Changing shape: how ‘back of house’ is being rethought
There’s nothing like a pandemic to deliver an opportunity to assess some of hospitality’s pain points and to treasure the aspects that give the food world heart and soul.
Jake Nicolson is executive chef at the Ghanem Group, overseeing high-end Brisbane restaurants such as Donna Chang and Blackbird Bar & Grill. “We have been through a hard time, but we came out of lockdown pretty strongly,” he says. “Our takeaway took off well and when we reopened people came back in droves, similar to Christmas trade.”
He found adjusting from takeaway to in-house dining a challenge, but foresees more intense short-term hurdles for restaurants in Victoria that have been closed much longer.
“If you’ve had fridges and freezers off, you can expect to have them break down when you turn them back on. You need to rebuild your menu – the seasons have changed, the price of produce might have increased and whatever you’ve been doing for takeaway, you won’t want to do the same for dine-in.”
As diner numbers increase in the medium term, creative solutions are required. “If you’re allowed 10, then 20, then 100, you need to keep changing the menu and seating arrangements,” says Nicolson, who has reset bar areas with dining tables because stand-up drinking isn’t yet permitted. “You might be rebuilding banquet menus that have been on the backburner, changing seating plans … there are a lot of things to get back up and running.”
In Sydney, chef Dan Hong oversees five venues for Merivale, including Mr Wong and Queen Chow. When they reopened after shutdown in May, his menu was scaled back significantly. “We looked closely at the product mix,” he says. “We looked at what sold, what was most popular.”
Initially, they opened just three days a week. “We weren’t that busy so, to employ all our staff, a smaller menu was the most manageable way to go.” As diner numbers climb, the menu will expand. “Now we are slowly adding more and more menu items,” says Hong. “That’s the priority going into summer as we get busier.”
In each Australian city, work-from-home protocols have sucked life from central business districts. Hong lives in Sydney’s Chinatown and often works in the CBD. “Both those areas have a long way to go,” he says. “Not even half the offices are back working so lunches midweek aren’t busy and Chinatown is still very quiet.”
Many Asian restaurants have been struck by the double whammy of overseas staff ineligible for JobKeeper and losing much of their international student and traveller trade. “More people are coming back to the CBD but it’s still not enough,” says Hong. “In general, the suburbs are doing better than the city.”
Looking after staff and suppliers
Staffing wasn’t easy pre-pandemic and most operators foresee challenges in finding enough staff, especially as many international workers have departed.
While businesses are still dependent on JobKeeper, it’s a particular blow if a subsidised employee departs. “The solution to that is communication,” says Nicolson. “Every individual needs to be spoken to and you need to address their particular state of affairs. Maybe their partner has lost his job, maybe they’re a visa worker under pressure.
“It’s important to acknowledge the challenges people have faced so you can deal with the future together. A pat on the back, a confidence-building talk, they all go a long way.”
COVID-safe regulations are a burden that will be here for a while. “It’s an ongoing education process for staff and also guests,” says Hong. “For example, customers aren’t allowed to get up and mingle or order a drink so as staff we have to say, ‘Sir, sorry, can you go back to your seat?’ Sometimes the guest might not understand that, but we are just following the guidelines. The rules almost take away from giving that perfect guest experience.”
Nicolson used the lockdown as an opportunity to reset the way he deals with suppliers. “This period has made us look hard at all our costs and cashflow,” he says. “The sheer amount of food wastage when we went into lockdown was $30,000 to $40,000. It makes you think. You start ordering a bit less, paying the bills quicker. We used to incur debt that would run to 30 days, now we pay upfront.”
He’s also reassessed his suppliers. “I try to support small producers who rely on selling one single item, whether it’s suckling pig, a small dairy farm, or a particular vegetable,” he says. “That’s the industry looking after one another – it’s part of us all being in it together.”
A bright future?
There are some pandemic practices that Hong thinks will persist – and it’s not all bad. “More people are going to stick to cooking at home, which is a positive,” he says.
On the other hand, at-home logistics must be part of forward planning. “It’s hectic,” says Hong. “We have to keep it exciting, write the recipes, take photos, think about dietaries, labelling, packaging. It’s basically launching another business.”
He’s optimistic about the months ahead but doesn’t expect the industry to normalise any time soon. “I’m positive about the summer and people starting to come back out, but I’m not holding my breath for normal,” he says. “I think that will be when we find a vaccine.”
Nicolson believes restaurants in every Australian state have reason to be optimistic. “When restaurants are open, people come and they’re in a celebratory mode,” he says. “They are buying the lobsters, tipping quite well, they are back to spend. There are going to be restrictions in place, but if you maximise every sitting it will come back in leaps and bounds.”
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