Two weekends ago at the newly reopened Royal Oak hotel in Balmain, a table of guests ordered wine and four roast dinners and refused to pay a cent.
"One of the blokes waved a piece of meat in my face and asked, 'Would you eat this?'," says Sydney publican Maureen Thornett. "I apologised and acknowledged they had been served the tailend of the roast and it would be no problem to send out another four dishes instead."
Like most Australian pubs, cafes and restaurants emerging from the pandemic over the past few weeks, the Royal Oak's chefs were still getting back into the swing of cooking for large numbers, while floor staff worked non-stop to keep surfaces sanitised and customers happy.
"The table said they didn't want anything else, so I offered to remove their food from the bill," says Thornett. "One of the guys turned to me and said, 'Well, we're not paying for anything, including the alcohol – this has been a terrible experience'.
"They sat in the pub for the next half-hour, finished $102 worth of wine and walked out. It was the rudest display I have ever seen."
The Oak's roast incident is one example of a steady trickle of customers behaving badly post-lockdown. Abusing staff about social distancing rules has become more common than it should be (that is, more than never), and people failing to show for their booking has proven to be a massive problem. The reality is that supporting restaurants at this point will help the industry rebuild, but the reverse could compound its problems as it fights to remain financially viable through COVID-19 restrictions.
"The no-shows are a killer," says Chris Handel, general manager of Andrew McConnell's Trader House Restaurants group in Melbourne, which includes Cutler & Co., Supernormal and Cumulus Inc.
"At the moment, it's a problem we're trying to solve ourselves through communication, rather than giving customers a serve if they don't turn up. We're saying that while we're on restricted trading, it's more important than ever to honour your reservation. If a party can't make their booking, someone needs to let us know because we can fill that spot. We have waitlists at all the restaurants." Showing up for a booking can make or break restaurants at the moment.
Trader House venues don't take credit card details to secure a booking except in the case of large groups. However, no-shows have become such an issue at Arthur restaurant in Sydney, owner-chef Tristan Rosier now asks for a deposit of $90 per guest when a reservation is made.
"It's not just the cost of food that's wasted with a no-show, it's also the time and wages of staff in the kitchen preparing our tasting menu all day. A table of four might be the tipping point to roster another staff member for the night, and if there's a no-show or late cancellation, that's money I can't get back. It makes you want to vomit from stress when it happens."
While restrictions have eased to allow 50 customers at a time in restaurants and pubs across NSW, Victoria's limit remains at 20 diners until at least July 12. In both states the four-square-metre rule for indoor gatherings still applies. This means a restaurant Arthur's size can only seat 18 people, says Rosier, and the hatted Surry Hills chef has started asking for a minimum spend of $150 per guest on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.
"With a reduced dining capacity, I can only seat customers who I know will spend that amount, rather than coming for the $90 set menu and not buying drinks. If a guest doesn't drink, we also sell our own cultured butter and sourdough. There's other ways to hit that $150."
Rosier says most customers are happy to commit to the minimum spend and when people do complain he suggests they return on a night when the policy isn't in place because of the pandemic.
"I know this is all relatively new but if you want to go out, as a lot of people desperately do at the moment, then that's going to be the cost. I think a lot of more restaurants are going to put their prices up and ask for payment in advance."
Sali Sasi is the co-owner of Leigh Street Wine Room, which she opened last year in central Adelaide with her husband, Nathan Sasi (former chef of Sydney's Mercado restaurant).
The couple have also implemented a pre-paid dining policy as a result of no-shows coming out of lockdown, and Sasi says 98 per cent of guests have been incredibly supportive of the initiative. Most animosity comes from non-regular customers who may turn up without a booking.
"Based on the one person per four-square-metre rule, we can seat 20 guests, but that's also dependent on party sizes. If we have too many tables of couples, we might reach capacity at 10 people if social distancing of 1.5 metres between groups is maintained. This is the thing people don't understand, and it leads to people getting angry with me when they come to the door asking for a table we can't provide. The worst thing is the potential long-term damage created, of that person not returning in the future."
Rosier says guests have been overwhelmingly positive and thankful since he reopened Arthur.
"We've had locals leave handwritten notes to thank us for providing takeaway during lockdown, and one customer even baked gingerbread for the staff. For every d---head, there are 50 amazing people who appreciate what you do and are stoked to be eating in a restaurant again."
Melbourne chef Scott Pickett agrees. "There's always going to be a couple of prickly customers who want to flout the rules and think regulations don't apply to them but generally people have been understanding of the social distancing and extra hygiene requirements," says the owner of Matilda, Estelle and Lupo.
"Business is nowhere near back to where it was, but things are off to a really promising start. We've seen growth in our guest numbers at lunch, for instance, and people are becoming flexible with dinner times because they're so keen to get out and about. They're now happy to accept an early or late slot instead of saying, 'I want to eat at this exact time'."
For Thornett, the Sunday roast debacle also led to great displays of generosity.
"I didn't want to make a big deal of the situation, but my daughter was so incensed that she wrote about it on Facebook and all of a sudden we had strangers as far away as Cairns offering to pay the bill," she says.
"We said thank you, but we couldn't accept the money – it was more about highlighting the rudeness of the offending customers. However, last week an anonymous gentleman came into the pub and insisted we take his cash. The money went straight in the tip jar."
'We don't have a problem with no-shows as much as we have an issue with people overstaying their booking,' says Junda Khoo of Ho Jiak in Sydney's CBD. Photo: Edwina Pickles
"I don't think there has ever been a better time to visit restaurants than right now," says Handel. "Everyone I know in the industry is hungry to serve customers. Restaurants have missed you as much as you've missed them."
And while social distancing rules are in place, there's also less chance of overhearing conversation at the table next to you (and vice versa). Heed these guidelines and dining out should be a rewarding experience for all involved.
Is there a queue of athleisure-clad punters waiting for a table at the cafe where you're still solving a crossword after paying the bill? If yes, perhaps shuffle on. The same applies to restaurants, especially ones with fixed sitting times.
"We don't have a problem with no-shows as much as we have an issue with people overstaying their booking," says Junda Khoo, owner-chef of Malaysian restaurant Ho Jiak in Sydney's CBD.
"You tell people to leave because other customers need their table, and they're like, 'Yeah, yeah, we're moving', but then they just sit there for another 45 minutes."
Be rude to staff about social distancing rules
"I don't know what rock some people have been hiding under, but more than a few seem to think we're making our own rules up," says Thornett.
"A lady called the pub last week asking if she could extend a booking of 10 people in the bar area to 20. I explained that we couldn't increase her table size because of social distancing restrictions, plus I also like to keep a few seats free for locals. Well, that didn't go down too brilliantly so she cancelled her booking, called me a bitch and hung up."
Publicly criticise a food service business
While the restaurant industry works to get back on its feet, Good Food has put the practice of scoring reviews to one side. We believe people should also be mindful about leaving negative comments and ratings on review sites such as TripAdvisor and Zomato. Now is not the time to be writing report cards. If there's a problem, let the manager know rather than the internet.
Complain about providing credit card details to secure a booking
Look, of course you're not going to flake on your dinner reservation and leave the restaurant high and dry, but people have in the past, which makes the threat of charging for a no-show increasingly necessary.
Expect a restaurant to meet every requirement you have
Some facts of dining for the short-term future: private rooms may not be available due to the four-square-metre rule; some ingredients will be hard to find as producers, farmers and fishers kick back into gear; restaurants may not be able to meet every dietary requirement or custom request.
"Ninety-nine per cent of guests have been super understanding that we're doing our best under the circumstances, but there are always one or two who love to complain," says Rosier.
"We had a guest in here the other day and there were no drinks to her taste, so she whipped out a menu from another venue and asked us to make one of their cocktails instead. We explained that we only use Australian spirits and didn't have the tropical ingredients she was after. In the end, we made her a spritz in a stemless wine glass, which was still sent back because apparently the ice was too cold on her hands."
Add a tip or an extra dish
"Adelaide customers are notoriously bad at tipping, but since we've reopened tips have jumped from 2 per cent of total takings a night to 8 per cent," says Sasi. "While the restaurant is operating at reduced capacity, that extra cash helps staff a lot."
Khoo says tipping has remained consistent with pre-pandemic levels at his Sydney restaurant, but customers are ordering a lot more food. "People want to celebrate the end of isolation so they're spending big, often with the intent to take leftovers home. People have become very accustomed to takeaway during isolation."
Share the love
"Genuine guests sharing their dining experience on Instagram is so much more valuable than a so-called influencer with 200,000 followers and paid-for posts," says Sasi. "Data shows that when you have a smaller following, you have a greater impact on your audience. Since most restaurants now have zero marketing budget, a positive social media mention can go a long way."
Buy other products
"People are definitely looking for new ways to support restaurants," says Pickett. "Takeaway has dropped off, but we started selling ready-to-cook dinner sets with guys at Providoor a couple of weeks ago and now that's gathering momentum. We almost tripled our daily sales with a mail-out of Estelle party packs last week."
Many restaurants are also selling house-made larder goods such as butter, sauce and fancy salts. Arthur even makes its own candles for home use while Leigh Street Wine Room has created a side business called Juice Traders delivering booze to customers nationwide.
Consider holding on to that gift voucher for a little while longer
"Customers need to be conscious that hospitality venues are experiencing major cash flow issues at the moment, so if they can hold off using any vouchers until there are zero restrictions in place, that would be ideal," says Sasi. "But of course we also understand that some people are doing it tough financially, too, and want to experience a nice meal that's been gifted to them. I would never dream of telling a guest with a voucher 'not now'."
Try new places
Whether you're after shimmering pho, world-class laksa, or a dozen oysters followed by foie gras and fresh truffle, Australia's restaurant choices are myriad. Get out there and make the most of them all.