When guests arrive at Fabio Dore’s restaurant he feels like he is welcoming them into his own home: the outside space is modelled on his mother’s garden in Sardinia and the menu is packed with the Italian flavours he grew up with.
But for almost two months now the usually bustling dining room of his Sydney restaurant, One Ford Street, has been silent — and the a la carte menu has been replaced with takeaway pizza.
“It was emotional when that first customer walked in,” he says of the decision to open again on Friday for just 10 precious diners — a far cry from the 75 he would usually expect on a busy Friday.
“There was a mixture of excitement and also fear,” he says. “We are looking forward to reopening but at the same time it’s very hard.”
After 24 hours of frantic cleaning to prepare the restaurant to operate under the shadow of COVID-19 — and armed with a 20-litre tub of sanitiser, a dramatically smaller and now laminated menu, latex gloves and a skeleton staff — the work of a restauranteur sounds a little like running a hospital, Dore says.
Just how different the restaurant experience will be, will become clearer over the coming days.
But a few themes are beginning to emerge.
Don’t expect to just show up
With only 10 diners at a time, reservations are all but essential and many places want you to pay in advance.
Spanish fine dining restaurant Alegrias in Sydney’s Rozelle requires all bookings to be made online and a credit card added to secure the reservation.
“If customers book but then don’t show up then, with only 10 people per sitting, that can destroy the entire night’s takings,” says owner Kevin Bowen. “It’s very different from when we ran a 130-seat restaurant and could afford to absorb a few no-shows.”
Is this the end of the 7.30pm reservation?
Anyone wedded to the standard Aussie restaurant reservation of 7.30pm, and then all night to slowly make your way through three courses and a few drinks, may need to rethink the way they dine out.
Most restaurants are juggling the 10-person limit by aiming for multiple nightly seatings in an effort to compensate for the drop in numbers.
Dore has switched his business strategy to open earlier, starting at 5pm. “We hope families will come to the earlier seating,” he says.
Each session will also be timed and diners will have around one-and-a-half hours to order and eat their meal before a second seating begins at 7pm (after tables and chairs are sanitised). A third seating will begin later in the evening depending on demand.
The strategy to offer early reservations fits with data from booking website The Fork, which has seen clicks for food delivery peaking between 4 and 5pm.
Long-running Indian eatery Curryville, in the Brisbane suburb of Morningside, says it will re-open from Saturday night, even though the limit on numbers will cut its profitability.
To accommodate demand, owner and chef Pervez Burney said there will be two seatings of 10 people — at 5:30pm and 7:00pm.
“It’s been a bit challenging, but we’ve marked out the whole place, obviously with distancing between tables,” says Pervez, who has operated the restaurant since 2005.
“People are eating much earlier [for takeaway], around 5:30pm, or 6:30pm,” he says. “By 7:30 pm, it’s pretty much dead.”
Some restaurants will introduce a minimum spend
Dore’s fine dining restaurant is one of many that will now require customers to commit to a minimum spend.
At One Ford Street that will be around $150 per head.
“I can’t afford any more for people to come in and order a pizza and a glass of wine but stay at the table for two hours,” he says.
Takeaway is here to stay
Just up the road from Dore’s restaurant is the Kafeine cafe where manager Lee says a pivot to takeaway has saved the well-known local café and he expects the takeaway business to remain strong.
The Fork’s research suggests he is not alone.
More than 70 per cent of businesses saw an increase in demand for delivery and pickup during coronavirus restrictions and of the 40 per cent of restaurants that didn’t offer delivery or pickup pre-COVID-19 — almost all will continue in a post-COVID world.
And so is the side hustle
Many restaurants have diversified their business during coronavirus to keep income flowing during shutdown, says Wes Lambert, the CEO of the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association.
These strategies have not only compensated for lost income but have been so successful in some cases that a new business model has been born, he says.
Things like cooking classes, at-home chef-cooked dinners, a grocery offering and high-end takeaway have worked well for many restaurants and could remain on the business menu for a long time to come.
At Kafeine, Lee — who reopened for the first time on Friday — says while the cafe was busy it didn’t pull the numbers he had expected.
Most customers stuck to their now-regular routine of takeaway and avoided the sit-down experience.
“Our takeaway business has saved us and we are able to survive now with that business,” Lee says. “But our regular customers wanted us to open and we hope that we can continue the takeaway with a bonus of 10 seated customers.”
This weekend will be the real test, Lee says. Pre-coronavirus Kafeine was a magnet for weekend brunching but he has no idea how quickly that crowd will return.
If more than 10 people turn up at a time over the weekend, Lee says the plan is to add names to a wait list and cross his fingers they will return when a table becomes available.
Diners will find a new routine
The Fork has found that 70 per cent of diners plan to dine-in at restaurants just as often as before and as many as 76 per cent want to hurry back for a restaurant experience.
Carlo Larocca, who had coffee and a milkshake at a Sydney café on Friday with his son Luca, 8, says he was “an early adopter” of the lockdown lifestyle and was equally early in getting back to the café lifestyle.
“I came to get a takeaway coffee and discovered the café was open again,” he says. “It is nice to get back to the routine.”
But almost half (48 per cent) of people are concerned about coronavirus-related safety, according to The Fork, and up to 60 per cent saying they would avoid restaurants that were not adhering to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Kate Woolrych and her children Toby, 8, and Zara, 5, were also enjoying a café trip for the first time in weeks. “I’m conscious [of coronavirus safety] but not worried,” she says.
About 26 per cent said the restaurant shutdown has made them think more closely about their spending habits.
“I do wonder how many people will realise how much money they have saved by not being able to eat out,” Woolrych says.
“But I have been coming here since before Toby was born and I still think it’s important to support local businesses.”
Sterilise, sterilise, sterilise
At Kevin Bowen’s tapas restaurant customers must agree to a list of safety procedures before arriving, including sterilising their hands.
“We haven’t had a lot of guidance from the government on how to approach this but I don’t want to be the restaurant that doesn’t take things seriously,” says Bowen, who has asked his staff to wear face masks as well as agree to a schedule of handwashing and cleaning the restaurant between each sitting.
Bowen printed and laminated 30 menus to ensure that even if he has three fully-booked separate sittings, every diner will be guaranteed to receive a fresh menu that will then be thoroughly cleaned before being used again the following day.
The end of table-top condiments
Let’s face it — there was always something icky about the communal salt dish.
But coronavirus means that a pinch of rock salt along with many more shared table-top condiments are likely to be a thing of the past.
“Sanitiser on every table is the new condiment now,” says Bowen, only half joking.
At The Royal Oak hotel in Sydney’s Balmain — famous for its burgers — the condiment ban has meant opening will be delayed until stocks of single-serve tomato sauce, mustard, salt and pepper arrive.
Some of our favourite restaurants won’t make it
Simon Gloftis, the owner of popular high-end outlets Hellenika at The Calile and SK Steak and Oyster in Brisbane, predicts that the coronavirus pandemic would see “a massive spate of closures and unemployment will rise because of it”.
He said: “Our industry was almost broken before coronavirus because of massive labour costs, high operating and rental costs, pay roll tax, GST and everything else.
“We will see many of our favourite restaurants close down and unemployment within hospitality will rise because of it.
He said he supported the move to reopen, but he would wait longer before reopening his own businesses.
“I’m not going to open for 10 people because it would take me a month to ramp up anyway,” he said.
“I will wait until they allow up to 100 people in July before I do business again. And even then, I will still not be making money at Hellenika where I really need 200 customers.”
Mr Gloftis said that he had retained around 70 employees with the help of the Job Keeper program, which is just under half of his entire staff.
“We need the capacity to earn, so we need a bit of help from the government… the fringe benefits tax has got to go.
“Why not make business meals tax deductible again? Let the top end of town look after the bottom end of town.”
Those that do may offer something different to eat
With fewer customers and so much uncertainty restaurant menus are also changing.
Menus are shorter because fewer diners means less turnover and the threat of food being spoiled before it can be served.
Suppliers are also doing it tough, says Dore, and are now asking for cash payment on delivery.
In a cash-strapped industry, uncertain about what the weeks ahead will dish up, no restaurant wants its financial resources tied up in fresh food that doesn’t end up being used.
So for now diners must enjoy a highlights menu, with just 10 other patrons, perhaps eating at five in the afternoon.
It’s dining out “lite” but for many, it’s the best sign yet that the worst of Australia’s brush with coronavirus may now be behind us.