Reopening after lockdown: Lessons from the Aussies

Neil Simpson (1)

Neil Simpson (1)

26 June 2020

As the reopening of bars and pubs edges closer, how can operators prepare? For advice and ideas, look Down Under

It is no understatement to say that 4 July will be the dawn of a new era for English pubs, bars and restaurants. Uncertainty abounds, but there are plenty of hospitality businesses around the world already hosting customers following Covid-19 lockdown. We ask Australian bar and pub owners for tips on operating in our new reality.

Reflect on your business

Due to the power distribution between its states, restrictions have eased at different rates around Australia. In New South Wales – the most populated state – restaurants, bars and cafés were permitted to reopen with up to 10 patrons inside from 15 May, following a two-month closedown. Subsequent easing means venues can currently host up to 50, but food must be ordered with alcohol.

All these little things were possible because we stopped, we looked at ourselves and our business

Stefano Catino

Sydney’s world-famous cocktail bar Maybe Sammy has been among the hospitality businesses navigating New South Wales’ Covid-19 restrictions. Co-owner Stefano Catino says this is the time to reflect on your business.

Maybe Sammy’s staff cost was ‘very high before Covid-19’ and a tendency to rely on extra, reserve bartenders had emerged. ‘Before it was “I don’t wanna wash the glasses… I’m only a chef…” but now everybody does everything, so our staff cost is much better’, says Cantino. ‘We also looked at the menu: we’re selling 300 pizzas and one calamari? Maybe this calamari doesn’t belong on the menu. People are ordering Australian beer rather than Italian, because people don’t care anymore, so let’s get more Australian beer.

‘All these little things were possible because we stopped, we looked at ourselves and our business’, he concludes.

Bookings only

Michael Baker owns the neighbourhood wine bar Henry Sugar in north Melbourne. ‘If the UK has similar restrictions to what we have here, I would say go for bookings only. Tasting menus are working well for us, because they guarantee a spend-per-head. Everybody’s been pretty understanding with that.

‘This is a great opportunity to try things’, advises Baker. ‘We might not have had the balls to try some of this in the BC [Before Covid] era. To say “sorry, set menu only”, you could scare off so many people. But people have been understanding and flexible; they know how much everyone has suffered in our industry.’

Embrace tech

In comparison to its neighbour, the state of Victoria took things slower: customers have been drinking in since 1 June. Like New South Wales, food must accompany alcohol. Another key restriction stipulates 4sqm per person, per room, currently up to a maximum of 20.

Tasting menus are working well for us, because they guarantee a spend-per-head

Michael Baker

‘People have had to understand that going to the pub at the moment is not like it was a year ago’, summarises Melbourne pub manager Tristan Jallais. ‘We’ve set up bookings, which is obviously very un-pub-like, but it’s helped us to maintain the structure necessary to comply with Covid-19 restrictions. With our booking confirmations, the email includes a list of the current restrictions – social distancing requirements, contact tracing, maximum capacities per table – because keeping everybody informed means that nothing is shocking.’

Jallais runs the large Post Office Hotel in north Melbourne, which usually has room for 900. The site reopened for 64, thanks to having multiple rooms and a garden. Embracing technology has been key: ‘We were fortunate that in February we were trialling order-at-table technology’, says Jallais. ‘We were able to update that tool for the current restrictions, by uploading all our menus. The other option was á la carte with table service, which would have been more labour-intensive and put our staff at greater risk by interacting with guests more.’

Rethink wine lists

Meanwhile, wine bar GM Jane Tschappeller has overseen some great solutions at Punch Lane in Melbourne’s Central Business District. ‘We’ve got a 15-page wine list, so we can’t duplicate that for every customer and wipe down each page’, says Jane. ‘We’ve moved to a concise list on a laminated sheet and for those who request the long list, we made the text slightly larger and laminated it. This way, we can talk through our wines while maintaining that 1.5m distance.’

'We made the text slightly larger and laminated it. This way, we can talk through our wines while maintaining that 1.5m distance'

Jane Tschappeller

Punch Lane’s food has also had a rethink. ‘We’re buying seasonal things by-the-box,’ says Tschappeller. ‘By scattering seasonal ingredients throughout the menu there’s no waste; our cool room is empty by the end of the week. We could be shut down again at any moment, so we don’t want to end up with waste.’

Customer understanding

Down a Sydney alleyway you’ll find another world-renowned cocktail bar, PS40. The 25-seater venue is in the Central Business District (CBD), but co-owner Michael Chiem isn’t worried about plummeting city centre footfall: ‘We still do walk-ins but now, because of the limited capacities, bookings have increased quite a bit.'

‘I think most of our trade from the past two weeks is not the habitual Sydney worker, it’s people who just want to hang out with friends,’ explains Michael. What about dealing with unpredictable behaviour? ‘People have been quite conscious and understanding, even if they’ve had a few drinks. Customers are OK with waiting a touch longer because they know we have to do things in a certain way.’

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