Sparking change: Two-hatted Igni cuts weekend and dinner service

Small restaurants such as Igni have had to adapt to survive during the pandemic.
Small restaurants such as Igni have had to adapt to survive during the pandemic.  Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

Can a tasting menu-only restaurant survive on four lunch services a week? Jo Smith and Aaron Turner, the partners behind two-hatted Geelong restaurant Igni sure hope so.

When Igni welcomes back guests on July 15, the restaurant will no longer open for dinner or at weekends. Guests hoping for a taste of Turner's lauded open-fire cooking will have to score a lunch booking between Tuesday and Friday, and prepay $170 for the restaurant's tasting menu. 

On paper, these conditions read like a big ask, but according to Smith, such bold changes are essential if small restaurants  such as Igni are going to survive post-COVID.

Igni owner and chef Aaron Turner and Joanna Smith at their two-hatted restaurant Igni.

Igni owner and chef Aaron Turner and Joanna Smith at their two-hatted restaurant Igni. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

"It costs a lot of money to operate weekends and evenings," says the recipient of the Good Food Guide 2020 Service Excellence award. "What we offer doesn't necessarily need to slot into a particular time of the week."

The move is as much about looking after staff as it is the restaurant's bottom line. Smith is expecting her first child next month while Turner is set to undergo an operation to fix his knees – a condition not ideal for someone who spends hours on their feet in a busy kitchen.

"I just can't do what it takes to run something like Igni anymore," says Turner, who also owns Geelong's Hot Chicken Project and the newly opened Tacos Y Liquor. 

"The whole landscape of hospitality is so hard. What we're trying to do is make it work for us. And we're going to be brave and put it out there and say, 'it's hard work to do what we do. This is what hospitality looks like now to be a viable working business. Get behind us'."

Just as Melbourne restaurants have adapted to life since the pandemic, regional hospitality operators have also needed to be nimble. 

Chef Michael Ryan from The Provenance in Beechworth

Chef Michael Ryan from The Provenance in Beechworth has also been forced to adapt. Photo: Peter Charlesworth

"Hospitality businesses are doing what they need to be sustainable," says Michael Ryan, owner-chef of Japanese-inspired Provenance in Beechworth. "That involves a smaller, smarter business with less choice and less options but the business is possibly better for it."

In Ryan's case, this meant offering a single four-course menu comprising around 15 small dishes delivered on lacquer plates to minimise tableside contact between diners and guests, and cutting back to four nights a week. So far, guests have been happy to be flexible.

"Filling an 8.30pm booking prior to COVID-19 was always a struggle," says Ryan. "Customers have been very understanding."

Not all regional operators are downsizing, however. In Gippsland, Hogget Kitchen has increased the duration of its lunch and dinner services to cater for guests in accordance with social distancing guidelines. 

Despite the restricted capacity, the spend-per-head is up (guests choose from either a fixed-price or tasting menu) and the early signs have been pleasing for chef Trevor Perkins. 

"It's only been a week and a bit since reopening, but I can already see that it's changed for the better," he says. "Gippsland has struggled for a long time to be recognised as a region like the Yarra Valley or Mornington Peninsula, but I think it's slowly on the turn."