Thinking of cancelling your dinner reservations at the last minute? Think again, as the true cost of your decision will be far greater than you think — althought there is an enterprising alternative.
Problems that plagued the restaurant industry before our altered times are now magnified as restaurants start to reopen; navigating restrictions on capacity and what that means for the bottom line.
One of the biggest issues, no shows, are (unbelievably) alive and well; immune it seems to COVID-19. While many of the country’s fine diners have taken some degree of prepayment for a time it’s now looking like this will filter down to smaller, more casual venues.
Stewart Parsons is owner-operator of Bronte Road Bistro in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. With a strong neighbourhood following they’d normally fill their 50 seats with regulars. Now, hit with weeks of closure, and restricted to 10 diners at a time, filling every seat is crucial.
“It’s a phenomenon already, no shows,” says Parsons. “But it is new for a smaller local place like us. We know our customers, but with many larger restaurants choosing not to reopen yet we’re getting new customers.”
Parsons talks of their first weekend of the new restrictions, a Sunday night where one table cancelled within 45 minutes of their booking, and another that simply did not show. Both he believes have never dined with him previously.
Beyond the blow of lost revenue Parsons says, “I think about my regulars who wanted to come. I got texts to my personal number saying can we come down and I had to say no because we were booked. I don’t want to let my regulars down. I want to look after those who’ve been looking after me, placing delivery orders.”
Parsons says that the last thing he wants to do “is sell tickets like a cinema,” or have diners fill in a form to eat with him, but he’s moved to a three-course chef’s choice menu, to be paid upfront. “You’re buying your seat,” he says reluctantly.
With the dine-in landscape still so uncertain, delicious.com.au has taken a novel approach by launching their first-ever virtual dinners, which will take place the first week of June with Kitchen By Mike in Sydney and Maha in Melbourne.
Would-be diners can buy tickets to receive a pre-prepared meal kit from the restaurant in their state, plus drinks, then log on to join a virtual gathering hosted by editor-in-chief Kerrie McCallum, comedian and wine expert Merrick Watts, and Mike McEnearney in Sydney and Shane Delia in Melbourne. This approach allows food lovers to get involved from their own homes, with no chance of no shows for the restaurants.
In Perth, Liam and Sarah Atkinson of Le Rebelle have been using enforced down time to “plan the comeback.” Pre-COVID-19 Le Rebelle was flying high, scoring a spot in the delicious. 100 top 10 for WA in just its first few months of opening. Now they’re forced to change.
Liam explains that they’re focusing on a popup vibe, adding a cheeseburger to the bistro menu with other faster-style dishes, and more hip-hop on the playlist. They’ve been talking with peers about how they can make the situation work for both themselves and diners as well, beyond what’s on the plate.
Credit card pre-authorisation may be more common elsewhere but “WA hasn’t accepted it,” says Liam. “It was always more drama [with customers] than it was worth.” But now he and others in his position see it as the right move, and one that diners will hopefully have empathy for. “I was speaking to Kenny at Manuka Woodfire Kitchen [in Fremantle] and we agreed that if we all do it, it becomes the norm.”
“As an industry, post pandemic, there’s an opportunity for us to redress the balance,” says Sali Sasi of Adelaide’s, Leigh Street Wine Rooms. “To say, this is the quality of our work, of the produce that we offer, and this is the price associated. I think people need to know we are an industry that’s not in a healthy position. Pre-authorising cards keeps it front of mind that they’ve got a booking; when money’s attached people are more aware of the consequences. It’s about respect.”
With her husband, chef Nathan Sasi, the couple is preparing to reopen when South Australian restrictions on restaurant alcohol sales are lifted on June 8. Pre-COVID-19 the Sasis would charge a $10 pre-authorisation, which will now rise to $25. Sali says “whether to reopen is a tough decision. We first opened just seven months ago and not all of our team were eligible for Jobkeeper, so the risk in taking on staff is higher for us. We have to maximise the seats we have – they’re prime real estate now.”
Liam is mindful of the balance that has to be struck with diners, saying they’re moving to pre-authorisation. Just $20 per head, not, for instance, the full cost of a set menu. Parsons also strikes a pragmatic tone saying, “it’s all about communication,” understanding that plans change, cancellations happen, but ideally it’s with enough time to fill the seat.
To perhaps put it more bluntly, it’s about basic respect. If we as diners don’t, as Sali Sasi commented, respect the conditions in which restaurateurs are operating, we will lose many of them and the colour and vibrancy that they offer to our communities.
DINE OUT, AT HOME
For more information on American Express delicious. Nights In, visit delicious.com.au/shopsmall, and buy tickets here for Sydney, and here for Melbourne. Meal kits come with cocktails from The Ugly Duckling in Richmond, and wine recommendations from Merrick Watts.