Adapting tiny spaces

Mike Locker of Orange Lotus café in Sydney.

For smaller venues, creative thinking is required to maintain social distancing rules and run a business. Here are seven ways to adapt the space for a dining establishment. By Kerryn Ramsey

Abiding by social distancing laws that require four square metres per person often means that a venue cannot contain enough customers to keep the business viable. Business owners are utilising all kinds of tricks to keep things running. Here are some inventive ways businesses have adapted to social distancing rules.

1. It’s all about takeaway and delivery

Cafes, bars and restaurants that are unable to host enough customers often turn to takeaway service and home delivery. Orders are phoned or entered online, the customer picks up at a designated time and departs with no social interaction. Likewise, many wait staff have become delivery drivers to get orders to hungry and thirsty customers.

2. Drive-thru when there is no drive-thru

Inspired by fast-food establishments with drive-thru service, cafes and restaurants are co-opting the concept. Customers order online, park their car nearby and text their location to the business. A staff member then hand-delivers the order to the car. Quick, easy, convenient and COVIDSafe.

Titus Jones in Marrickville redecorated as a taco truck.

3. Transforming the shopfront

Titus Jones, a small bar in Sydney’s inner-west suburb of Marrickville, has been in operation for five years and is run by Merrick Webb and his partner Shannon Kean. He looks after the bar and front of house while Kean produces all the Mexican food coming out of the tiny kitchen. The lockdown was basically a death blow to Titus Jones until regulations were changed, allowing takeaway beverages. Titus Jones started selling a package that consisted of three tacos and a double margarita in a sterilised Corona beer bottle.

“People went crazy for it,” says Webb. “I was sitting in a window at the front of the bar, handing out food and drinks, and I decided to start decorating. I added plants, a big cactus and some speakers. I chalked a big taco food trunk across the front of the bar. A few days later, I painted in the design. Our fake, painted, stationary, taco food truck gave us some of our biggest days of trade ever.”

The bar was originally licensed to hold 40 but can now only have 15 people. The takeaway business has been so successful that Webb wants to keep it going, even when things return to normal. “I’ve actually gone through some measures to reduce the legal number of people for which the bar is licensed,” he says. “We can dip out of security requirements, make more money per head, manage the flow of people better and focus on takeaway.”

4. A new type of marketing

Bespoke branded products such as jams, preserves, spices, stocks and marinades are not only popular but a great marketing tool. Many businesses are now selling their products at local markets where social distancing is much easier to maintain.

The little Prince.

5. Taking it to the people

The Prince of York (POY), an inner-Sydney restaurant and bar, had only been operating for seven months when the lockdown hit. “We had to pivot, modify and adapt to the ever-changing hospitality environment to ensure our business didn’t go down,” says Laura Carson, group marketing manager at the POY. “Not only did we provide takeaway from the venue and delivery around Sydney by our incredible team but we catered to staff working in hospitals. We also put our food truck on the road.”

The van, a 60-year old Citroën, was christened the Little Prince and became a great opportunity to reach different markets and existing customers. “The truck’s daily destination was announced on our Instagram page and the engagement was amazing,” says Carson. “We were selling dinner boxes and fresh home-made pasta along with the POY crowd favourites. Our spaghetti crab in a bag was very popular and there were pre-orders every day.”

While not operating at present, Carson thinks there will be many opportunities to put the Little Prince back on the road during these socially distanced times.

6. Inside out

Councils are doing their bit and becoming much more accepting of moving diners outside in order to fulfil distancing requirements. Lake Macquarie City in NSW is trialling a program called VibrantSCENE that allows cafes, restaurants and food trucks to use council land in order to serve more customers safely.

The Orange Lotus café used their tiny space to their advantage.

7. Windows of opportunity

Orange Lotus Cafe in the Sydney suburb of Balmain is an old sandstone building that was originally a corner shop, then a milk bar in the ’50s, and is now a popular neighbourhood cafe. It has been owned and run by Mike Locker for the past two years. “We had a maximum capacity of 20- to 24-seated customers but now we only seat eight to 10 people, depending on each group’s size,” says Locker.

The cafe always had a strong takeaway business that Locker wanted to keep going. He utilised a window on Evans Street for customers to place their orders, pay and grab a squirt of sanitiser. They then walk around to the window on Beattie Street and wait for their order to be passed out. It’s very easy for everyone to stay socially distanced. 

“It has actually created a new way for us to do business,” says Locker. “Inside is a clean, spacious environment and the exterior takeaway process works quickly and efficiently. Weekends are now normal trade and our coffee sales are the highest ever but food sales are slightly down. I intend to stick with this system, even once COVID is finished.”