When the going got tough in March with the COVID-19 shutdown, Josh Niland, the award-winning chef and owner of Sydney’s Saint Peter restaurant and Fish Butchery shop, got busy. By John Burfitt.
In the period of 24 hours, Josh Niland pivoted his attention towards creating the fine-dining take-home dinner kits, Mr Niland at Home – and helped save his business in the process.
Five months on, and with Saint Peter back open again, the pick-up dinner kits have proven so successful, they’ve become a staple part of the business. In the wake of surviving the crisis, Josh shares his insights into the lessons he learnt along the way.
When the COVID-19 shutdown was announced in March, how did you cope?
On the Monday before we closed Saint Peter, my wife Julie and I put our heads together at 9.30am in anticipation of what was ahead. By 3.30pm, we had created the new business model for the pick-up dinner kits, Mr Niland At Home. The next afternoon, our first customers were picking up their orders, but by the Friday, we had so many restaurant cancellations, we closed Saint Peter on March 21.
How did you manage to come up with the concept and roll it out so quickly?
Julie’s a whiz when it comes to making things happen quickly, and it was relatively simple because we had our retail business Fish Butchery, a good database and the Shopify account already set up. We were in a good position to move swiftly.
How did operations change from being a restaurant to a food preparation service?
The day after the restaurant closed, we removed all the tables, tore up the kitchen and the upstairs storage area, and created a new kind of a kitchen in the middle of the restaurant.
Describe the Mr Niland at Home offering.
The intention for those taking a Mr Niland At Home dinner kit was to give them a 90 per cent ready meal, where they’re just required to do the last 10 per cent at home to complete the preparation. So, all the stocks are ready to go and the hard work done, but they may still need to fry a piece of fish or heat up the soup.
How many dinner kits were you selling?
Each day we were providing 100 dinner kits, so that’s meals for 200 people. That kind of frequency was unbelievable and we were supported by some very loyal customers purchasing the kits five nights a week. I also created a different menu for each day.
It sounds all very straight-forward.
There were some jagged times early on, getting stock orders and pick-up times right, but in that first week we did enough to be encouraged to continue doing it. The next week, I was here by myself and those days were extremely difficult because there were a lot of our customers wanting to purchase the kits, but it was very challenging to execute what I wanted to do by myself. It was critical that this worked, as there was no other option.
What was the hardest part of this change?
Standing down our team was excruciating. Fish Butchery was relatively unaffected, but it cost a lot of money to shut the restaurant. Saint Peter used to be the backbone at times for Fish Butchery, but throughout this time, Fish Butchery needed to become the backbone for Saint Peter. I was able to reinstate my chef into the kitchen, and due to being so busy, I was then able to re-employ almost everyone. We now have nine staff at Saint Peter and eight at the Butchery.
At what point did you know this new model was working?
I leant heavily on Julie to manage those numbers and I did what I do best, to make sure revenue was coming in, and there was a lot of interest in what we were doing. Once we were able to re-employ our people, that was when it felt like we were having a form of success. But, it was mentally challenging to weather that storm
Did you have concerns about maintaining your reputation when you’re handing over the last 10 per cent of preparing the meal?
It would take the best part of my Sundays thinking through the menus – ‘if they do this, what will they then have to do, and what are the ramifications if it goes badly?’ So much thought went into those meals, and yet I feel like it was creatively one of the best things that happened. It made us think of fish very differently, like putting a yellowfin tuna through a grinder to produce mince, and then you’re offering lasagne and bolognaise.
What were the most important lessons you learnt?
I learnt about communication, as there were times when I didn’t want to speak to anybody and just wanted to make sure the product was excellent. Our chef Paul Farag had a few chats where he said, ‘You need to calm down and give us a more time to get ready.’ We are now open four days and closed three days, which gives everyone far more perspective.
What is the state of play now with your businesses?
Saint Peter is open, and we changed Mr Niland at Home into Fish Butchery At Home. While I’m still writing the menu, it’s being executed by the Fish Butchery team and we see it as an necessary revenue outlet for us. So we have the restaurant, and at Fish Butchery, we have retail, takeaway and the take-home kits. We did see the numbers of the kits drop off a little bit after the restaurant re-opened, but then they started to kick in again
What advice would you offer any colleagues considering doing something similar?
There’s never going to be a right decision to make, so just go for the one that feels like the best decision at that time. And trust the good people around you. You might fail but trust that the failures will only make you a better leader in the long run.