On the line: How COVID saved my business
Richard Cornish, Food Writer, speaks to the chef that discovered how to succeed through adversity
The chef behind one of regional Victoria’s most revered dining destinations has come to a surprising realisation. Michael Ryan, who owns the two-chef’s hatted Provenance in Beechworth, found a positive in the pandemic.
“I reckon COVID probably saved our business,” says Ryan at his restaurant in a gold-rush era bank in the heart of Beechworth, a high-country tourist town hammered for months by the unprecedented 2019/20 bushfires.
“But the business had already stopped growing by mid-2019,” says the softly spoken chef. “And we were not an outlier in town. Visitation was already declining and some of the issues we are experiencing now, such as staff shortages, had already begun to set in.”
Ryan says he wasn’t alone. Conversations with hospitality colleagues in Sydney uncovered similar stories. And he realised the old ways had to change. “When we had to close due to lockdowns, it gave us the impetus to re-evaluate what we were doing,” says Ryan, who runs the business with his wife and sommelier Jeanette Henderson.
“We believed we had to be competitive and offer many solutions to people’s desires with an a la carte menu and being open six nights in a tourist town. We got a lot of grief from customers if we were not open, but we realised we could be wrong.”
Provenance had become known for its Japanese-influenced menu, fine dining service with multiple drops, and a deep and broad wine list. “We had a complex offering run by a really small team,” Ryan explains. The couple sat down with their kitchen and front-of-house crew and nutted out a new model. A la carte went out the window, replaced by a multicourse set menu served in small dishes on ornate trays in three drops.
“This was originally a response to reduce the risk of virus transmission,” Ryan says. “But it allowed us to service the dining room with fewer staff working back and forth to the pass.” The wine list was reduced by half and the amount of stock kept in the 160-year-old solid granite cellar – formerly a safe for holding miners’ gold – was reduced substantially, freeing up cash flow.
In 2021, Ryan started another business called the Beechworth Bitter Company. He had previously applied for a government grant to scope out producing a Japanese-style sake, but the process proved too difficult. The always-inventive chef refuses to waste anything, so he used the sake brewing equipment to make Italian-style amaro or bitter digestives.
Ryan was inspired to explore the process while cleaning out his dry store, stumbling across a cache of botanicals and spices he had purchased a few years before. During the long winter lockdowns, he tasted and tested classic Italian and other European digestives, reverse engineering recipes, steeping roots, flowers and seeds in alcohol and water, mixing, and blending a range of delicious drinks.
His Beechworth Bitters range includes a yuzu-flavoured limoncello and spicy cherry-flavoured amaro called Walk in the Black Forest, now poured in Australia’s top bars and upmarket restaurants. “We are now making batch three and will be making 4500 bottles shortly,” says Ryan. “It is a very good second business that works well with what we are doing already. I don’t want to COVID again, but it taught us some amazing lessons.”