The end game

Iain Ling has had the sad task of having to close SuperLing. Image: supplied.

What’s the right way to close your restaurant? Super Ling owner Iain Ling talks about the sometimes surprising process of winding back the business. Interview by Angela Tufvesson.

After nearly three years serving playful Chinese comfort food to Melbourne’s inner-north university crowd, Super Ling shut its doors for the final time on 1 May. Owner Iain Ling says the reasons are many but all stem from that pesky c-word—COVID. Here, he shares his insights on closing a restaurant and keeping his reputation intact. 

Why did you decide to close Super Ling?

Super Ling was in Melbourne’s university precinct—basically slap-bang in the middle of RMIT and the University of Melbourne. We were really popular for lunch with students, lecturers, university staff and people like that who worked in the area. With the universities at 20 per cent occupancy, they just haven’t come back. The local streets are empty when they’d normally be bustling with people. 

It was a small venue that could only fit 34 people, and the regulations reduced that to 25. You can’t really build up a financial buffer with 25 people. If there’s another snap lockdown or anything happens, we just didn’t have that safety zone. 

When did you make the final call to close?

We had to decide if we could hang on for another year. Financially and emotionally, it was a big question—the emotional turmoil, in particular, of owning small venues over the last 12 months has taken a big toll. 

We decided to ride out JobKeeper then make the call after that. In the end, we decided to call it a day in early March. With the number of external pressures, the only decision we could make was to get out now. We can’t increase lunch trade unless the university trade comes back, which it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. 

How did you manage the process of closing the restaurant?

I had to sit down with the accountants and lawyers and learn how to close the restaurant because I’d never done it before—not even for someone else. The main focus was trying to get as close to zero as we could with wages, rent, tax commitments, super commitments and those sorts of things.

We had to manage our tax repayments and work out things like staff holiday pay, as well as cancel random things like bins and cleaning. Notifying everybody was a few days’ work, and there was a lot of decisions to make. You have to work your way through and try not to miss anything.

What surprised you about your final month of trade?

The place was chockers, and everyone was asking why we were closing. We had private events and were booked out every day until we closed. It shows people care, but there’s an irony in making your restaurant busy by closing it down. It was pretty full-on last month, but getting closer to that magical exit point of zero was definitely a bonus.  

How did you manage staff and suppliers?

It was a small team—there was only five of us. Everybody who wanted a job at our other venue, The Lincoln, which is just down the road, got one. It’s just sad we don’t see each other every day.

We didn’t have too many suppliers, and our beverages came from The Lincoln, but it was definitely good not to have too many debts outstanding. 

What about your diners—have you tried to move their custom to The Lincoln?

A lot of our customers sent really nice, heartwarming messages to us, and many of them floated between the two businesses anyway because they live or work in the area. They are quite different venues, but we’ve got a nice crossover of the demographics. 

Are you worried your reputation will take a hit?

Not really. You never open a restaurant thinking you’re going to close it, but at the end of the day it’s a sign of the times. There’s not much we can do with the universities at 20 per cent. I’m not sure how much longer we could have waited, pouring cash into a black hole, at which point your mental health starts to deteriorate. With a family—I’ve got two small children—you’ve just got to make a bigger choice with everything that’s going on around you.  

What’s your advice to other business owners contemplating closure?

It greatly depends on what your product is and where you’re located. Nobody wants to close a restaurant—it’s part of the fabric of who we are. We enjoy welcoming people and interacting with customers. It takes quite a bit of confidence to be able to say, ‘This isn’t going to work for us at this point in time’. 

If you’re struggling and hold on for a month or another two months, those holes are going to get bigger and they have detrimental effects down the track, even when you’re out of the business, as you still need to pay it all back.