'People are worn out': Sydney restaurants struggle with reduced takeaway spend during lockdown

Marta owner and chef Flavio Carnevale has been baking in his kitchen from 2am almost every morning during lockdown.
Marta owner and chef Flavio Carnevale has been baking in his kitchen from 2am almost every morning during lockdown. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Flavio Carnevale could do with a good lie down. The owner of Rushcutters Bay Italian restaurant Marta has been in the kitchen from 2am most days over the past four weeks, topping tarts, rolling scrolls and kneading big slabs of pillowy Roman focaccia.

From 7.30am to 3pm, Carnevale serves his fresh pastries and greets regulars behind Marta's marble counter; by 5pm the chef is back on the pans to cook takeaway gnocchi and parmigianas.

Flavio Carnevale says this lockdown has been a greater challenge than when coronavirus restrictions were introduced in ...
Flavio Carnevale says this lockdown has been a greater challenge than when coronavirus restrictions were introduced in March last year. Photo: Louise Kennerley

"I feel like I'm back in Ibiza during my partying days of next to no sleep," says the chef. "But you've got to do what you've got to do. You can't stop."

Carnevale is one of many restaurateurs working extra long hours to keep their business afloat and retain staff during Sydney's COVID-19 outbreak.

He says this lockdown has been a greater challenge than when coronavirus restrictions were first implemented in March last year.

Chef and restaurateur Brent Savage says he wishes the federal government had restarted JobKeeper for Sydney's current ...
Chef and restaurateur Brent Savage says he wishes the federal government had restarted JobKeeper for Sydney's current lockdown. Photo: Supplied

"That first lockdown almost had an element of novelty to it," Carnevale says. "We had regulars ordering takeaway for Zoom dinner parties and spending big on wine, but this time there's almost none of that vibe.

"Delivery and takeaway sales are OK, but not like what they were during lockdown in 2020. I think people are worn out … they may also be worried this pandemic could last longer than anyone expected they're pulling back that extra spend."

At Ria Pizza + Wine in Potts Point, chef Brent Savage agrees this lockdown has been harder for hospitality venues. He says takeaway sales haven't been as strong compared to last year partly because customers think his restaurants are outside their radius.

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"We're finding many people have a perception they can't travel further than 10 kilometres from home, but that's just for exercise," says Savage, who also operates Yellow in Potts Point, and Monopole and Bentley restaurants in the CBD.

Jorge Farah is the managing director behind venues including Surry Hills charcoal chicken shop Henrietta and its Crown Street neighbour Cuckoo Callay. While both eateries remain open for takeaway, Farah says turnover is down by 30 per cent compared to Sydney's first lockdown.

"There are less people out and about which is a great thing for public health, but not so much for our sales. Takeaway also took another big hit when work sites were shut down [on Monday]. When there's no construction staff coming past for coffee and sandwiches, you really notice it."

Chef Shane Delia prepares meals for his Providoor delivery service at Maha restaurant, Melbourne.
Chef Shane Delia prepares meals for his Providoor delivery service at Maha restaurant, Melbourne. Photo: Supplied

Hoping to reach more customers, Savage has partnered with new delivery service Providoor which launched in NSW on Wednesday.

Born out of Victoria's COVID lockdowns and helmed by Melbourne-based chef Shane Delia, Providoor provides next-day delivery of heat-and-plate meals from high-profile restaurants to a large majority of NSW and the ACT.

"We were already scheduled to come to NSW in October, but over the past few weeks I've had loads of Sydney hospitality mates asking me to bring the launch forward," Delia says.

Rockpool Bar & Grill's home delivery banquet available via Providoor.
Rockpool Bar & Grill's home delivery banquet available via Providoor.  Photo: Supplied

"We take 15 per cent commission – a lot less than the 30 or 40 per cent cut taken by other delivery platforms – and will cold-freight the food to anywhere from Newcastle to Orange to Wollongong.

"I'm making bugger-all profit. I'm a restaurateur and I just want to see restaurants survive."

More than 40 Sydney restaurants are set to partner with Providoor over the next fortnight. Haymarket icon Golden Century, Monopole and Bondi's Cicciabella are on board, plus two-hatted CBD steakhouse Rockpool Bar & Grill.

Rockpool chef Corey Costelloe has already been "pumped" with Providoor orders this week (including a few lobster thermidors to Canberra) and says he has been able to keep 20 kitchen staff employed as a result.

Like many restaurant operators The Sydney Morning Herald has spoken to, Savage says he wishes the federal government had restarted JobKeeper for the current lockdown.

The national wage subsidy initially paid out $1500 a fortnight per employee through COVID-affected businesses and Savage says it was successful in its aim of "keeping employees and employers connected".

New COVID-19 financial support packages include a weekly payment of $600 for workers who have lost more than 20 hours a week. JobSaver provides a cash boost for eligible businesses of up to 40 per cent of the weekly payroll with a maximum of $10,000 per week.

David Chan is the owner-chef of Hurstville restaurant Sun Ming. With reduced revenue (Chan's sales are down by more than 50 per cent), employing all his staff on their normal hours is not feasible and he says the payroll cash boost provides little relief for a small business like his.

"Most staff are earning around $800 a week," he says. "While many are loyal, some are also saying 'well, why don't I just stay at home for the $600 rather than work?'

"But people need to look after themselves, I understand that. A lot of my staff have said they will return when things are back to normal."

JobKeeper provided Chan with the opportunity of employing workers to deliver his signature Macau-style pork chop, but this lockdown he is relying on digital platforms Uber Eats and Easi.

"Delivery is going off, which helps out, but the platforms take a big percentage of profits, so we don't really earn that much from them," he says. "People are taking this lockdown seriously, which is the right thing to do, but it's affecting hospitality and retail. I've certainly noticed more 'for sale' and 'for lease' signs in local shop windows over the past month."

Sun Ming has served classic Hong Kong cuisine since 1993, but Chan says he is "definitely" concerned about how the business will survive the longer lockdown continues.

"We've still got all our regulars coming in for takeaway, but it's really tough. My friends with restaurants say the same thing. Every night I get home, all I can think about is ways to get more people to order food from us."

For Savage and Carnevale, the biggest lure this lockdown has been anything loaded with carbohydrates that has enjoyed time in the oven.

"People will come to our weekend market [at Ria Pizza] for the custard tart or Yellow's licorice bread, but end up buying wine or a ready-made meal too," says Savage. "We've been selling a lot of lasagne."

At Martra, Carnevale says his 2am starts to bake maritozzi cream buns and wood-fired sourdough have been worth the lack of sleep.

"The morning bakery has put the oil in our engine through lockdown. I think part of the popularity is because you can buy $100 worth of food and feed a family of eight.

"Now our problem is that we can't bake enough bread. We've had to start baking twice a day because we're selling so many more loaves than lockdown last year. It's crazy."