With forecasts predicting up to 12,000 restaurants will close permanently, the big question for ravenous diners is how and what will we eat in a post COVID-19 lockdown environment?
Good Food took the pulse of a cross-section of the hospitality industry, with big changes predicted.
Lockdowns have galvanised our support and trust in our local eateries, something expected to continue after a thaw in restrictions. Tourist and high-traffic inner-city precincts – previously considered restaurant gold – have lost their shine in the eyes of many industry pundits.
The chief executive at Restaurant & Catering Australia, Wes Lambert, predicts up to 25 per cent of 47,000 restaurants nationwide could close and believes one of the by-products of the shutdown will be the rise of technology.
"People's habits have changed. Delivery was 8 per cent, [now] we're expecting it to be around 20-25 per cent. Cash is over, this has set us [on the course for] going cashless," Lambert says.
With takeaway and home delivery tipped to be on the up, Icebergs co-owner Maurice Terzini is concerned the prices many top restaurants are offering are unsustainable because the current model is based on trading under reduced rent, with operators trying to keep staff employed. So, expect some price hikes there.
Higher standards in health and hygiene are also here to stay. "I think it's all over for really grungy places," says Sydney consultant chef Danny Russo. "Get ready for waiters wearing masks and a sanitiser person on duty."
Larger restaurant groups concede they have used the time to ruthlessly reassess their businesses. Underperforming venues will go, with one high-profile Sydney restaurateur saying privately he's looking at relocating one of his restaurants to another venue where the landlord has worked with him during the crisis. Russo says some large restaurant and pub groups have used the closure time to upgrade.
Serge Dansereau, a co-owner at Bathers' Pavilion, is typical of operators who will stagger reopening and associated start-up costs: "We'll re-open in different stages, the bistro first then the restaurant maybe three days a week to see how it goes. We're lucky it's a pretty big building, we can spread through it."
Con Dedes, who owns a stable of Sydney restaurants including Flying Fish, predicts a boom in events in 2021 with "catch-up weddings and functions". As for restaurants, Dedes is confident in the casual end of the market but cautious about the upper end.
While concern over fine dining is almost universal, veteran Sydney chef Justin North believes there will also be pressure on the middle market. "It's the hardest area to make money because the margins are tight and it relies on volume."
What we'll eat is also a hotly contested question. With greater emphasis on how our food is handled, operators believe there will also be greater emphasis on its provenance. "People have an appreciation for where food comes from and wellness, [so] that puts us in a good position," argues John Tully, a co-owner of Acre in Camperdown, which grows much of its produce on site.
An Earlwood restaurant with David Tsirekas in the kitchen missed its planned opening this month but will press ahead after the lockdowns ease. The chef believes the venture, Homer on Homer, is well placed in the market. "People will think more about what they eat," he says. "Given we always planned plenty of plant-based dishes, we think it's where the market is headed."
Despite tough days and many closures ahead, there's some optimism for the future. "When you are put under pressure, great ideas come out of it," North says. "I don't know exactly what it'll be yet, but I'm expecting plenty of innovation."