If COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, then the hospitality industry has been breathlessly trying to keep up with the fallout it's caused. The regulations governing which, when, and how venues could open changed at a clip. Some restaurants quickly "pivoted" (a term once reserved for netball matches has now been applied industry-wide) to takeaway and home-delivery. Others, overwhelmed by the daily-changing state of play called for a time-out with the promise of a return someday, some way, somehow.
After a few weeks' pause, more restaurants have hit the play button. They're (re)opening, tentatively, a little apprehensively perhaps, but happily.
"Of course I'm glad. It's nice to be back in the kitchen and to have staff here again – they all want to be working," says O Tama Carey, chef-owner of Sydney's Lankan Filling Station.
Watch: In Service with O Tama Carey, Lankan Filling Station
Carey made the call to temporarily close on 24 March, the day after the Federal Government's late-night announcement that all restaurants would be restricted to takeaway. "The rules kept changing day by day. It was really hard to manage, and then we were finally locked down, it was all a bit overwhelming," she says. Closing the doors was an act of self-preservation, an opportunity to take stock of the rapidly changing crisis and plot a sustainable strategy for survival.
"My partner Mat [Lindsay, chef-owner of Poly and Ester] and I were going through the same thing. We were running three restaurants between us, but we didn't know how long, or whether, we'd be able to open," she says.
The restaurant is open for business with a takeaway menu containing a familiar roster of Sri Lankan curries, sambols and rice from its pre-COVID-19 days. "We're lucky because our food is seemingly easy to translate to takeaway," says Carey. "We're just putting it in different containers." She's not changing the core product, just its execution. (The signature hoppers are the only exception - the delicate bowl-shaped crepes do not cope with the vagaries of travel.) The restaurant's curry powders, sambols, teas and pre-packaged meals are also available.
She's trying to stay upbeat, but there's a lingering doubt over whether this new model will work. How much food should they prepare? Will the ordering system hold up? Will there be customers waiting with their wallets open? "There's a lot of unknown in my life at the moment," says Carey. "I hope we will survive. It depends what day you ask me."
Chef Brent Savage has reopened not one, but four restaurants under his watch. Bentley Restaurant & Bar, Monopole, Yellow and Cirrus have launched their at-home menus to be picked up from Yellow in Potts Point, or delivered to addresses within a six kilometre range of the suburb."Bentley Group at Home has been born out of the necessity of not only trying to keep our business going but keeping our team busy, motivated and engaged while the restaurants can't operate as normal," said Savage in a statement.
Over in Melbourne's CBD, Victor Liong is on the second-stage evolution of his restaurant Lee Ho Fook. Stage one was adapting the smart Cantonese menu to casual, home-style dishes that were suitable for takeaway. He tried that for three weeks while dealing with suppliers who'd stopped delivering produce, negotiating the commercial rent with his landlord, and a dwindling customer base as work-from-home directives from employees and the government stuck. Then: "We had to stop," says Liong. "I was burning through cash."
He closed the restaurant at the end of March. "I was super-depressed a week ago, eating cold pizza for breakfast and not getting out of bed," says Liong. But successful rent- and bank-loan negotiations, and the announcement of the JobKeeper payment, established favourable conditions for a reopening.
Stage two is Lee Ho Fook's take-home packs: a set of three meals, with two-courses per meal, to serve two people, for pick-up or home-delivery. The price? $120. It's very good value for the customer, and Liong isn't getting rich from this new endeavour. "I'm not cheapening the product," he says. "It only works because we're not staring at a huge rent bill or loan repayment commitment right now. That's the trade off."
And the new arrangement has its logistical challenges."We've turned into some weird Chinese Jenny Craig. I'm not set up to do batch-cooking: everything takes up so much space, my cool room is tiny," says Liong. "But you have to adapt, adjust and think of food that you can reheat and pack in components." He's learnt how to set up an online ordering system in the past four days. "That part is fun. It feels like you're opening a business again."
A couple of blocks away, wine-bar-restaurant Embla is doing the same. Chef and co-owner Dave Verheul is restarting the wood-fire oven for his take-home packs. This weekend's menu revolves around a roast chicken with sides and dessert; wine and sourdough are classy optional extras. "It's loosely pitched around our usual Sunday lunch menu. Three courses, rustic, a bit of value in there. It's big, delicious flavours."
Like Carey, the new arrangements mean Verheul and Liong can keep staff employed. Lee Ho Fook's full-time kitchen and front-of-house staff have returned, as well as the handful of workers who are on student or bridging visas and therefore don't qualify for the JobKeeper scheme. "If we can get this ticking over, I can keep them in work," says Liong. "It's way easier to have an engine that's idling than trying to cold-start the machine in three months' time."
Idling, pausing, taking a break. These terms all speak to the temporariness of the situation. These restaurants are the comeback kids, though the kids have had a costume change.
"[Reopening] was always the end goal. We've put too much money, sweat and tears into this place to press stop," says Verheul. He's popped into the empty bar a few times to check in on things. "Embla's been so busy for almost five years now, open seven days a week. To have it so dark and quiet doesn't suit her," he says. But this weekend, he'll step through the door with renewed purpose: to enter the kitchen, put on the apron, and light the wood-fire oven again. "That's what we do: we feed people. And make them happy."