‘It’s just not worth opening’: restaurants in Australia can trade again, but will they? – The Guardian

Restaurant News

Six months ago, business was booming at Citrus in Melbourne’s Fitzroy North. Lines of locals waiting for $15 all-you-can-eat Sri Lankan rice and curries threaded out the door. Now the buffet is gone, the team of 12 has telescoped to four, and takeaway is barely covering running costs. “As long as we get a lot of customers, that’s how we make a profit,” says Ravindu Somaweera, who co-owns the restaurant with his parents.

Citrus is just one of thousands of restaurants, from family-run buffets to empire-backed fine diners, that will continue to struggle as Australia’s Covid-19 lockdown eases under the federal government’s three-step economic recovery plan.

Citrus’s team before Covid. Ravindu Somaweera, sixth from left, standing behind his parents.

Step one will allow small restaurants and cafes to reopen with 10 patrons at a time. Step two will welcome gatherings of 20, and step three, 100. But the limited short- and medium-term capacities have hospitality professionals fearing that some venues won’t reopen for months.

Last week the Australian Hotels Association, essentially the nation’s pubs lobby, and Restaurant and Catering Association Australia presented the national cabinet with suggested “practical, low-cost measures” to help restaurants reopen their dining rooms safely. But the AHA now claims the recovery plan announced is inconsistent with social distancing rules, and many venues will be forced to remain closed until phase three, or shut down permanently.

“We are told only 10 people can sit and have a meal in a pub restaurant area even if that area could safely socially distance 50 or 100,” AHA chief executive Stephen Ferguson said on Friday.

A woman walks past a closed restaurant in Sydney.

The RCA’s recommended measures:

1.5-metre distance between tables.

All patrons must have the CovidSafe app or record their name and number at the place they dine in so they can be contacted later if needed.

Social distancing in waiting areas.

Removing the limit on “tap and go” payments, having wipes available for patrons to wipe down the cash register keypad before use.

No condiments on tables.

Disposable or chalkboard menus, or laminated if they can be cleaned.

Commercial dishwashers that can sanitise cutlery and crockery to 80 degrees, or recyclable cutlery and crockery.

Hand sanitisers throughout the location.

Staff practising WHO and state/federal health guidelines – ie wiping down tables and chairs between each patron; no bar service.

Local governments are also assisting businesses by cutting restaurant inspection fees, reducing or refunding liquor licensing fees and broadening allowances for takeaway. City of Sydney has stated they will support “businesses to expand their outdoor dining areas where there is space”. But for many, service is only possible when it’s all or nothing.

Full house pre-Covid at Citrus restaurant in Fitzroy Melbourne, NSW.

To turn a decent profit, high-end Sydney restaurant Nomad needs an average of 1,500 covers per week, or a full 180-seat restaurant across two sittings from Wednesday to Saturday. When the pandemic hit, executive chef Jacqui Challinor made the difficult decision to put the business into hibernation.

“All of our staffing models, our wage costs, food costs … depend upon us turning over a certain amount of money a week, which isn’t going to happen with the restrictions that they’re proposing,” says Challinor. “It doesn’t seem like a model that is going to work on fine-dining restaurants. It seems to be more of a model that would suit casual, franchise, takeaway kind of venues.”

A man sits at a restaurant in Sydney.

Hospitality is notoriously high-risk. Particularly in restaurants, consumers are demanding, fixed overheads are huge and margins are paper-thin. Industry pressures in 2019 closed a slew of long-running restaurants including Kylie Kwong’s Billy Kwong in Sydney, Matt Moran’s Aria in Brisbane, and Longrain in Sydney. As of last week, Longrain and Red Spice Road in Melbourne has also closed.

Since March, restaurant, cafe and bar owners have been busy reshaping their businesses to stay afloat, investing in new takeaway menus, bakery offerings, cook-at-home meal packs and even merchandise. Three months ago, no one could have predicted that one of Australia’s most awarded restaurants, Ben Shewry’s Attica in Melbourne, would be fielding orders for lasagnes, layer cakes and T-shirts.

As businesses prepare to adapt yet again, restaurateurs and chefs are saying it is unlikely this three-step road to recovery will boost the already stretched industry.

Restaurant Quay in front of the Opera House, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

“Financially, it’s just not worth opening with 10 or 20 people,” says chef Peter Gilmore of his Sydney harbourside fine diners Quay and Bennelong. “Those first one-step and two-step situations aren’t viable for most restaurants probably to open.”

In line with the luxury offerings and up-to-$300-a-head menus, Gilmore says both venues are lucky enough to have generous floor spaces, so separating the tables by 1.5 metres will still allow them to bring in enough revenue to operate viably – but only once Sydney reaches step three and the gathering limit extends to 100.

When Tasmania moves into phase one, Hobart restaurateur Chris Chapple hopes to reopen his 20-seat shopfront pasta bar, Templo. Thanks to the jobkeeper payment scheme that subsidises his permanent staff members’ wages with $1,500 fortnightly payments, Templo has been able to remain open for takeaway, but he says the business is bringing in just 15-20% of its pre-Covid-19 revenue.

A note to customers is stuck on the window as restaurants close their businesses in Melbourne, Australia.

Chapple says the five guests that will be allowed into tiny Templo won’t budge his bottom line. “This is not a money-making exercise at all; it’s just about continuity with staff and engaging with Hobart people.”

According to new data from the Australia Bureau of Statistics, the jobkeeper payment scheme influenced hospitality employers to retain staff more than any other industry, and as of 4 May, 76% of all Australian food service businesses have registered or intend to register for jobkeeper.

Restaurateur Jerry Mai says keeping her five Melbourne restaurants open during lockdown was impossible until jobkeeper payments began.

“[Jobkeeper] helps, but it doesn’t help, in the sense that you have to have all that money upfront first,” she says. For businesses without the cash on hand, the only options were to take out a bridging loan or shut up shop. And even with jobkeeper, she says her profit margin right now is “zero”.

The industry could suffer another blow when businesses are cut loose from the scheme on 27 September. “Consumer confidence I don’t think is going to come back in that time,” says Chapple.

“A large percentage of people have lost their jobs and will probably not come out to eat,” adds Mai.

For Duncan Welgemoed, the question of whether or not to reopen his Adelaide restaurant Africola is about more than numbers.

Unoccupied dining tables and chairs at a restaurant in the central business district in Melbourne, Australia.

A typical weekend evening at Africola is fully booked. The volume of conversation is pushed higher by the music; diners tussle over shared plates of pipis and falafels; and servers bend over backwards, sometimes almost literally, to provide recommendations, pour tasters of South Australian wines, and top up glasses.

“Why do people go out for dinner?” he asks. “It’s more than the food, it’s the whole experience, and [the new restrictions], unfortunately, completely detract from the experience. It doesn’t translate into why I do what I do and why people come to my restaurant.”

Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/may/11/its-just-not-worth-opening-restaurants-in-australia-can-trade-again-but-will-they