Winter of discomfort

There is an ancient curse that goes “may you live in interesting times.” Well, recent life has certainly been interesting and constantly challenging. This winter, we have seen so much change brought about by the coronavirus with re-openings, then closures and lockdowns again in some parts of the nation. We wanted to know how people in hospitality across the country were faring as the impacts of the second wave of COVID-19 threatening parts of Australia start to hit. We spoke to a lot of people in cafés, bars, pubs, clubs and other hospitality businesses. What united them all was their strength, creativity and ability to rise to the occasion. Here are just a few of their stories. 

Ryan Wheatland is managing director and co-owner of the historic Bush Inn Hotel in Hawksburn in Melbourne. At the beginning of the year, he had a dining room upstairs, a bar at the front and a sports bar out the back. Things changed. His business, like all in greater Melbourne and Mitchell Shire, has been under stage three restrictions since 9 July. Last week, Ryan cancelled his contract with TAB and pulled the giant TVs that screened UFC fights and attracted big crowds. Locked down and forced to lock the door, Ryan is turning the gold rush era pub into a food venue with bistro, bar and white tablecloth dining areas. 

“When the second lockdown came in July, we were trading and our figures were getting good again. Now it is one foot in front of the other. This has always been a community pub where many generations would come together and enjoy a drink. Everybody knew each other. Now we are heading into the unknown. We don’t know if we can get back to that traditional bar model. We don’t know if people will be allowed to mingle again. We don’t know if we will ever go back to that. It is something we will really miss. I have been ripping out gaming equipment and replacing them with dining tables. I feel that we will be needing to seat out clients and have them spaced apart for some time, so we are turning to food. It is something we are good at and we know what we’re doing. Upstairs is smart, with leather upholstered booths, large tables, candles and staff dressed in white shirts. The sports bar is presently being transformed into a bistro and the front bar is decked out with bar tables and high-backed bar stools. We don’t want to be in the business of policing customers, telling them to remain seated, so we will make it easy for everyone to sit down. We are looking forward to looking after the locals, hopefully, sooner rather than later. At present, it is one foot in front of the other.”

Robi Smith is also in Melbourne, in the inner western suburb of Footscray. He is general manager of Up in Smoke, a modern American style BBQ restaurant. This week he is back on the pans cooking takeaway. His restaurant is next to a COVID-19 hotspot that has been under severe lockdown since the beginning of July.

“Can’t plan too hard, can’t overthink it. That’s our motto. We had been busy doing takeaway for the neighbouring suburbs. But, now we are working on streamlining our offer because we will be in lockdown doing takeaway only for some time yet. We have tweaked the menu and concentrated on our favourites. We are perfecting the dishes that not only sell well but also travel well. We focus on real dude food. It is hearty food that is meant to be substantial and wholesome. Think Louisiana ribs, smoked brisket, pork and cheddar, and jalapeño sausages. Luckily for us, we had been developing our takeaway menu for the last year, working with Deliveroo and Uber Eats, building up our profile. We developed dishes like our smoked brisket poutine and our version of a Halal snack pack. When we re-opened after the first lockdown, we cautiously opened with a limited menu and limited stock. We even did an old school letterbox drop with our takeaway menu, and the response was really, really good. Surprising. Going into lockdown 2.0 was easier, business-wise, because we knew what to do. We are surviving, but we would prefer to be kicking goals. We so miss our customers. We miss the regulars.”

Lisa Cavallaro is director and owner of Vine and Grind – a busy, modern café in the Westfield shopping centre in Liverpool in Sydney’s west. Unlike Melbourne, at present Sydney businesses can trade but with government defined restrictions. However, Liverpool is in one of Sydney’s virus hotspots and, sadly for Lisa, foot traffic has declined dramatically. She is making changes and planning for the possibility of the situation changing at any time. 

“People, in general, are very concerned about the virus and they are taking it seriously. People feel scared, but they are being sensible. As far as our customers go, we have enough floor space to space out tables, and people are taking comfort in that.  We have been able to keep 95% of our 64 staff. It is essential to keep our team. Some are on visas and none of them get the benefits of JobKeeper or Seeker. From a business point of view, we invested in training them. To let them go and lose all that training would be devastating for this small business. But to let people go without a safety net is… is… I can’t imagine that.”

“When COVID first hit, we worked out a new system and a new menu. We worked on takeaway, looking to what would travel in a box. We identified popular items, like hot fries, that don’t travel well. We bought in coated chips because they stay hot and crisp for 20 minutes. Foot traffic on some days has dropped to just 10% of average, so we are in product development, preparing to move to takeaway. Since the situation has worsened, we dropped to 10% of foot traffic and were focused on takeaway. We are looking at breakfast and lunchboxes – for time-poor people, for people who usually work in the city but are now staying and working from home. What I notice now is that we are continually adapting and innovating. You can’t say “it’s not my fault” and do nothing. This virus, it is a driving force. You have to be a website developer, programmer. It is easy once you learn how to know to learn. At present, I look south and am thankful we are not in Melbourne. I feel so sorry for my colleagues there. Today, we’re ok. But I don’t know what the rest of the month will bring. As long as the numbers hold.”

Michael Tassis runs of a group of successful and popular Brisbane bars and restaurants. Including Georges ParagonRico Bar and Dining and Massimo. He has been cautiously watching events unfolding south of the border and watching cautiously.

“A few weeks back, even with social distancing, people were more relaxed. But now, whoa, people are practicing social distancing in the extreme and taking the situation seriously. People are asking us about our hygiene and distancing rules. We use codes to keep records and that reassures people. The council is a regular visitor, checking in on us. We are happy with that. We have an excellent safety culture here. People are conscious that we don’t want to be like Melbourne. Four weeks ago, we were confident about moving forward. Today we are optimistic but cautious. We have changed our menu. We now have fewer shared plates and more personal dishes to cut down on the possibility of contagion. Look, we have a solid business, but there has been a drop in numbers. 50% in the city but the suburbs are doing strong. Social distancing means that you can’t work to capacity. Until this virus problem goes away, it is not going to be normal. The next 24 months are going to be a struggle. But we have the energy and the outlook to make a success.”

Take your takeaway, reduced or set menus to new heights with these handy guides! 

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Written by Richard Cornish

29 July 2020

Food writer and author, senior contributor of Bidfood’s appetiser. magazine