The New Rules for Dining Out in the Age of Covid-19

Australian restaurants are currently able to accommodate dine-in trade for between 10 and 80 people, depending on state regulations and venue size. With many emerging from a dark and challenging period, it’ll be some time before the hospitality scene returns to pre-Covid vibes, if it gets there at all. As consumers, we have considerable influence over the speed and ease of the recovery.

We’re embarking on a new era for the customer, one Sali Sasi, co-owner of Adelaide’s Leigh Street Wine Room, calls “conscious dining”. So what does that mean? “Right now, it’s about being able to keep our team employed and our business breaking even,” Sasi tells Broadsheet. It’s a familiar story nationwide. Produce prices are up, and caps on dine-in numbers mean profits have all but evaporated. Many venues are trading out of baseline necessity.

As we begin to venture out again, we can anticipate big changes. It’s important to start with an open mind and be prepared to work with operators. They’re adjusting too, remember.

The first part is really simple: show up

It took just two nights for Sydney wine bar Poly to experience its first no-show. With capacity capped at 10, that’s a serious dent in the evening’s revenue.

It prompted owner Mat Lindsay to pen an Instagram post (which he subsequently deleted) that generated a number of ferocious comments from Poly fans and members of Sydney’s dining community. Some had been waiting months for the opportunity to dine out.

“I decide to take it down because people were getting really wound up,” Lindsay tells Broadsheet. “But at least it got people talking, so they’re aware of the impact a no-show can have on a place like ours.

“We’re not making money at the moment, but every little bit helps. If two out of 10 people don’t turn up, it’s really making it hard.”

How hard? “It’s kinda hard to tell, but it equates to about seven per cent of possible takings,” says Lindsay. “That’s more than most restaurant profit margins, though at this time [there’s other costs we have] such as wastage, utilities, online bookings.”

Covid restrictions have amplified small risks like this into business-breakers. “No-shows are shit at the best of times, let alone now,” says Sasi. “It comes down to respect – you don’t do a no-show to your hairdresser or your dentist, so you shouldn’t do one to a venue you have made a booking with.”

Steph Berndt runs front of house at Port Adelaide’s Low and Slow American BBQ. She spent her pre-Covid evenings juggling a tight door list against walk-in traffic, squeezing as many patrons as possible through the popular barbeque restaurant’s 35-seat dining room. She dealt with her first table of no-shows on reopening night, which was a real kick in the guts. “It’s always been disappointing, but now it can be devastating,” Berndt says.

“People don’t understand how much cost goes into their booking before they even arrive,” she explains. “Wages to prep, food costs, staff costs and more.” She says customers can be too complacent in thinking, “‘I’m sure they’ll fill the seat, it doesn’t matter.’ But it does matter.”

Get used to paying in advance

To safeguard venues against cancellations, deposits and credit card pre-authorisations are increasingly common. Some venues are using booking apps to simplify the process, so get familiar with cancellation policies and expect them to be enforced.

At Darlinghurst eatery Lankan Filling Station, walk-ins are out – for now. O Tama Carey has introduced specific seating times and a set $65 banquet, and prepayment is now required. “I know this may sound like a lot of rules, but for the time being it’s what we must do. And as the restrictions loosen, we’ll keep you updated with our offerings,” she says.

“Opening like this still isn’t something that will actually net much profit anyway – at this stage it’s more about keeping the restaurant afloat and the staff paid.”

Shannon Martinez of Fitzroy’s Smith & Daughters is putting off relaunching until June 16, to ensure the revised experience is the best it can be. “It’ll be a slow roll out to help people adjust to a new, weird way of being normal,” she says.

When the doors do reopen, customers will be offered an $80 fixed menu of 12 dishes, with the full amount paid at the time of booking. “When we can only have 20 pax [diners], we can’t afford for people to come in and split a sandwich,” she says.

“$80 is fuck all,” she adds. “Restaurants don’t get food that much cheaper than people buying it at home … a lot of the time we get our booze from Dan Murphy’s or Costco, because their prices are better than our distributors.”

In fact, during the pandemic, prices have escalated. “Everything started going up when the fires started,” says Martinez. Reduced availability and disrupted supply routes meant fresh produce became dearer, and then when restaurants lost customers and closed up, distributors did too. “A lot of our suppliers are closed still, so we’re having to go to other places – where we don’t have business relationships or get discounts for being good customers.

“It made a lot of places realise that we have been undercharging for a really long time. It’s been like a reset for us.”

A different type of prepaid “ticket” system has been introduced at Leigh Street Wine Room. Customers can now prepay $50 for lunch or $100 for dinner, to be spent any way they like. “This is purely to ensure we’re making the minimum required to open,” Sasi says. “If we don’t sell many tickets – or any at all – it means we can roster accordingly and potentially not even open for that night.”

If you wanted a clear indication of what venues are dealing with right now – this is it. Budgets are stretched so tight, proprietors would rather close their doors than risk making a loss.

To compensate for reduced capacity, Low and Slow added a third sitting each night and stripped its menu right back to make it work. “Diners are required to participate in our ‘Feed Me’ menu, with the à la carte menu available for takeaway only,” Berndt says. “It means a slightly longer night for the team, but we’re making sure we can get as many people through the door as possible,” she adds. “Ninety-five percent of our customers eat this way with us anyway, so we have found the reaction to be positive. People understand the need for a minimum spend.”

One of the first things many venues did when lockout loomed was introduce gift vouchers to secure revenue when they needed it most, even if they couldn’t serve you until a later date. “Where possible, save your gift vouchers for when restaurants are at full capacity with no restrictions,” says Sasi.

Be on time

Your punctuality has never been more important – especially if the restaurant has multiple sittings. If you’re booked from 6pm to 8pm, don’t rock up 30 minutes late and still expect to be seated. There may not be enough time for the venue to deliver the experience you’re paying for.

Likewise, if you arrive early and the dining room is full, staff may ask you to wait elsewhere. They’re not being difficult; they’re legally not allowed to let you in the door.

And be mindful not to outstay your booking. If yours is the last group in the venue, just keeping the lights on is costing the owner money. Leave promptly once service is finished.

“Don’t they feel stupid, sitting there with the chairs all up?” says Martinez. “The amount of reviews we’ve had from people saying, ‘They rushed us out’ or ‘We were moved to the bar to eat our desserts’ [is frustrating] … Customers need to acknowledge that the time is the time.”

Be human

“The hospitality industry has really gone through a tough fucking time with the closure, reopening and all the uncertainty that comes with that,” Sasi tells us. It might take a night or two for venues to hit their stride again, and until then, operators and staff would really appreciate our cooperation and an extra shot of patience.

It’s reasonable to assume things will go wrong. Before you get mad, look around and get some perspective.

“We are more excited to have [our customers] back than they are to be here,” says Martinez. “We’ve missed this so much. So trust us and let us do our thing.”

“This has been easily the most stressful time in my career – my life,” she admits. “The livelihood of 42 [staff] is on my shoulders, and I have to be here greeting customers with a smile like everything’s fine. So be fucking nice.”

She’s also asking people to hit pause on online reviews. If an experience wasn’t quite as good as last time, “There’s no point going onto Yelp or whatever and saying ‘It used to be better,’” she says. “That’s gonna be the last nail in the coffin for restaurants.

“Hopefully everyone now realises how goddamn hard it is to make sourdough properly, and won’t complain about a $2 bread charge.”

It’s not all bad news

At Leigh Street Wine Room, “we had to find alternative ways to make revenue so we could keep our team employed, along with producing some cash flow,” says Sasi. “We ended up developing and launching a sister company, Juice Traders, our online bottle shop.” The initiative meant floor staff could be redeployed as delivery drivers, ferrying plonk to households across the city. “Juice Traders was something we always had on the cards, but never had the time,” she says. “Now that we do, it’ll continue to be part of our business growth plan.”

Berndt says, “It certainly hasn’t been easy. Changing our whole business model from dine-in to takeaway only back in March was a huge task. Luckily we hit our stride within a couple of weeks, and it soon became a pretty well-oiled machine.” Now they’ve learned the ropes, businesses will continue with takeaway in order to service a larger market. “We had the opportunity to serve takeaway to many people who had never dined with us before, so it really opened up a new customer base.”

So, what is the one thing restauranteurs wish customers understood?

“Our team often talks about the fact we wish guests understood that we’re not about their expectation,” says Sasi. “We are who we are, we have our own DNA, as does every other venue. To get upset that you’re seated at a bar when you have in fact come to a ‘wine bar’ is not cool.” She says, “Respecting venues for what and who they are should be paramount, and if you don’t like it, that’s actually ok – just don’t be a dick about it.”

Hospitality staff work long hours and the money really isn’t all that good. “I haven’t had to let anyone go – which is fucking awesome – but some of my staff have been doing it really tough,” Martinez says. For some consumers, lockdown has meant we’re actually better off – having been forcibly estranged from certain indulgences. “It’s time to treat your staff,” she says. “We’re one of the worst countries in the world for tipping, [so if you can] now’s the time to chuck some money down for people.”

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