Melbourne Foodservice Operators Face Challenges Waiting for Outdoor Dining
We’ll all be meeting outside this summer, but what does the Victorian government's outdoor dining and investment initiative mean for the hospitality industry?
The weather is warming up as hospitality businesses prepare for summer—the first where Melbourne will be set to dine primarily outdoors.
After the Victorian government’s commitment to provide $290 million in support for businesses to pivot to outdoor dining, businesses are preparing to reopen after up to seven months of closure. Some have already jumped at opportunities to offer gourmet picnic hampers now that groups of five can gather outdoors.
The industry has given mixed reviews to the joint state government and City of Melbourne venture with some concerns of Melbourne weather, lack of space and infrastructure.
Lord Mayor Sally Capp said extending outdoor dining will help hospitality businesses cater to more customers.
“We will continue to advocate for flexibility so restaurants and cafes can open indoors in a COVID-safe way sooner, however, expanding outdoor space will allow more people to enjoy our inner-city food culture, particularly once the weather warms up.”
Six new dining precincts have been identified as outdoor dining hubs – Bourke Street East and Russell Street in the CBD, Lygon Street in Carlton, Errol Street in North Melbourne, Domain Road in South Yarra and Bellair Street in Kensington.
An additional 10 areas without existing outdoor areas will be opened up for pop-up cafes and restaurants including Riverside Quay, Docklands, Queen Victoria market, Treasury Gardens and Chinatown.
But how are businesses preparing?
Converting car parks to reopen
One business owner is working with an architect to convert their staff carpark into outdoor dining.
Joanne Chang who co-owns Mrs Kim’s Grill with her husband Hugh, has been hit hard by the pandemic, closing her South Melbourne restaurant and changing her Carnegie restaurant to takeaway only.
Architect Michael Ong has donated his time to convert the carpark of Mrs Kim’s Grill to outdoor dining facilities, with help from Joanne’s long time friend Susan who co-owns design studio Made by Pen.
“Susan is a dear close friend and has offered to support me in getting that space livened up – it’s a very commercial carpark and it’s kind of like an alleyway with bins everywhere,” Cheng tells Hospitality Unites.
“We’re going ahead as if we are able to open on the 19th, if that gets extended out we’ll just see it as more time for planning.”
The support means that Cheng will be able to create two, possibly three new COVID safe outdoor dining spaces this summer to help recoup lost revenue due to forced closure.
The first is converting the staff car park to hold up to 20 diners, and an upstairs terrace to fit under 20 diners, and there may be plans to install a temporary ‘parklet’ on the parking spaces out the front of the restaurant.
Cheng is awaiting to hear the outcome of her grant applications to assist financially, but says the support from the designers and architects has been invaluable.
“Moreso (than financial relief) it’s the psychological and the emotional support knowing there’s a team out there I can bounce ideas off and get things done.” she says.
“That’s what’s been really hard for the industry is the emotional impact — asking how do I begin? where do I go? what will I do? — having experts in the field actually helps quite a bit so that’s probably where I found the most comfort in that sense.”
For Cheng, Korean BBQ is about the experience and gathering around a table, so a very minimal takeaway service pre-COVID has evolved into two new takeaway one the “UberEats standard type” and a mix of reheatable sides and raw meat to be cooked at home. The BBQ experience that customers can recreate at home has been a surprise hit, and if it continues as restrictions ease could contribute an extra 15 per cent revenue for the business.
Initiative not a complete solution
Chris Lucas of the Lucas Group, which operates famed Melbourne CBD restaurants Chin Chin and Kisume believes the strategy is unrealistic and is not a substitute given most business models are based on indoor dining.
Manager of Di Stasio Citta, Ben Logan, agrees telling Hospitality Unites his team is waiting, unable to plan and budget for staff without knowing when or if he can reopen beyond takeaway and retail sales.
“There are plans in place to get the industry moving from the industry itself but we can’t pull the trigger too hard as we don’t know when that’s going to be,” he says.
Logan is also skeptical of the viability of outdoor dining, which for his premise opposite Treasury Gardens seems impractical. Melbourne’s unpredictable weather is also a major concern, but without a firm reopening date Logan is reluctant to plan too far ahead.
“We know that we might be able to open for outdoor dining, we’re thinking maybe putting a food truck out the front, we’re still in discussions with the City of Melbourne it’s just really really hard how to budget for it and how it becomes a realistic strategy.”
Industry advocates for Gold Standard
Di Stasio Citta is one of almost 250 businesses to register for the Gold Tick – a series of best practice initiatives developed by industry leaders known as the Gold Standard Health and Wellbeing plan.
Similar to the Heart Foundation tick we look for on supermarket goods, a gold tick accredited facility may ease diners’ minds about hygiene standards and be a preferable choice for diners’ peace of mind.
This is just one example of the industry’s tireless efforts to work towards being able to reopen and stay open through strong commitment to health.
In terms of what the future looks like for dining in Melbourne CBD, there are signs of positivity as we embrace warmer weather. Venues are able to begin taking bookings for the AFL grand final weekend—although it’s not definite they will be able to open.
As Cheng muses she’s unsure if customers will have anxiety about coming back or anxious to come back.
If other cities around the country are a good blueprint — and Mrs Kim’s Grill being inundated for the brief opening in June — as restrictions ease we can see that diners are willing, and excited, to return to bars and restaurants.
Have you or your business had a different experience with outdoor dining? We want to hear from you. Submit your story here.
To keep up to date with the foodservice industry and Hospitality Unites, subscribe here.