What won’t work anymore?

Huw and Renee Jones of Zanzibar Cafe and Banksia. Image: supplied.

Last year changed hospitality forever. Liz Swanton talks to some who are still standing to find out what won’t work in the post-pandemic hospitality business.

As vaccination roll-outs continue around the country, we appear to have reached a new and hopefully more settled stage in the post-pandemic world. But the impact has been brutal. Shane Wright, the senior economics correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote that NSW household spending on eating out through 2020 was $10.5 billion down from 2019 while in Victoria it was $7.6 billion lower.

And what the industry has been left with is fewer available staff and the ever-looming threat of another lockdown. So what are the ‘old’ ways of doing business that won’t work anymore in this new context? 

Big menus won’t work

Food reviewer and writer Richard Cornish predicts really big menus with loads of ingredients will disappear in some sectors in favour of smaller inventories, less prep time and more concentrated menus with fewer options.

“People will take fewer risks because of the fear of lockdown. Until we get a vaccinated nation, there is a risk of losing everything in your fridge at the drop of a hat. Chefs are more cautious about what they order.”

Avoiding takeout won’t work

Huw and Renée Jones run the two-hat Zanzibar Cafe at Merimbula, on the NSW South Coast. They also own Banksia Restaurant nearby, offering a simplified set-menu fine dining experience. “Our business model has changed a lot,” Renée says. 

“We started doing take-home meals three weeks into lockdown, and people responded—they wanted to eat good food. We would post online what we were offering and sell out within a few hours.”

The take-home service stopped at Christmas but recently resumed. Banksia has minimal waste because of the fixed weekly menu. With the constant change in fresh ingredients, any leftovers go into the ‘take-home’ option, which clears the fridge and covers the costs. 

Ignoring opportunities won’t work

Normal stopped being normal for Rebecca Yazbek last year before COVID hit. The owner of innovative Sydney eatery, Nomad, dealt with a major fire before the pandemic and learned quickly to be “nimble” about doing things. She says her team is not so much changing its ways because of things that don’t work but looking more to increase and leverage opportunities.

“Mid-year we’re opening our Melbourne venue, and in Sydney we’ve extended ourselves with a retail deli offering, featuring a range of products including pickled vegetables and sauces. We have a program of wine dinners, and cheese-making classes in the works and we’re being more proactive in collaborations with our suppliers. 

“Last year has taught us to be on constant lookout for opportunities and better ways of doing business so we can thrive.”

One sitting per night won’t work

“Now people are dining out again, we only offer two sittings per night with a maximum of 20 people but usually just 14, which we have never done before,” says Renée Jones.

“It’s not that the old way wouldn’t work for us, but this works better, and everyone seems fine with that. We’ve never jammed people in anyway, and because no-one knows when COVID might hit again, we don’t want to be the source.”

Sourcing from one supplier won’t work

Renée says they’ve also found several new suppliers instead of relying on a small group as in the past—a lesson learned as the borders shut, so they now have more options, just in case.

“I think people have to think beyond what they have always done. Who would imagine a fine-dining restaurant would do takeaway? Normal is not ‘normal’ anymore, but it is all about the way you approach it.”

Churning through staff won’t work

Staffing has also changed forever. Gone are the days of a cheap supply of overseas students looking for shifts to prop up their studies. Pay rises and sign-on incentives are now common, with good people being pickier about where they work.

“And this comes when the industry is already suffering a massive decline in apprentices,” says Cornish. “They don’t want to work restaurant hours when they can work in construction with better pay and conditions.”

Cornish remains optimistic it is not all bad news for the future, saying good operators who know how to look after their finances, their staff and their customers—and provide a great dining experience—will always have a good business. 

Going it alone won’t work

Joey Sandagon, who owned Sunshine Coast venues Good Bar and Juan Fifty before the pandemic and has opened The Drunken Dumpling since, joined training company Foodie Coaches when it first started. But he believes he would not have made it through COVID without the connection.

“We used the time to look at what we were doing, and it was easier to implement much of what we learned because things were quieter. We’ve re-engineered the way we do a lot of things, so I don’t think we’re not doing certain things that we did before—we’re doing them better.”

Foodie Coaches was founded in 2018 by accountant Tim Kummerfeld after he recognised a pattern among his hospitality clients. They all seemed to have the same issues: low profits, or none at all, not paying themselves, not having a life outside their venue, and dwindling mental health.

“Being part of Foodie Coaches gave me ideas to improve the business, but it also helped me survive mentally,” says Sandagon. “Being able to talk to the group when things were tough was great. It’s easy to feel very alone in this business but you don’t have to be.”