Restaurant News

Melbourne’s stage-four restrictions mean restaurant operators are walking a fine line between hope and sobering reality

“The optimist inside me says people will be running through our doors in three months. The reality is the city might not pick up in the new year.”

By Yvonne C Lam
Chef-owner Jerry Mai in the kitchen at Annam.
Since July, recorded cases of COVID-19 in Victoria have surged in the triple digits with each passing day. For many Melbourne restaurant operators, there was only one possible outcome to the madness: stage-four restrictions.
Stage four didn't even feature on the Federal Government's colour-coded COVID-safe roadmap back in May, but it's certainly been on Jerry Mai's plan for the past week.
For the chef-owner of Vietnamese restaurants Annam, Bia Hoi and Pho Nom, it was a question of not if, but when Premier Daniel Andrews would announce a further tightening of restrictions on the Victorian capital.
"I think Sunday brought a sense of relief but also sadness," says Mai. "I got quite choked up when it actually happened."
Mai has decided to temporarily close all her restaurants while stage four runs its course. Four of her five venues are located in the Melbourne CBD, a ghost town since office workers have been told to stay at home.
"Because the construction industry has decreased so much, the city will be even emptier than normal, and a lot of our customers are saying they've moved their offices home now," says Mai. "It's also for the safety of our staff to go into hibernation again and see what happens on the other side."
She's thankful for JobKeeper but says the wage subsidy payments are propping up a "false economy". "If I'm making $4000 to 5000 a week in a venue that should be making four times that much, how am I supposed to pay rent? At some stage we'll have to, and how do I do that? Our bank accounts have been depleted."
The current restrictions means Mai is on the brink of making some very tough decisions. One, or some, of her restaurants may need to be sacrificed to save the others. "We're looking at our venues and thinking what can we get rid of to come out of the other side with a stronger business?"
Then there's an even more sobering reality. If stage-four restrictions don't ease the state's infection rate, Mai predicts the restaurant industry will be in limbo until the end of the year. "It'll be an easy decision by then. We close everything down. We wind everything up."
She hasn't had a proper night's sleep since March. Like many Melbourne restaurateurs, in the past few months she's weathered a nationwide lockdown, allowed herself to hope, just a little, as Victorian restaurants opened up to 20 diners in June, then watched with dread as stage-three restrictions were reinstated across Melbourne in July.
August's stage four has wrung her dry. "I spent all this time building these venues, brands and food. And in a pandemic that no one expected to happen, I could lose it all."

For smaller restaurants, stage four means business-as-COVID-usual. Wine bar Napier Quarter has run a shop selling groceries, deli goods and wine in addition to its takeaway service. Melbourne residents may be limited to travel within five kilometres of their homes, but the Fitzroy venue's customer base is mainly local anyway.
"We have people who live in the neighbourhood who are here every day to get produce or a coffee. It's always been about our local community," says head chef Eileen Horsnell.
Mister Bianco in Kew will actually increase its takeaway and delivery trade from five to six days a week while adhering to the 8pm curfew.
"I think it will just flow on from what we have been doing now as it has become our new normal," says chef-owner Joey Vargetto.
For Horsnell, the tightening of restrictions has given her the luxury of time and the opportunity to reassess the next evolution of Napier Quarter. "When you're running a restaurant you're running full speed ahead. We're taking this time to look at the details – what excites us? What do we love? – [so] when we reopen, we're going to do it the way we want."
She says lockdown has made her even more determined to support local growers and producers from Victoria. Imported cheese are out; brie from Mortlake's L'Artisan, blue from Gippsland's Berry's Creek and a washed-rind from Holy Goat in Sutton Grange are in.
Still, nothing can replace the rush of a proper dinner service. In pre-COVID times Horsnell worked shoulder to shoulder with a fellow chef in the Napier Quarter kitchen which measures three square-metres. They would sometimes strain to hear each other over the noise of the packed dining room. "Now you can only get one person in at a time," she says.
Head chef Eileen Horsnell in the three-square-metre kitchen at Napier Quarter. Photo: Mark Roper
Mai doesn't mean to sound cynical. She concedes some will thrive on the time and space that lockdown affords. The legacy businesses, or the small one-restaurant operators, will come out of stage four with fewer scars.
"I'm optimistic but I have to look at reality. Reality and optimism are very separate things. The optimist inside me says people will be running through our doors in three months. The reality is the city might not pick up in the new year," she says.
For Horsnell it's a matter of taking each day as it comes, fortified by the knowledge the city's restaurant industry is in it together. There's sandwiches and take-home meals to make, charcuterie and cheese to source and sell. "It takes a toll, not doing what you used to be doing. But at the same time, all the other restaurants [in Melbourne] are in the same boat," she says.
Stage-four restrictions are set to last for at least six weeks. Sunday 13 September is the end date – fingers crossed – if the state's coronavirus numbers go down.
"The best thing right now is to stay positive. That's what we're looking to," says Horsnell. "We're looking forward to spring."