Birregurra in Victoria has a population of 828, and a main street called Main Street, lined with a smattering of cafes, a pub, a post office, a general store. A five-minute drive away, in a country cottage that would be described in real-estate parlance as "charming", lies Brae, home to one of the country's best long lunches, and GT's twice-crowned best regional restaurant of the year.
Inside, Dan Hunter is standing in his empty dining room. It's cold. He hasn't cooked for a dine-in customer for weeks. The restaurant's chairs and dining tables, made redundant thanks to government rules dictating the closure of dining rooms, are stacked to the side. Empty boxes are scattered across the floor, waiting to be filled with vegetables from Brae's farm – these produce boxes are the restaurant's main source of financial sustenance. The phone connection crackles occasionally throughout the conversation, but in this instance Hunter's voice comes down the line clear as an alarm bell. "Is this Brae?," he says. "Is this what it is?"
As tends to be the case with the news, media coverage about the deteriorating state of Australia's restaurant industry has been fixed on the cities, those sprawling metropolises of apartment buildings, car parks, bright lights, and other manifestations of high-density living. But for all the industry remodelling to takeaway and take-home packs it's uncertain if government stimulus packages will be enough to save the hospitality industry, even in populated areas.
But what then for regional restaurants, and its chefs with big dreams in small townships? In pre-COVID times, places like Brae milk their worth as destination restaurants, the raison d'ê-trip for holidaymakers rather than mere subjugate pit stops. Asides from the food, wine and service, the very allure of such restaurants is their remoteness. Hunter, a one-time pub dishwasher, rapidly worked his way up to the role of head chef at San Sebastian's Mugaritz, followed by a head-turning stint at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, before settling in Birregurra in 2013. At Brae, he's a triple-threat: head chef of the kitchen, hotelier of its attached boutique hotel, and farmer of its 12-hectare farm where the restaurant's produce is grown, chickens are raised and flour is milled. To dine there requires 290 of your dollars and three hours of your time. A restaurant of this scale, passion and energy takes years to turn into reality – it's not the type of place that "pivots" so easily to takeaway, and Hunter admits that agility, even in the face of crisis, is not his strong suit.
"I've probably realised in these times that I'm not good at bouncing from idea to idea. I'm methodical and slow and considered," says Hunter. "Our project was set up to go for a long time and has been refined over the years. To have this [health crisis] occur – one of the first things I noticed is I'm not particularly good at change overnight."
Tourist low-seasons may be built into regional restaurant business models, global pandemics are not. On March 23, the day the nationwide closure of restaurants took effect, Brae closed to take stock. "We don't have the local population base or drive-past or walk-in traffic to have the sort of business that others in cities can have," says Hunter. "Being a destination restaurant, on a back road in an area that's not particularly inhabited – in this situation you're on the backfoot."
Regional restaurants don't just exist in small towns – they're embedded in tight-knit communities. As Brae made moves towards offering house-made loaves of bread and fresh produce boxes, harvested from its own farm, it advertised exclusively through Birregurra's Facebook group. It was a conscientious, responsible decision, first and foremost. State borders were closing, and Australians were discouraged from travelling outside their local areas in a bid to contain the virus. "We were of the opinion that it wouldn't be considerate to be trying to attract people from outside town to this area," says Hunter. But advertising through the Birregurra Community Notice Board via Facebook was a community-focused decision too. "If we could offer clean, organic grocery pickups from our shed, that would be a good thing for the community, and we thought they would appreciate that," says Hunter.
Facebook is also the saving grace for Pipit. The restaurant is located in Pottsville (population: 6704) in northern New South Wales, just 20 minutes from the Queensland border. "Our diners range from Brisbane to Byron Bay, we get interstate people on holidays," says co-owner Yen Trinh. Husband, chef and co-owner Ben Devlin once led the kitchen at Halcyon House, located the next town over, where the bulk of visitors were from Melbourne. "This area is built on tourism, and that suddenly stopped."
She harnessed the power of social media in a bid to save the restaurant. Like Brae, Pipit's menu is not made for takeaway. She asked the Pottsville Facebook group which cuisine they wanted Pipit to pivot to – Vietnamese, Mexican, or Italian? "Most of the town is on this one Facebook page. It's small," says Trinh. "The whole community is on this page, and you can just ask them stuff. [...] I just don't think in a bigger city I would have thought about that."
There's a paradox about regional restaurants. They rely on the patronage of outsiders, but the advantage of being far from the madding crowd is that they're closer with their local producers and people. For Pipit, the connection with the community means it's become more approachable than ever to locals. Now they're doing boutique produce boxes, heat-at-home Vietnamese meals of pho and vermicelli salad, and takeaway banh mi [Vietnamese-style sandwiches]. "Because we were at a certain price point, there was a portion of the population that didn't think Pipit was accessible to them," says Trinh. "Now it's a $12 banh mi compared to an $85 set menu," she says.
If you're wondering why Aaron Fenwick has a sunny outlook, just look to the name of his restaurant, The Summertown Aristologist. The restaurant, located in Summertown in the Adelaide Hills (population: 392), is using the current crisis as an opportunity to stop and think. Like Brae, they have a bountiful farm at their disposal, just a 10 minutes' drive from the restaurant. Fenwick, who co-owns the restaurant with Anton von Klopper and Jasper Button, is highly enthused about their current crop of spaghetti squash. "You can roast whole, and scrape the flesh out and it just turns into these amazing strands like spaghetti, and just mix it through with butter, salt and pepper. Pretty cool." Bulbs of celeriac and kohlrabi and bushy shrubs of kale and sprouting broccoli, once destined for the restaurant kitchen, are being picked and packaged for customers. They've installed a bread oven to ramp up their sourdough bread production.
Tellingly, The Summertown Aristologist's Instagram description has changed from "restaurant" to "shopping and retail", and it will operate as such for the following months out of necessity. The small brigade of chefs and front of house staff have turned into bakers and assistant gardeners – it's a means to keep staff employed. "But we don't endeavour to be a shop. We want to be a restaurant," says Fenwick. "We might change the concept again because this has been an amazing reset button and allowed us to think about what we want to do, and how we want to do it."
He says The Summertown Aristologist anticipated the current industry upheaval. The early days of the pandemic and its effect on the industry were filled with question marks and uncertainty, but above the noise Fenwick made an important realisation: "No-one's going to fucking come and get smoked tomato with crab broth for takeaway." He's upbeat, buoyed by community support from the Hills, and his team's collective positivity that's anchored by farm dirt, grit and determination. "If we're going to die, we've got to die trying. Let's hustle as much as we need to survive."
That's the big question – survival. Squeezed after a cheery Instagram post in March, pre-lockdown, about Pipit's care packages (bread, cheese, pickles and preserves), Yen Trinh dipped her toe in the Great Cost Debate. "In this downturn, let's also talk numbers to help put this in perspective too," she wrote. "14 packs offsets 4 tables (9.2 people) which went empty this week. 14 packs is 1 week of 1 chef's payroll including super." It's a confronting reminder of the realities of running a restaurant, least of all a high-end one in a regional area. "Emotionally I go up and down, but I'm generally positive. I think the next six months relies on government packages. After that, it's a bit dire."
Hunter, too, is circumspect about Brae. "We've been trading to some degree with the local community and it's all well and good. But our project – no one's is – isn't set up to produce 30 produce boxes and 25 take-home packs." The JobKeeper scheme means Hunter has been able to re-hire most of his full-time and permanent part-time staff, and he's secured some rent relief for the premises. Still, he estimates the restaurant's outgoings are $40,000-50,000 a month, even though it's closed.
Hunter has caught wind about the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association's latest proposal which outlines how restaurants could reopen under a raft of new sanitary measures: disposable cutlery, laminated menus, physical barriers between tables. Some call it a pivot, but for Brae it's the kind of screeching U-turn that undoes years of linen-draped tables, polished service and high-detail dégustations. "It's heartbreaking to think of restaurants like us where the new normal is disposable cutlery and guards between people," he says. "That's not what we do."
For Trinh, the market conditions are just not right to reopen Pipit in its truest form. "Even if they lift restrictions tomorrow, we're not ready to jump back into dining. [...] We can't be running a $120 a head set menu when everyone's lost their jobs." She says it could take up to four years for the restaurant to recover from the current crisis. Pipit is due to celebrate its first birthday on Sunday 10 May.
Over the years, Dan Hunter has developed Brae to match the warm embrace of the town he now calls home. "Restaurants like ours probably couldn't succeed in every town in Australia," he says. On this cold morning in 2020, he recalls another grey day when he first moved to Birregurra. It was mid-winter 2013 and the town's Main Street, beset by 20 days of rain, was wet and miserable. "I was like: shit, what are we doing here?" An elderly woman tapped him on the shoulder – she recognised him as the new buyer of the former Sunnybrae restaurant. Hunter braced himself for a lashing. "But she just looked me in the eye and said: we're so glad you came to this town," he says. "That's pretty much been the vibe here ever since."