The COVID-19 pandemic stripped away many previously embedded notions. For premium restaurant operators, the idea that takeaway was beneath them went straight into the bin, and innovative at-home offerings became a lifeline for many hospitality businesses in 2020.
Restaurateurs hoped the new income streams were there to stay. However, as time marches on, and people return to old restaurant habits, is there still a place for high-end takeaway?
"We are banking on it," says Melbourne-based chef Shane Delia, who launched online delivery service Providoor in June.
The platform links customers with high-profile Melbourne restaurants including Flower Drum and MoVida in the CBD to deliver dishes for reheating throughout Victoria, South Australia and NSW.
Delia, who also operates three Maha venues throughout Melbourne, invested half a million dollars into the online marketplace. 300,000 meals have been delivered through Providoor to date, with an approximate 15 per cent clip to the platform.
"We are not looking to slow down," says the chef. "We hope to grow enormously in 2021."
There are plans to bring Sydney and Brisbane restaurants on board in the second half of the year.
Though Providoor was designed for lockdown, Delia believes it has embedded itself with diners for the long term. "Our regulars dine in the venue once a month but now they get food at home too," he says.
"Maybe it's their daughter's birthday and they don't want to bring their kids to the restaurant, or they order it for a holiday house when they have a weekend away."
Trade dropped significantly when Melbourne restaurants reopened in October, but has picked up over the summer holidays. Delia also updated the offering with Providoor People – in-home waiters and chefs to turn home dinners into proxy catered events.
"I started Providoor not just to save us in COVID but to make changes in hospitality that we've wanted for ages," he says. "It's part of a plan to future-proof restaurants."
In Sydney, Justin Hemmes' Merivale restaurant group was already planning a take-home offering before the pandemic.
"We never had time to implement Merivale at Home" says the group's food and beverage director Frank Roberts. "When COVID hit we thought 'this is the moment'."
The company set up a dedicated kitchen to craft finish-at-home menus from restaurants including Mr Wong in the city, Totti's and Bert's at Newport in the Northern Beaches.
"There are two types of customers," says Roberts. "There are those that genuinely find it helps them in uncertain periods, and there are those who love the brand, the experience and the convenience. Those people continue to want high-quality options for home."
Roberts identifies two major pressure points with Merivale's high-end delivery options. "We have to work out sustainable packaging that still gives that premium experience," he says. The other problem is staffing.
"There's a critical shortage [of staff]. If our restaurants were at full capacity, we would have to put Merivale At Home on hold."
The company announced Melbourne delivery in July, then pressed pause after a backlash from beleaguered Victorian restaurants. Interstate delivery is still on the cards, however.
"We love Melbourne and Melbourne customers love us," says Roberts. "We will definitely do it in some shape or form."
Melbourne chef Charlie Carrington's Atlas Masterclass was one of the success stories of 2020, with more than 500,000 meals delivered since launching in March. His weekly-changing ingredient boxes include some prepared elements, and are backed by video tutorials.
Delivery is provided to Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, plus parts of regional Victoria and NSW. Unlike higher-priced Providoor and Merivale meals, the spend is on par with buying the same ingredients in a supermarket.
"We are onto a good idea and people have connected with us," says Carrington, who runs the business with his brother, Ben. "I had nothing like this in mind before COVID but I like the entrepreneurial spirit and start-up culture."
The Atlas Dining chef employed 60 Masterclass staff during the depths of lockdown. It's now 30, with nine staff reabsorbed into his restaurant.
"When Melbourne reopened, the boxes dropped off but we've since seen a resurgence," he says. "Changing our cuisine keeps it really fresh and we offer good value, which is a big factor for repeat business, longevity and scale."
Carrington is now planning expansion into Queensland and South Australia, and is building a dedicated Masterclass app. Importantly, the new business has boosted the restaurant.
"People try the Masterclass then want the eat-in experience," he says. "We are busier than ever."