Right now, restaurateurs across the country are looking out across their venues with that wonderful thing we call ‘bums on seats’.
My last piece for The Real Review was a story of survival, the fight or flight reaction to a challenge that no one could truly be prepared for.
Now Fix Wine Bar + Restaurant is open in Sydney. Still with restrictions, but able to have meaningful patronage so I’m calling this the other side. Where do we go from here? There is an opportunity here to make the resets required to fix the industry.
Right now, restaurateurs across the country are looking out across their venues with that wonderful thing we call ‘bums on seats’. There’s truly no greater music to my ears than the sound of a humming venue with the clatter of cutlery on china, the clink of glassware and the popping of bottles.
As an industry we’ve been through hell, but, for all that heartache and stress, the joy of having the doors back open again washes all that tension away.
I have been astounded and humbled by the sea of familiar faces who have made their way back to Fix, along with a raft of new visitors. There is a palpable joy to the place, a feeling of community that has been accentuated by its absence for so long.
Humans are social animals and I can see by the enthusiasm in which people are returning to Fix that socialising has been missed. I don’t doubt for a moment this same experience is happening at venues all around Australia. There are many places like mine, not flash or fancy but have a sense of place in the community that surrounds them. We’ve been at it for 14 years and I truly believe that longevity has been our saviour in this climate.
It’s this newfound enthusiasm that I feel will help the industry bounce back as people realise the things they missed during lockdown. Everything from a quick coffee with a colleague to a fine bottle of wine shared with good friends will be magnified with the knowledge that it’s not always guaranteed.
To keep that euphoria, we need to maintain a sense of hospitality and joy, this will be a challenge for some, but it is a cornerstone for the future of my industry.
There’s nothing new in me saying the restaurant game was broken well before COVID. Wage scandals shone a light on historic practices that hadn’t moved with the times. Continual price increases of raw product for many years with an industry not comfortable to pass those increases on. There is an opportunity here to make the resets required to fix the industry.
The best way to ensure that everyone gets paid for the hours they work is to ensure the selling price is correct. If we look at the simple takeaway latte, in Sydney it has been between AUD $3-$4 for as long as I can remember, no one is willing to raise the price even though all the inputs have gone up. Even the world’s most successful food and beverage chain, McDonald’s, sells their latte for AUD $4.60 or more.Considering the climate of Sydney, it seems crazy that we have yet to really find a way to have that vibrant evening buzz that so many other great cities do.
Even without price rises though there is an opportunity for my industry to thrive and grow in this new world. We have seen a huge shift to remote work. The Sydney CBD would be at 20% capacity right now, most people still working from home partially or completely. I’m still unnerved by getting a peak hour train and having several seats to choose from.
With this newfound flexibility, there’s an opportunity to improve the industry bottom line along with reducing pressure on public transport peaks and all that goes with it. With some encouragement perhaps a change in expectation of working hours away from just 9am-5pm. I’m sure many would enjoy starting earlier or later.
This would give a place like Fix a chance to serve two lunches and two dinners instead of the 12.30pm and 6.30pm bottleneck. Not to mention the advantage it would be to the oft-touted night-time economy, particularly with those same changes applied to retail. Considering the climate of Sydney, it seems crazy that we have yet to really find a way to have that vibrant evening buzz that so many other great cities do.
Whilst price adjustments and flexible hours are things I hope for and would be positive for the industry I don’t know if they’ll happen. But there is one area that really must change. The scourge of no shows.
During the period when NSW venues could have a maximum of ten patrons, I lost count of the stories of no shows. Even an institution like Beppi’s had a group of six not arrive. In normal times this is unacceptable, but to have 60% of your guests just not show up is outrageous. To counter this, you will see many more venues ask for credit card details when you book.
Please don’t be offended by this, we build our menu, do our ordering and rostering based on what we have booked. We have implemented it at Fix and since our return there’s not been a single no-show. Of course, we understand things can happen and we will be far more flexible than the airlines I guarantee!
This is what it may look like. I’m certainly not one to set things in stone, if there’s nothing else we’ve learnt from the past few months is that things can change fundamentally with no way of controlling the effects. I don’t doubt there are interesting times ahead for all of us and whilst there are changes, difficulties and challenges still to come I do believe that the key to it all will still be the rekindled joy of dining out.
I can’t wait to see you all out and about, sharing love, life and laughter with family and friends. I can assure you those looking after you are incredibly happy you are there too.
First published 30/6/2020 on The Real Review