'More painful than lockdown': Australia's hospitality industry left reeling from latest COVID wave

Hosier Lane and other normally bustling streets are eerily quiet in Melbourne, as people stay home and restaurants are ...
Hosier Lane and other normally bustling streets are eerily quiet in Melbourne, as people stay home and restaurants are forced to close, due to the Omicron variant. Photo: Visit Victoria/Ain Raadik

Hospitality owners and workers across Australia are reeling as the Omicron COVID-19 wave sweeps the country. Many restaurants, pubs and cafes have closed temporarily, reduced their opening hours or are operating at restricted capacity because staff have COVID, are close contacts or are awaiting PCR test results. With most businesses already understaffed, it's been impossible to cover shifts at a time that many restaurants were counting on to recover revenue lost through lockdowns.

Food businesses forced to close or curtail hours include Nomad restaurants in both Sydney and Melbourne, Anason in Barangaroo, Sydney new player Shell House, legendary Darlinghurst cafe Bills plus Melbourne drinking den Black Pearl and city stayer Lucy Liu.

Michael and Zara Madrusan, owner of Heartbreaker Bar, The Everleigh, Bar Margaux and Connie's.
Credit: Pete Dillon
For Good Food, 18 November, 2021

Zara Madrusan, with partner Michael Madrusan, owners of Heartbreaker Bar, The Everleigh and Bar Margaux feel they have 'been totally left in the lurch'. Photo: Pete Dillon

"Hands down, this situation is more painful than lockdown," says Zara Madrusan, owner of Melbourne's Bar Margaux, which was forced to cancel New Year's Eve festivities due to staff shortages. "We are totally left in the lurch. 'Personal responsibility' translates to government entirely neglecting their responsibility to protect this nation and this economy getting back on its feet."

Pandemic assistance for businesses has generally been based on lockdowns or capacity restrictions. Victoria currently has neither; NSW has density limits yet no financial aid. But being theoretically able to trade means nothing without staff: a depleted workforce has put many businesses into "lockdown lite" without any financial aid.

A manager at one prominent restaurant, preferring to remain anonymous, says, "I never thought I'd wish for another lockdown. That's how bad it is." Jason Jones has closed his Le Petit Marche offshoot to Entrecote in inner Melbourne's Prahran. "For the first time in two years I am at breaking point," he says. "It's never been this hard."

Shell House Dining Room and Terrace is one of many Sydney venues forced to close or curtail hours.
Shell House Dining Room and Terrace is one of many Sydney venues forced to close or curtail hours. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Regional restaurants are particularly battered, with staff shortages exacerbated by a lack of affordable accommodation rubbing up against a seasonal influx of holiday makers desperate to dine out. "Last summer in Lorne was bad, with hospo staff sleeping in their cars or on the beach," says Kate Bartholomew, co-owner of Coda Lorne on Victoria's surf coast. "This summer is even worse. We have chefs commuting two hours to Melbourne every day." 

Fiona Maurer works for The Sharp Group, which owns venues on the Bellarine Peninsula, including Jack Rabbit and Flying Brick Cider Co. "Even though I keep posting on social media and our website that we are full, people just keep coming," she says.

"I can't blame them, they are down here on holidays and half the restaurants are closed. But we are short staffed as it is and it takes us extra time at the door explaining the situation."

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A post shared by NOMAD (@nomad.au)

Kindness is at a premium with many venues reporting impatience and rudeness from diners. Josephine Perry from Margaret in Sydney's Double Bay posted a plea on Instagram which read, in part: "Please be kind if your waiter seems down and not as enthusiastic as normal, if it takes an extra five to 10 minutes to get water or a drink on your table ... We are doing our absolute best under the worst circumstances possible and it doesn't cost you anything to be kind and patient with us."  

"Half the guests get it and are incredible," says Bartholomew. "The other half are furious that the town is shut."

'Half the guests get it and are incredible. The other half are furious that the town is shut.'

Many customers take to online platforms to vent about slow service or perceived problems. "In many cases, reviews are one-sided and fail to take into account the reviewer's own actions which often include abusive or entitled behaviour and expecting things for nothing," says Jason Chang from Calia in Melbourne.

The uncertainty – piled on top of two years of turmoil – is a drain on operations and finances. Byron Barrowclough from Moorabbin gastropub Wilbury and Sons in suburban Melbourne was forced to close just before Christmas and isn't sure when he'll reopen.

"There are far more unknowns than knowns at the moment and that's a scary thing," he says. "It's a massive risk to spend money on reopening when you may have to shut in two days from a case. It's literally, 'Fingers crossed, I hope we survive.'" Customer sentiment is soft too. "People are more cautious about going out," he says. "We cater to a lot of people in their 30s and 40s and catching COVID doesn't just affect them – they are worried about their families and their careers."

Wes Lambert of the Restaurant and Catering Association is calling on governments for solutions.
Wes Lambert of the Restaurant and Catering Association is calling on governments for solutions. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

"People have been conditioned for 22 months to worry about case numbers," says Wes Lambert, chief executive of the Restaurant Industry Association. "It is important that the government recognises consumers are voting with their feet and the hospitality industry will continue to need government support until consumer confidence returns."

On staffing, he says, "The state and federal governments need to work together to solve critical staff shortage problems in multiple industries and come up with solutions such as accelerating the return of fully vaccinated overseas workers."

Reiji Honour from cafe Hibiki was always planning to close over New Year but he's nervous about reopening next week. "I have one person who decided today it's too hard and they are going back to Malaysia," he says. "I feel for everyone on a temporary visa because they are in limbo and for me, even losing one person is stressful."

Jack Rabbit on the Bellarine Peninsula, where staff are being forced to turn away customers.
Jack Rabbit on the Bellarine Peninsula, where staff are being forced to turn away customers. Photo: Brad Hill Imaging

With no one to pick up the slack, Honour will roster himself on to do dishes. "I don't mind but it's not ideal," he says. "The excitement of cooking, the creativity is slowly disappearing. There are too many other things going on."