The Great Melbourne Restaurant Reopening Round-up

Restaurateur Chris Lucas: 'We can't live without hope. Even in the darkest moment, we have to look for the positive.'
Restaurateur Chris Lucas: 'We can't live without hope. Even in the darkest moment, we have to look for the positive.' Photo: Arsineh Houspian

How are restaurants coping with the pandemic and what does the future hold once lockdown eases? Here's our Great Restaurant Reopening Round-Up, as told by a panel of industry experts.

Everyone in Melbourne can surely agree on one thing: we are looking forward to restaurants opening again.

As diners, we want the pleasure of being in someone else's dining room, and whether it's coffee, pho or strozzapreti pasta, we'll appreciate the luxury of hospitality as never before.

Restaurateurs and their staff are keen – desperate, even – to get back to feeding our city and finally having viable businesses, steady work and a sense of purpose after seven months of pain.

What's not clear is how this is all going to happen. With the Victorian government's roadmap pegged to case numbers rather than dates, and with those daily tallies stubbornly bobbing and plateauing, there's little clarity about what lies ahead. For many, that's insupportably frustrating.

For others, it's yet another opportunity to practice the peculiar art of COVID zen.

Al fresco dining is the way of the future, such as along Hardware Lane in the CBD.
Al fresco dining is the way of the future, such as along Hardware Lane in the CBD. Photo: iStock

We've spoken to people in many different areas of the Melbourne hospitality universe, plus outside experts on topics including outdoor dining, perilous finances and epidemiology, to find out what they face and how they plan to survive.

THE PANEL

  • High-profile restaurateur Chris Lucas (Chin Chin, Kisume, Hawker Hall, Baby, Kong)
  • Owner of two city restaurants Kate Bartholomew (Tonka, Coda)
  • Experienced south-side cafe owner Mary-Jane Daffy (Carter Lovett)
  • Longstanding West Footscray restaurateur Elizabeth Sairat (Thai Angels)
  • Owner-operator suburban fine dining Julian Hills (Navi)
  • Owner-operator multiple suburban restaurants Christo Christophidis (Glen Waverley Traders Association, owner Mocha Jo's, Ripponlea Food & Wine)
  • Unemployed visa holder Nicole Nicole (cookery graduate, chef at Mangan Yuk! @manganyuk.au)
  • Business leader Daniel Cheng (Springvale Asian Business Association)
  • Virus expert Mary-Louise McLaws (professor of epidemiology, hospital infection and infection diseases control at UNSW and member of WHO ad hoc Infection prevention and control for COVID-19)
  • Mental health expert Rae Bonney (integrated wellbeing specialist)
  • Unflappable outdoor expert Sophie Storen (Cookes Food)
  • Weather expert Bureau of Meteorology
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THE TOPICS

Outdoor dining

One thing we do know is that the Victorian government is mandating "predominantly outdoor dining", though many assume that Melbourne will be able to have limited indoor seating, too, as is permitted in regional Victoria. While we wait for the parameters and the go-ahead, councils, precincts and many restaurateurs are preparing to go al fresco.

Melbourne does not have reliable summers but how likely is weather that's feasible for dining outside?

I gave the Bureau of Meteorology these criteria: maximum daily wind gusts of 40 km/h or less, maximum temperature between 15 and 35 degrees and rainfall with a daily total of 0.5mm or less. They crunched those numbers: for the six months between October and March, Melbourne has 85 days meeting these parameters, a shade under 50 per cent.

"Outdoor is good in theory but I'm worried about city apartment residents. They've spent the whole year cooped up in their apartments. Do they really want to walk outside their front door into a restaurant table?

"And Coda is on sloping Oliver Lane. How do we deal with that? No one can afford tables and chairs and infrastructure, and permits and licenses are already a headache. How do we take bookings? Do we need a clause about weather? Where do we store furniture or do we need a security guard overnight? I'm open to it but I foresee a lot of issues." – Kate Bartholomew

"Nobody loves al fresco dining more than me, but it is not a solution and it is not a replacement for indoor dining. Almost every restaurant in Greater Melbourne relies on indoor dining to sustain a profitable business model." – Chris Lucas

"I do prefer outdoor dining for safety from the virus but we can only seat a couple outside. If the council lets us do a parklet and occupy the parking space outside our restaurant, that will be a good thing but I'm not sure how many people we would be allowed to seat there.

"And I don't know if we will get a grant for tables and chairs and umbrellas. We don't have that money, so what are we going to do? There's so much information and it's confusing, a real headache. I've been busy home-schooling three children, it's very stressful and I can't concentrate." – Elizabeth Sairat

The Age, Just Open for Good Food ,Carter Lovett,
 Pic Simon Schluter 4 December 2019.

Mary-Jane Daffy is behind Carter Lovett in Elsternwick. Photo: Simon Schluter

"Will it be difficult? Absolutely, with Melbourne's climate. Are we feeling positive about it? Yes. Weather-depending, we can seat 30 people outside, beautifully spaced. It will affect the menu we run but we will give it a go.

"I think of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival's Longest Lunch – that's one of the most fantastic things I've ever been to. If that's the standard, how amazing." – Mary-Jane Daffy

"Eating outside is a good option for Springvale. We're encouraging all the traders because it's good for the pandemic time and something to build up the image of the area longer term as well." – Daniel Cheng

"The City of Monash has $500,000 to spend and they'll pretty much spend that on bollards. There won't be much left. Outdoor dining is positive for our industry but we can never depend on Melbourne weather to maximise it and cover the huge costs of extra seating." – Christo Christophidis

"We don't have the option of doing outdoor dining. We offer a two-and-a-half to three-hour dining experience. You can't book a table outside for that." – Julian Hills

"The problem is that restaurants are used to being able to control the whole experience. As a caterer, I am used to controlling nothing: mosquitos, rain coming in sideways.

"If there's one thing I've learnt, it's that you can deal with anything. If it's too hot, put bowls of ice on the table and people will think they are in St Tropez. If there are mosquitoes, have Rid and coils, but don't set tablecloths on fire.

"Deal with everything in a spirit of amusement. If everyone – staff, customers, council, police and liquor licensing – can hit it with a sense of fun and less judgment, it will be OK." – Sophie Storen

Portrait of UNSW Epidemiologist Professor Mary-Louise McLaws who has decided not to download the COVIDSafe Application over fears the data could be accessed by the United States Government. Photographed at her home in Sydney on May 2, 2020. Coronavirus  Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

COVID safety

"If you can hear other people's conversations, then they are expelling airborne particles," says epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws. "If you have an infectious, chatty extrovert, those particles can be pushed to the other side of a room.

"Large droplets may dissipate within a metre but the slower the airflow – such as inside a room like a restaurant – the more likely it is that smaller droplet nuclei can stay suspended in the air.

"If you are in a low-airflow restaurant or workspace, then there's a higher likelihood that you will acquire it.

"Cleaning and disinfecting are all well and good but you've then got the customers.

"You can get people to sit so they aren't moving around and increasing the likelihood of spread. You can ask them not to dance. But to ask them not to laugh or to talk loudly or be gregarious, that's impossible.

What about outside?

"Droplets and smaller droplet nuclei do spread with more airflow but they are dissipated so you aren't getting the same concentration.

"There's no evidence yet to tell us what the infectious dose is but logic tells us that it's safer in higher airflow situations. UV can also kill by evaporating droplets and smaller particles.

"I live in Sydney where we have a safe level of the virus but I am still eating outdoors. I'm not a germaphobe – I'll eat a chocolate that's dropped on the floor – but this particular germ is very nasty."

Even so, McLaws doesn't believe Victoria needs to reach zero cases to reopen.

"Fewer than five cases per day on average would be a safe level," she says. "Going for zero is a great aim but they will still be very safe at fewer than five."

Mental health

We hear so much about the mental health impacts of the pandemic but what are we talking about when we say that?

"I am seeing a lot of isolation and loneliness, relationship breakdown, job loss, financial distress, home-schooling stress and so much uncertainty," says integrated wellbeing specialist Rae Bonney, who has a particular focus on workplace mental health.

"Hospitality is Australia's seventh biggest industry with almost 1 million employees, so there are a lot of people to consider. There are those who can't wait to get back and there's the other camp who are comfortable with isolation and terrified about returning. Many people re-entering the workplace will still be in various stages of grief."

Bonney suggests that employers, co-workers and even customers be alert to the five stages of grief.

"People often associate grief with death but this time of such extraordinary change, when so many activities are curtailed, when people are having difficulty coming to terms with their emotions, can also be connected to grief and we'll see variations of this when we return to the workplace."

The five stages of grief are as follows:

Denial: "It keeps us safe as we absorb what is going on."

Anger: "It's a normal part of this grief cycle. When human beings have control taken away, anger is a natural response – violence is not. But it requires so much energy, so it's not sustainable to be angry for long periods.

Bargaining: "It's difficult to imagine that in January we were effortlessly touching each other and going on holidays and buying toilet paper. We might make deals: I'll be kinder to the environment, I'll exercise more. But that can be draining too because COVID is endless and the bargaining doesn't work.

Depression: "You can feel unexpectedly sad and dejected after expending energy in anger and bargaining. It's one of the most concerning stages of the grief cycle because without people getting back into routines and finding support it can linger and become more sinister."

Acceptance: "This is the final stage. It doesn't mean you're OK with everything but you know you have to go with this new normal for now."

Bonney explains: "The grief cycle can go up and down. When we go back into the workplace, if you see these behaviours, be kind, be accepting.

"Change is a constant but the uniqueness of COVID is the immensity of uncertainty. We can't predict all the impacts. For example, if you're returning to a high-energy kitchen, some people won't have as much energy and agility. Check in with them – how do I help you through this moment? – rather than judging them."

Bonney notes the challenges of masks. "They make it even more difficult to read faces, to connect," she says. "We have to look closer with our eyes, sense changes in tone of voice, changes in physical appearance such as weight loss or gain. Anything that's changed is an opportunity to check in with someone. A question I really like is, 'what does it feel like, being you today?' because that really requires an answer."

Government

"I came here from Indonesia in 2017. I'm a graduate in commercial cookery with a diploma of hospitality. The government didn't give us any support during the pandemic. It's harsh because we actually contribute to this country.

"Now most of my friends have gone back to my country, Indonesia, even though they've paid a lot of money for school here. The pandemic has been so hard for me. I have invested everything in being here, in my bright future." – Nicole Nicole

"There has to be a greater level of trust from government. We need a commonsense approach, not 14 days of zero community transmission before opening. That is a death knell for us.

"In New South Wales, we have had greater consultation and at Chin Chin Sydney we are almost trading at pre-COVID levels. In Victoria, we don't have a seat at the table and we are sitting here blindfolded, losing confidence and hope.

"Unless we get this sector back to work in a timely way, you're looking at small business failing and it's the engine room of the Victorian economy. In our sector, we have already lost 40,000 to 50,000 jobs and in the next few weeks a lot of our workforce is going to leave if they can't be guaranteed work over Christmas. We are facing a perfect storm in terms of skills erosion." – Chris Lucas

"They haven't told us what's possible. Everyone is trying to be ready for something they don't know the rules to. But it's a global pandemic, I do understand that." – Julian Hills

"If it's not safe to open a restaurant, we don't open a restaurant. We will open when it's safe to do so, when we are told by people who know things. I am pro people's lives and safety above all else. We will absolutely listen and respond accordingly." – Kate Bartholomew

"The council is very supportive and they've invested heavily in outdoor dining and waiving application fees." – Daniel Cheng

"JobKeeper is a very good help for everyone who is receiving it." Elizabeth Sairat

"JobKeeper has been a saviour. Last week doing takeaway, my wage costs for 330 hours averaged $8000. We took $12,000. That's an unsustainable 70 per cent wage cost without JobKeeper.

"JobKeeper stepping back [from $1500 to $1200 per full-time employee per fortnight] is challenging but you work within it. It's definitely an HR juggle." – Christo Christophidis

"The industry was fundamentally flawed before COVID. It was becoming increasingly difficult to run a business. We would have local kids asking for a job and we want to have them but I can't train someone from the ground up and pay them weekend rates when I can get a professional who's been treading the boards for 15 years.

"How do we have a pay grade that will help people into the industry and ensure professionals are paid what they should be paid? The way it's structured now isn't working." – Mary-Jane Daffy

Kate Bartholomew, co-owner of Coda and Tonka restaurants in Melbourne CBD.

Kate Bartholomew, co-owner of Coda and Tonka restaurants, would like the banks to 'back off'. Photo: Supplied

Finances

"Money has really dried up now. I have a family to feed, kids to send to school, so many bills. We need to get back and open up because takeaway earns very little. I know we need business but it has to be safe for everybody. I will wait until the government says it's OK." – Elizabeth Sairat

"If you were already behind the eight ball, you may be in a hole that's impossible to get out of. If you haven't got a great landlord, paid out your staff, have outstanding bills, this could be the line in the sand for many businesses. I think raising prices is inevitable." – Mary-Jane Daffy

"We are starting to get worried about some big tax bills and the banks are calling and saying: 'Hey guys, it's time to pay back your loan.' But it's still a pandemic. The banks need to back off. If they want businesses continuing, we are going to need more leeway. We have a successful takeaway but it's still only 25 per cent of our normal business." – Kate Bartholomew

"Without subsidies, opening only becomes workable at 75 per cent capacity. Our industry works on wafer-thin margins. There's not a lot of fat to play with." – Chris Lucas

"Some of those doing takeaway are actually doing OK because they cut the labour and the turnover is quite good." – Daniel Cheng

"I just paid $5000 for my post-graduate visa and I paid my immigration agent as well and then I had no work. My agent said I should move to Adelaide but my sister is here, I would rather stay here, too." – Nicole Nicole

Chef Julian Hills in his Navi restaurant in Yarraville.

Navi chef Julian Hills has felt the support from Yarraville locals. Photo: Ed Sloane

Any silver linings?

"For Springvale, we are very confident. We already had the culture, people still love to go there. That will bring back the business very quickly." – Daniel Cheng

"Offering experiences at home is where the opportunity lies. It's capturing something that hasn't been tapped into as much in the past. How impressive did it used to be if someone had a private chef? We can all do it now with finish-at-home fine dining. But that won't work for breakfast. You can't emulate that Melbourne cafe breakfast experience at home." – Christo Christophidis

​"Hospitality is amazingly resilient and creative. We have launched a successful preserves line that we never thought we would do and it's selling really well. We have launched a burger night. These are the silver linings. We would have focused all our energy on making this business the best it could be but now we also have these other arms and dreams and it's exciting." – Mary-Jane Daffy

"Hopefully, everyone comes out of this positive. There's no one to blame for anything. I know we had the botch-up with hotel quarantine but it's the first time for everyone dealing with a pandemic.

"I really look forward to opening again and plating up food. I'm too much of a control freak to feel comfortable with takeaway. I have felt great about our community, I always wanted a suburban restaurant and being able to have a neighbourhood around me has been very helpful. I've certainly felt the support." – Julian Hills

"I have already invested everything in being here. I am happy now to share my background with food here. All I want is to share my culture." – Nicole Nicole

"We've had such a year of opportunity, things we never would have thought about, taking food to people's houses, developing relationships with grocers, doing trips to Beechworth, Ballarat and feeling a sense of community with regional Victoria, seeing the cows, the kids and dogs. It's been such a lovely experience." – Kate Bartholomew

"I want to give a big smile to my regular customers and talk to them and see how they are, see if everything is OK. I can't wait. They don't just come to eat, they come to talk, to share." – Elizabeth Sairat

"We can't live without hope. Even in the darkest moment, we have to look for the positive. On the negative side, it's eroded my trust in the system of government. We didn't need to have this second wave. We were let down.

"But I'm still a believer that there's such a solid core of talent in this city that despite the traumas and everything we've faced there is a determination that will see us rebuild. It might not be tomorrow, but I think we'll get there." – Chris Lucas