Customer numbers drop at Sydney restaurants as people 'freak out'

Diners outdoors at Kepos Street Kitchen in Redfern.
Diners outdoors at Kepos Street Kitchen in Redfern. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Michael Rantissi is annoyed. The owner of Kepos Street Kitchen in Redfern has just received another call from a customer to cancel their reservation.

"This one was a group of 10 and they only notified me two hours before they were due to arrive," he says. "With social distancing and the four-square-metre rule, that's pretty much half our dining room capacity."

Rantissi says the customer didn't provide an explanation for the cancellation but suspects it was because people are "freaked out" by the increasing number of coronavirus cases over the past fortnight at restaurants such as Thai Rock and The Apollo in Potts Point.

Michael Rantissi would prefer customers to call to ask what hygiene measures the restaurant has in place before ...
Michael Rantissi would prefer customers to call to ask what hygiene measures the restaurant has in place before cancelling their booking.  Photo: Wolter Peeters

"I understand people are concerned, but if they call to ask what hygiene measures we have in place, at least I can talk to them about how we're keeping the venue sanitised and safe. Then they can make an informed decision to dine with us or not."

Kepos Street Kitchen is one of many Sydney restaurants to experience a drop in customer numbers over the past seven days.

Data from online reservation platform The Fork shows a 13 per cent decline in bookings at NSW pubs and restaurants this week compared to last, attributed to tighter restrictions across the state and diners being more apprehensive of a "second wave". 

The Apollo restaurant in Potts Point, pictured here prior to social distancing being enforced.
The Apollo restaurant in Potts Point, pictured here prior to social distancing being enforced. Photo: Supplied

"It's a tough time for the industry," says Justine Baker, chief executive of Solotel hospitality group. "The number of guests visiting restaurants is dropping, but at the same time business costs are increasing to keep our venues as safe as possible."

One of those new costs is a dedicated COVID-Safe marshal to oversee social distancing, cleaning and hygiene at pubs, a measure enforced by the NSW government from July 17. Solotel's North Bondi Fish restaurant and bar was employing a hygiene marshal before it was mandatory, says Baker.

"They make sure all tables are thoroughly sanitised between sittings, as well as high touch-point surfaces such as door handles and bathroom taps. Hospitality is an industry very used to hygiene and we've always had appropriate procedures in place – these are just a lot stricter."

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North Bondi Fish also introduced contactless service app Me&u in July, enabling guests to order and pay on their phone while seated. "It's doing really well," says Baker. "In an environment such as a the bar where it can be harder to maintain social distancing, people feel safe to order from their phone instead of walking up to the counter."

Many venues in Justin Hemmes' Merivale portfolio are using the contactless Me&u technology, too, and rostering additional staff to maintain hygiene.

"Our pubs are treated like restaurants, with dedicated hosts seating all guests to comply with social distancing between groups," a Merivale spokesperson said. 

North Bondi Fish overlooking Bondi Beach.
North Bondi Fish overlooking Bondi Beach. Photo: Supplied

"We have also created a specialised 'safe response' team that is dedicated to the strict implementation of protocols and legislation. They lead COVID-Safe training for staff across the group, which includes everything from cleaning and sanitisation protocols to social distancing and the safe sequence of service." 

Meanwhile, Fink restaurant group, owner of harbourside venues including Quay and Otto, has been working with a preventative health clinician to create and implement a specialised COVID-Safe house policy.

"Additional measures at our venues include implementing pre and post-guest service to prevent cross-contamination," says Fink general manager Jeremy Courmadias. 

"A pre-guest server provides menus, takes orders and delivers food and beverage, while a post-guest server is responsible for clearing tables, cleaning and temperature testing of staff."

In response to COVID-19 cases at neighbouring venues, Potts Point patisserie Cafe de la Fontaine has packed up the tables and switched to takeaway-only for two weeks. "It's strictly a precautionary measure," says co-owner Stephanie Onisforou. 

"With takeaway, there's no plates or cutlery involved. Everything is disposable. We've also installed a sneeze guard on the service counter. I'm just trying to eliminate as many risks as I can for customers and staff while still keeping the business open." 

All staff at Cafe de la Fontaine have also been provided masks, even though the government has not made the face coverings mandatory for hospitality workers. "Most of staff requested them as a way to feel comfortable and safe," says Onisforou. 

Back at Kepos Street Kitchen, Rantissi isn't considering a similar move to takeaway-only, but has started locking the door on weekends. "The vast majority of customers are great, but there are still people who like to barge straight into the dining room and take a seat."

A staff member is now employed to stand at the entrance of Kepos to open the door for guests and request they sanitise their hands and check-in to the restaurant with contact details before being seated. 

"It's a shared responsibility," says Rantissi. "You can implement all the safety measures in the world, but if people don't respect them it becomes very difficult."