The local

Aurelien Bagou, owner of Chez Bagou. Image supplied.

While suburban bistros are a popular dining option for many Australians, forethought and planning has to be applied to everything from their location to their size. Many were impacted by the COVID-19 lockdowns but managed to survive—and even thrive—by pivoting their business model and applying some creative thinking. So, what is the secret to their success?

Location, location, location

City Winery is a working micro-winery operating out of a converted warehouse in the Brisbane suburb of Fortitude Valley. As part of its opening two years ago, Carl’s was introduced as a pop-up bistro and wine bar in the suburb of Newstead. This hole-in-the-wall venue was embraced by locals and the decision was made to keep Carl’s running. It is now a popular Newstead icon. 

“Location is everything for a suburban bistro like ours,” says Hans Palandt, sommelier and manager of Carl’s. “Too far out and you’re easily forgotten. Too centred and people will step out of their area to discover other places. Ideally, you want your bistro to be the go-to spot for after work drinks, impromptu dinners for locals and a pre-dinner drink location for people walking by. We are very lucky at Carl’s as we tick pretty much everything on that list.”

Chez Bagou is a classic French bistro that serves modern cuisine—a style often described by the term ‘bistronomie.’ It is located in the south Melbourne suburb of Albert Park and has built a clientele of loyal locals and lovers of French cuisine. In September 2020, right in the middle of a lockdown, Chez Bagou celebrated their second anniversary. 

“An ideal location is where the venue has great visual exposure to traffic and people walking past,” says Aurelien Bagou, front man and owner of Chez Bagou. Moving to Melbourne 13 years ago, Bagou has worked in Michelin starred restaurants across France. “The old real estate saying, ‘location, location, location’ is just as true for suburban bistros.”

Nearby competition

Positioning a bistro in an area with no other restaurants or cafes, or in the middle of completely unrelated businesses, can work against the best interests of the business. By standing alone, a bistro is dependent on becoming a destination where people travel specifically to visit that venue. 

“Having competition nearby is a good thing as it creates a bigger hub, draws attention to the area and provides more foot traffic,” says Palandt. “However, it’s also important that the competition have different offerings so there’s a diversity of experiences to encourage people to return and explore.”

Bagou agrees. “Competition should always be nearby as everyone benefits from each other. The more there is, the better it is.” 

“Having nearby competition is a good thing,” says Hans Palandt, sommelier and manager of Carl’s (above). Image supplied.

Perfect size

Most suburban bistros are smaller venues, embracing a warm intimate atmosphere rather than a larger fast-food feel. These are places to enjoy a meal, a glass of wine and to linger over a coffee. Often, suburban bistros are operated with minimal staff, sometimes as few as two or three individuals, and keeping the number of tables small is essential.

“Chez Bagou is a medium sized business with indoor and outdoor seating,” says Bagou. “This works well for me as it is easy to manage and creates very few headaches.”

When setting up Carl’s, the team at City Winery were very aware that it’s easy to go overboard with size—and that can easily destroy the atmosphere and vibe. “For a suburban bistro and wine bar such as ours, the perfect size is between 25 and 40 seats,” says Palandt. “The intimate feel we provide is crucial and if we were bigger, we’d lose that. On the other hand, being too small would not give people the chance to wander in and grab a seat. That can put people off from trying again.”

COVID pivot

The COVID-19 lockdowns could have been the death knell for the most beloved suburban bistros but, invariably they survived. This was largely due to creative thinking, a decisive pivoting of the business and a ‘never say die’ attitude. 

Chez Bagou reacted quickly to the new reality of lockdowns. “We turned the bistro into a French delicatessen for seven months and provided home deliveries,” says Bagou. “We consider ourselves very lucky to be able to do that and to have such loyal customers who supported us during the tough times. “

Likewise, Carl’s pivoted quickly and transformed their business model. “During lockdown we provided a takeaway offering for both food and wine,” says Palandt. “We also created a paired dining experience that people could enjoy in their own homes. We are thankful for all our regulars who were a tremendous support.”

With lockdowns easing, vaccinations being rolled out and all signs pointing to a return to normalcy, the future of suburban bistros is bright. 

“Carl’s has gone from strength to strength since the lockdown eased and our following continues to grow,” says Palandt. “We are focusing on our biggest strength—consistency. With more and more residential buildings going up in the area, the market will only get stronger.”

Bagou is also positive about the future. “Our business was growing prior to COVID-19 and now it’s booming again,” he says. “After the last year, nothing can stop us now.”