Hot Tips: the [re]Opening of Outdoor Dining

Oct 21, 2020

Outdoor dining is set to play a major role in the opening up of Melbourne’s hospitality industry following the easing of Stage Four restrictions. Check out these tips from hospitality expert Sarah Fitzgibbons and executive chef, Keith Jackson.

The Victorian Government has announced a $290 million Outdoor Eating and Entertainment Package, which – among a range of initiatives – is set to provide $30 million worth of grants for small and medium businesses to ‘pay for equipment, convert spaces like rooftops and courtyards into hospitality zones and remodel internal layouts to allow for the better flow of patrons.’

About $58 million has also been pledged for grants of up to $5,000 to ‘help hospitality businesses pay for the practical things that will make this plan work – umbrellas, outdoor furniture, screens and other equipment.’

The City of Melbourne has identified a number of precincts around the CBD that will be transformed into outdoor dining areas. A temporary extended outdoor dining permit system will enable hospitality venues to:

  • expand onto footpaths
  • take over on-street car parking space immediately outside their business
  • join with neighbouring businesses to take over sections of on-street car parking, footpaths and (in some cases) street space
  • join with neighbouring businesses to expand into a laneway adjacent to their business.

Australian Vocational Training & Employment Services (AVTES) hospitality expert Sarah Fitzgibbon says it is pivotal for hospitality businesses – especially those with limited outdoor seating – to work with their local council and neighbouring businesses, and take advantage of placemaking proposals.

“Places like private car parks, alleyways, empty blocks and outdoor gardens can be great spots for cafes and eateries to open up using food vans and pop-ups, [but] there’s a layer [of council regulation] to deal with” Fitzgibbon tells Hospitality Unites.

She also says businesses might consider investing in temporary or semi-permanent infrastructure – like marquees bolted to the ground – to protect against bad weather.

“As we move into the summer months, creating outdoor spaces that people want to spend time in is especially important,” she says.

 

When the weather is warm, outdoor dining is the ultimate form of dining

With experience as a restaurant owner, General Manager, Executive Chef, Head Chef and Freelance Chef,  AVTES cookery trainer Keith Jackson believes outdoor dining is one of the most enjoyable forms of dining.

He says the secret to excellent outdoor dining involves simple menus, the use of fresh, seasonal, local and aromatic ingredients and being aware of changing prices.

“For example, crayfish is fairly inexpensive at the moment compared to what it normally is. It’s not being exported as much, so there’s a chance to use [it] when it is normally out of reach,” Jackson says.

“Chefs have to be intent on keeping costs down and attempting to be as profitable as possible, [especially] with limited numbers.

“This involves not just cooking skills but keeping up with wastage, food and energy costs.”

Jackson adds that dishes typically enjoyed piping hot are best avoided, as the temperature may be affected by weather conditions.

“For outdoor dining, it’s best to choose products where temperature isn’t so important,” he says.

“A good example is roast beef which can be eaten hot or cold [compared to] mashed potato which tastes good hot, not cold.

“Asparagus is [also] perfect, and rice stays hot [for longer] because of its density.

“Pasta dishes go cold quickly, but is also beautiful when eaten outside.”

 

People only complain for one reason – when they don’t get what they expect.

According to Jackson, a greater focus on outdoor dining will require close attention to detail regarding cleanliness, service and clarity from hospitality staff.

He says staff should be explaining everything to customers at the beginning of their meal. For example, if a booking is 90 minutes, they may suggest that customers book a dessert in advance.

“Hospitality is all about expectations. If you tell customers what to expect, and provide that, you won’t have any issues. [There’s also] theatre involved where [customers are] sitting and watching, so you must do – and be seen to be doing –the right things,” he says.

Fitzgibbon adds that customers will be open to a different dining experience, if staff are upfront with them.

However, she says that businesses shouldn’t put a stop to the services they are currently providing.

“Restrictions have been released slowly and the general public are behaving quite cautiously, so I think customers will still be getting takeaways as much as before,” she says.

“At the moment, people can’t go to the pub and watch footy like they used to, so they are watching at home. There’s a real opportunity to target that – for example, [takeaway] football packages.

“Keeping up takeaway, delivery, pre-cooked and frozen meals, pantry items, marketing [and so on] is really important.”

 

“My advice is to prepare for windy days”

While Jackson maintains that food is best enjoyed in nice weather, he says capricious and unpleasant conditions – in particular windy days – will be a challenge for businesses to manage, and suggests that businesses should do their best to prepare.

Like Fitzgibbon, he recommends infrastructure like wind guards, as well as heavier glasses including those without a stem, heavier serviettes, linen napkins and clips for tablecloths.

He also suggests choosing outdoor areas that are more protected from the wind, if possible.

“We have no control over the weather, [and] it’s something we’ll have to live with,” he says.

“But people are so excited about the chance to eat out, so I think [they’ll] put up with minor discomforts.”

Fitzgibbon adds that a focus on outdoor dining as a reopening strategy won’t have a huge impact on Melbourne’s dining culture in the long run.

“I think customers will always have a preference for outdoor dining when the weather is beautiful, and they will have a preference for indoor dining when the weather isn’t so nice,” she says.

“The places left will unfortunately be different [but] the culture won’t change.”


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