What we’ll keep

impact of coronavirus on hospitality industry
Billy and Max run the hugely popular Babaji’s Kitchen.

When the pandemic hit, hospitality businesses across Australia acted fast and innovated to survive. Here are four of your peers who had great ideas—that you could use too. Rachel Smith reports

Coronavirus has sent hospitality businesses scrambling for ways stay afloat—and it’s those who’ve innovated and tapped into their loyal customer base that have managed to make it through. Here, four restaurant owners share what they tweaked, and what they’ll keep.

“We returned to our festival roots to survive.”

Billy Crombie and Max Kamil Hassan | Babaji’s Kitchen – Belgrave, VIC 

“My husband Max is Keralan and we started out as a festival business with a food truck, working our way up to having a street food restaurant in the tourist town of Belgrave, in the Dandenongs. When the closures happened, we were worried—all our staff are international students and not eligible for JobKeeper. I felt a huge responsibility to ensure they were okay. I’m very vocal on Facebook and share the stories of our staff, which people love—and because we cook at festivals, we have a good name. During the closures, we’d deliver locally as we always had, but found people from much further afield kept calling, too. So we came up with an ‘extreme delivery’ plan: locals could order by 4pm, and we’d take the food truck to a central location and meet customers there to give them their food. We thought we’d make $200 a night, enough to tide us over, but we were getting $5000-6000 in orders per week. It went crazy. We also started cooking chicken tikka on a charcoal BBQ outside our restaurant on weekends—people love anything on a stick—and that was also hugely popular. People wanted to support us, and we’ve paid it forward, cooking over $1000 in curries for those struggling in our community. We’ll keep doing all of that going forward.”

Illa Kim and Daero Lee of Soul Dining

“During Covid, we launched a whole new restaurant.”

Illa Kim, director | Soul Dining and Bowl By Soul – Surry Hills, NSW

“Our team had an emergency meeting when COVID hit. We knew takeaway was our only option to survive, but Soul Dining’s contemporary Korean food couldn’t be experienced in the same way in a takeaway container; we tried, but it just didn’t work. So we talked about what we’d like to eat if we were in isolation. Our team, who all have a Korean background, agreed on ‘deopbap’—which literally means a bowl of rice covered with something. True soul food that’s wholesome and nourishing and a comfort for both body and mind in these troubled times. That’s how BOWL by SOUL came about. We were able to roll it out quite quickly and it proved very popular. Now restrictions are easing we realise it’s smart to continue: operate SOUL Dining as a dine-in restaurant and hive off BOWL by SOUL as our takeaway offering. There’s still lots to do—BOWL by SOUL will need branding, a new venue, fit-out—but we think it has great potential. It’s quite amazing that as a result of the COVID restrictions, we found a new business opportunity. We’re excited for the next chapter.”

impact of coronavirus on hospitality industry
The pantry features goodies galore. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

“We started a retail space that’s completely taken off”

Joe Mammone | Carolina Group – Melbourne, VIC

“When the pandemic hit we had to close all our venues—Bar CarolinaMarameoIl BacaroTetto di Carolina. But we wanted to do something, and we quickly pulled together a little pantry like you’d see in the supermarket. I had 30 chefs from all the restaurants here cooking for the pantry—the kitchen was on steroids! We had it up and running at the front of Bar Carolina the first week of the closures and sold lasagnes, slow-cooked lamb shoulder, soups, salumis, prosciuttos, and booze. We made our own negronis and martinis, and a friend helped us source some lovely little glass bottles for the cocktails, which were branded and wax-sealed. The support from our clientele was huge. It’s a whole new world for me and going forward, the pantry will be a permanent retail space for us. Local supermarkets have even enquired about stocking our pantry items—we can’t keep up! It seems to have taken off so we’re excited to see what we will do with it.”

impact of coronavirus on hospitality industry
The aim of Big Easy Drinks is to support Australian independent suppliers.

“We started an online bottle shop and beer and wine subscriptions.”

Oliver Brown, co-owner | The Big Easy Group – Adelaide, SA  

“We were coming off the back of our big festival season, the Adelaide Fringe, when Covid-19 hit and we expected forced closures to come into effect. Our venues—Anchovy BanditNola AdelaideYiasou George and The Stag Public House—all had to close, but we brainstormed what we could do to support staff and suppliers. We decided to launch Big Easy Drinks, an online bottle shop, through our pub, with the aim of supporting Australian independent suppliers. Our bar staff helped us curate the drinks list, and delivered the drinks locally. We also offer a national subscription service—customers can sign up for $150 a month and have a mixed six-pack of wine or beer sent to them, and we can introduce people to new brands and products they might not otherwise know about. The response has been great. Our customers have really rallied behind us and our focus is really going to be on growing this arm of the business. I think we all need to support local as much as possible right now.”