'This time, it was worse': the challenges of launching a restaurant just before lockdown

Stephen Clark, left, and Nick Morley opened their restaurant Robata just before lockdown in July.
Stephen Clark, left, and Nick Morley opened their restaurant Robata just before lockdown in July. Photo: Eddie Jim

Putting food in takeaway boxes was not on chef Stephen Clark's radar when Robata opened two days before lockdown five began on July 15.

"We were in a period without worries," says the chef, who moved from stablemate San Telmo to helm the Japanese grill at the old Gazi site on the corner of Flinders and Exhibition Street.

"Another lockdown seemed very abstract and unlikely. We had that new restaurant feeling of excitement, apprehension and a bit of fear, the good kind of fear."

Assorted yakitori and kushikyaki at Robata, which customers can now order to grill over coals at home.
Assorted yakitori and kushikyaki at Robata, which customers can now order to grill over coals at home. Photo: Jake Roden

Those nervous feelings turned to disappointment when the restaurant had to close the doors it had only just opened.

"It was a kick in the guts," says Clark. "Last year I stopped worrying about lockdowns because it was so far out of my control. This time, it was worse because I had a new team, a new menu, we were all set to go."

Robata is one of a small group of Melbourne restaurants, including the high-profile Society helmed by restaurateur Chris Lucas at 80 Collins Street, to open in between or just before COVID-19 lockdowns over the past five weeks.

Auterra wine bar in Armadale, which opened between lockdowns.
Auterra wine bar in Armadale, which opened between lockdowns. Photo: Eddie Jim

"It's been challenging for sure," says Robata's manager Nick Morley, who quickly swung the restaurant team into action. "We decided to do takeaway meal boxes to keep our staff engaged."

Boxes include chicken thigh yakitori, grilled rice balls and the ingredients for do-it-yourself tuna and salmon sushi. Staff also developed bottled cocktails and condiments Robata will continue to sell even after reopening.

"If there are any positives, it's that I'm really proud of our team for pivoting so quickly," says Morley. "We've also opened up avenues for revenue that we'll keep using into the future. We've done it out of necessity but they are cool ideas."

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In Armadale, Clinton McIver opened wine bar Auterra one week before lockdown five. "It was disheartening," he says.

"You have a lot of excitement, emotion and energy and we were plunged into lockdown. Then after two weeks we had to essentially start over and six days later close once more."

The rollercoaster has been punishing. "It's difficult for any hospitality business but being a new venue it was especially trying and demoralising to go from 100 to zero instantly," says McIver.

Staff at Robata preparing takeaway meal kits in lockdown.
Staff at Robata preparing takeaway meal kits in lockdown.  Photo: Eddie Jim

Auterra tried a shopfront takeaway but Armadale passing trade offered slim pickings. It has now partnered with McIver's flagship restaurant Amaru on a combined menu, offering snacks such as shiitake sundae from the wine bar followed by more substantial courses from the restaurant.

"It gives us a chance to keep the businesses alive," says McIver, who is finding it hard to be upbeat about takeaway after such a long grind.

"It's not what we do," he says. "We rely on guests coming in for an experience. But if there is any positive, it's that we know people will support us at the end of lockdown, when they are starved for restaurant experiences. I know we will be busy when we come out."

Ashleigh Dyer says it's important that restaurants offering takeaway don't undersell what they're doing.
Ashleigh Dyer says it's important that restaurants offering takeaway don't undersell what they're doing. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Stephen Clark at Robata can also find positives in having a little extra time to streamline kitchen processes.

"A week of normal service isn't enough time to get your systems working efficiently," he says. "We looked at how we were managing our cooking areas, where we put the charcoal and utensils, how do we know which skewer belongs to which order.

"It's not exciting stuff but you'd never normally get a chance to do it in the first weeks of trade."

Veteran lockdowner Ashleigh Dyer opened Hemingway's Wine Room 12 days before Melbourne's long second shutdown. "If I look back now, I think we made it really hard on ourselves," she says.

"My learnings are to make it simple, don't do 10 menus, and don't try to please everyone because it will burn you out."

Pricing is also important. "Don't undersell what you're doing," she says. "If you're a more elevated restaurant, the right people are willing to pay. Those that aren't might not be the ones you want to attract anyway."

Dyer acknowledges that it's very draining to turn a business built on physical touchpoints into something so different.

"I found it really important to have routines, go for walks, set manageable tasks," she says. "I never signed up to pack boxes and be a delivery driver but good luck to everyone who finds themselves doing that. We are standing with you."