business model.
"It's only a very small handful of businesses that have the cash reserves to weather through this much inactivity. And hospitality businesses are definitely not one of them," he says.
Opening in late October, as per the Victorian government's plan, is the best-case scenario. November 26 is a trickier situation, as it only gives restaurants four weeks to restart their operations before closing again for the Christmas shutdown period.
It's hard to say what will happen in January, traditionally a quiet month for the hospitality industry. "What if the dining public are still quite cautious and conservative?"
Most of all, it's the waiting that eats away at his conscience and confidence the most.
"All of these markers of hope still feel so far away," says Liong. He's unsure whether Lee Ho Fook will make it to November.

Just last week, a staff member at Babajan in Carlton North tested positive for COVID-19. The premises have been deep-cleaned, and all other staff members have since returned negative test results. The community relayed messages of support, and before long, returned for the eatery's böreks and simits. "I was surprised how quickly it went back to normal," says chef-owner Kirsty Chiaplias.
But despite that "insane" day of dealing with state health authorities, Chiaplias says it's not the worst thing to happen this year.
No, the worst thing about 2020 is the protracted erosion of an industry that thrives on human interaction. It's the hospitality industry by name, but not nature. Just before stage-four restrictions came into effect in August, Chaiplias recalibrated her tiny eatery to an entirely takeaway model, installing a large retail shelf and a longer counter to display her baked goods. Customer interactions are kept brief – they order, they pay, they leave. "It doesn't feel like hospitality at the moment."
Just before Melbourne's stage-four restriction came into effect in August, Kirsty Chaiplias converted her eatery into a takeaway-only space. Photo: Arianna Leggiero
She is, however, pinning her hopes on the introduction of outdoor seating in October. "I'd love to have people sit outside with a coffee or a glass of wine. To put food on a plate would be something."
Chiaplias has held onto the dining seats and tables that kitted out her once-bustling dining room. When a staff member offered to buy the unused chairs, she declined. Letting go of the restaurant she had envisioned in pre-COVID times was too much to bear. "I've still got all my furniture. It's an emotional thing for me."
At Brother Bon, chairs are stacked at the back of the Northcote restaurant; twenty of these chairs were briefly brought out on 1 June during that window of reprieve.
"Now it just looks sad. People walk past and they see an empty dining room," says James Pham, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother William, and mother Long Nguyen.
Like Liong, he says their restaurant isn't made for takeaway. JobKeeper is keeping the business afloat for now, as is the rent reduction they've secured from their landlord. It's a waiting game for late November to pass. The future, Pham says, "is all question marks".
Brothers William and James Pham co-own Brother Bon, a vegan Vietnamese restaurant in Northcote, with their mother Long Nguyen. Photo: Hieu Nguyen
Despite yo-yoing in and out of lockdown, those in Melbourne's hospitality industry are doing their best to stay positive. In the face of ever-changing regulations, it's perhaps all they can do.
"I'm a true optimist. You've got to try and when it doesn't work, you try something else," says Nornie Bero.
Her Yarraville restaurant Mabu Mabu opened in October last year, and it operated as a proper restaurant for just five months. Since then, she's turned her kitchen into a semi-production factory, where she and her team produce a line of food retail products including dried native spice blends and tomato sauce laced with bush tomato.
In addition, she's also been running online damper-making workshops – sometimes up to four classes a day – to help keep the lights on. Nero grew up on Murray Island in the Torres Strait where damper is a staple food. During the pandemic, the bread that fed and nourished her during childhood has saved her business.

Nornie Bero is confident she'll make it to October. Such is her positivity that she's convinced the advent of outdoor seating will create a "street party" vibe – albeit a socially distanced one – outside her restaurant.
(She does, however, question how restaurants will navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of getting approval for outdoor seating. "You have to deal with submitting letters and recommendations – it's not just easy to 'do' outdoor dining," she says.)
Then there's another larger, sobering realisation. Lockdown was – is – swift and merciless. Melbourne businesses and the broader community had just four hours' notice when stage-four restrictions were imposed on 2 August.
But the reverse is true for the healing process. There is no silver bullet to fixing the damage wrought upon Melbourne's dining scene. Optimism, it seems, is the only salvation for the city that has endured Australia's toughest operating restrictions for the longest amount of time.
"A vaccine would be nice. So would a time machine. The hard part is knowing the solution is not going to be swift nor immediate," says Liong. "All you can do is stay positive."