A few bums better than no bums on cafe seats?

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Happier days… coffee time in Yarralumla earlier this year.

A few bums on seats is better than no bums on seats, or is it? That’s the question Canberra’s restaurateurs will be asking as they bring out the calculators to see if today’s announcement that restrictions will be easing for cafes and restaurants is worth the effort. “CityNews” dining reviewer WENDY JOHNSON looks at their dilemma.  

ANOTHER day, another COVID-19 announcement. But this time it involves something near and dear to many of us Canberrans – eating out.

Wendy Johnson.

As of midnight this Friday (May 15), restaurants and cafes are free to open, but with restrictions. Only 10 patrons will be allowed to dine in at a time and that’s on the condition the venue can follow physical distancing rules. 

The question is whether the step is positive or negative for those who sweat it out running hospitality establishments. 

Before today’s announcement by Chief Minister Andrew Barr, some larger restaurants – such as like Akiba in the city – had already publicly said a tight customer restriction won’t cut it for their model. 

Indeed, Akiba is so busy running a highly efficient and effective takeaway operation that opening for such a small number of diners would be little more than a distraction. Akiba is on record saying it’s selling 30 per cent more food than before and are hanging out until at least groups of 100 are allowed to dine indoors. 

Les Bistronomes, in Campbell, is another success story. They’re thrilled with their COVID-19 offering, “Cooking with Clem”. You can pick up or have delivered food that is partially prepared and then you finish your French dining dishes off at home, following the detailed recipe and video provided by chef Clement Chauvin. Business is constant and while the staff still on deck no doubt miss the adrenaline and thrill of regular service, they appreciate having a job and being kept busy.

Andrew Barr has made it clear that local hospitality businesses are encouraged to “only reopen if the model works for them”. 

Cafes and restaurants will all be grabbing calculators to quickly and seriously crunch the numbers. 

They’ll weigh up many factors, including the extra costs related to implementing strict #staysafe requirements relating to customers dining in once more. Owners know better than anyone that hospitality margins are slim – food, supplies, utilities, wages, insurances, rent – and without the freedom to operate at full capacity, it might be better to just sit tight.

The ones surviving during the pandemic have also, in some cases, invested heavily in revamping menus (bearing in mind how food travels) and re-engineering operations for delivery and pick-up, with some kitchens now major production lines. Many have also invested in retraining some staff, including as packers and even delivery drivers. They likely won’t want to lose that investment by diverting their energy back to full service for 10 customers at a time.

Others who are at least breaking even will have to consider whether it’s viable to seize the moment. Those who have shut completely will wonder whether it’s worth even bothering. 

Perhaps some smaller venues will give it a go, feeling that a few bums on seats is better than no bums on seats. One small operator (who is bored not operating) said it could generate a bit of a vibe, a bit of income and perhaps get the venue’s name back out there. Some might trial the idea with a restricted menu and restricted hours (which could cause customer confusion). Some will just stay shut until the cost-benefit analysis makes it sensible for them to swing their doors back open.

As for customers? Some will be thrilled and happy to support those who give opening a go. Others will be worried about #safety concerns. Some might be happy to continue having food delivered to their homes where they can spend winter nights eating in front of the telly in their pjs.

We’ll see.

ACT cafes to reopen with patron number restrictions

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Wendy Johnson
Wendy Johnson: Food reviewer for Canberra CityNews magazine since 2004, covering stories for true foodies to digest.

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