Front of house steels for a post pandemic future

Nov 5, 2020

A chef-turned-tech-entrepreneur, an experienced cafe owner, a country business operator, a young CBD operator and a multi-city restaurateur pluck from the past and stride into the future.

“The market is never going to go back to what it was and that’s not a bad thing,” says Shane Delia, who started the COVID-19 pandemic as a chef, restaurateur and TV presenter. Now he’s added ‘digital disrupter’ to his job description.

The Melbourne-based owner of upscale Maha launched delivery platform Providoor in June, aggregating orders for home-delivered food from top restaurants such as Flower Drum, Estelle and Delia’s own venue, taking a commission of around 15 per cent.

“You can’t be analogue in a digital world,” says Delia. “This is a time for people to be honest with themselves and brave about the business they’re in. The good old days weren’t that good anyway. It’s time to evolve.”

Delia is one of many hospitality owners forced to rethink how they do business in the post-COVID environment. Most admit making front-of-house adjustments has been a major challenge.

Dion Sanusi owns Yoi Indonesian restaurant in the Melbourne CBD, which has just opened after Melbourne’s second lockdown. He’s finding COVID compliance a little simpler this time around, especially as QR code check-ins are simple, seamless and speedy.

“Melbourne diners are used to giving their name and contact details – they’re used to sanitising and mask-wearing now,” he says. “It’s not a problem for us at all.”

Jayne Newgreen owns Talbot Provedore and Eatery in country Victoria. She’s forward-looking but has found some of the new compliance requirements tricky to manage, especially as she has a foodstore component to the business as well as outside dining.

“We’re head counting all the time to make sure we’re within our density limits,” she says. The requirement to ensure diners are not from metro Melbourne has been a particular burden. “It’s one thing to ask for ID, but we don’t know every single suburb or postcode. It’s pretty tough to deal with.”

Mary-Jane Daffy owns two cafes in Melbourne’s south-east and has launched a slew of spin-off businesses over the past six months, including a burger shop, picnic boxes and a provedore selling relishes to her grandmother’s recipes. A multi-strand business is her safety net.

“I’m pragmatic,” she says. “I don’t like to lament what we’ve lost. We have to keep moving forward.”

With that in mind, she will continue refining takeaway offerings even as her cafes reopen. “We’ve gone from 100 seats to perhaps 40 seats,” she says. “There’s no way we can make up the revenue unless we do other things. We will keep forging forward, investing in the business, trusting that diners will return and the money will come back.”

The importance of community

For Daffy, innovation is built on a keen sense of being anchored in her community and seeking to understand what her customers want, not just practically but emotionally as well.

“Coffee is more than just coffee,” she says. “It’s routine, it’s normality – and people are craving any sign of that. When COVID hit, I really thought about those basics: familiarity, a sense of nostalgia, warmth and giving.”

She believes those key pillars of hospitality – warmth, generosity, familiarity – will be ever more important as the nuts and bolts of the dining experience evolve. “We have seen how important it is to provide a space for people to come, not just for a drink and some food but also conversation. It keeps them buoyant, and buoys us, too.”

Delia’s community is based not so much in neighbourhoods and more on loyalty to the Maha brand.

“It remains to be seen whether customers will re-engage with the venues they have loved,” he says. “Maha is 15 years old. That gives it a good chance. I think – hope – customers are very loyal.”

But he also opened a bar in Collingwood two months before shutdown. “Can it survive?” he asks. “I don’t know. Some of my venues may be casualties.”

Optimism for the future

“Hospitality is fundamentally creative and amazingly resilient,” says Daffy.

As Melbourne gears up for predominantly outdoor dining, she’s optimistic. “I think summer is going to have a fantastic vibe,” she says. “Will it be difficult? Sure. Will the weather be kind? Not always.

“But I think of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival’s World’s Longest Lunch [a glamorous outdoor three-course feast]. That’s one of the most wonderful events I’ve ever been to. If that’s the standard, how amazing. The future is exciting.”

Daffy considers more COVID positives. “I’m not sure what the new normal will be exactly,” she says. “But I know you will see businesses having offshoots and they’ll be really successful.”

She considers unthinkable benefits that the pandemic has brought us. “You can have [fine dining degustation] Attica at home: that would never have happened,” she says. “There are lots of silver linings.”

Delia is still passionate about restaurants, but he’s also relished the opportunity to start something fresh. “It’s a new world,” he says. “I will always love the romance of restaurants – the music, the smells, the people – but I also like being in my home with 10 mates, having chef-cooked food, and not having to catch an Uber home.”

Chris Lucas owns numerous restaurants, including ChinChin in Melbourne and Sydney. His northern outpost is thriving, while his Melbourne businesses have only just reopened.

“The traumas of the past seven months have taught me that even in the darkest moments we have to look for the positive,” says Lucas. “I have had many sleepless nights, but I am still a believer that there’s such a solid core of talent in this city that despite 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.”

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