How Emerging and Longstanding Restaurants Responded to Melbourne’s Lockdowns, and the After-Effects

Mar 30, 2021

“Staying within the parameters of what we think Marios is”

Mario Maccarone says everyone was concerned about the impact of COVID-19 over the last year.

But, the co-owner of the iconic Marios – which has been operating in Fitzroy since 1986 –was reassured by a comment he heard in the early stages of the pandemic.

‘If Marios doesn’t survive, who will.’

“That gave us confidence that if we were focused, agile and moved quickly, we’d work out how to deal with it. We’ve been here a long time, so if we couldn’t make it work, what chance did anybody have,” Maccarone tells Hospitality Unites.

Marios snapped into action. They embraced takeaways, sold perishable and non-perishable grocery items and started delivering meals – in uniform and with Marios bags – across Melbourne’s inner-north.

While they cancelled their art schedule, they displayed local art and played music in the background so as to retain that Marios sensibility.

Maccarone says their ability to reinvent, while staying within the bounds of what makes Marios Marios, has always been part of their DNA. For over 35 years, they have retained half their menu with classic dishes, while experimenting with the other half of the menu.

“In our world which is ever-changing, places like Marios are more and more appreciated because we do our very best not to change the things that you don’t want to mess with. If you had the lasagne today, or seven years ago, you’d walk away with a smile on your face,” he says.

“But, with the other half of the menu, we allow chefs to be creative. We have a blackboard where we might run a special, sell it that night and tomorrow we’ll do something else. There’s no rules with that, which is good.

“That creative side has been with us from the beginning.”

 

‘We spent two years building Bar Texaco before everything shut down.’

Meanwhile, Bar Texaco was on the verge of opening in Brunswick prior to the announcement of COVID-19 restrictions.

The bar and restaurant – which specialises in barbeque, tex-mex cuisine and Mezcal cocktails – is part of Limp Brisket, an American style BBQ catering service.

Co-owner Kevin Dick says they cooked about 500 kilos of meat in preparation for Meatstock in March 2020, and were planning to open Bar Texaco shortly after. However, COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the event, and delayed the restaurant’s opening until November that year.

“We did a pop-up to get rid of the stock prepared for Meatstock, and there was a big line up out the door. People really rallied [around us] then,” Dick said.

“We spent two years building Bar Texaco, then March rolled around and it was locked down for months …but we built the team from scratch, and the opening date was exciting.

“We received great exposure from the media during that time, had a busy Christmas period [and] have a steady following now, with regulars coming in each week.”

Dick says that they recently opened for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays, providing more local exposure.

“We’ve never done business in Brunswick before, so we’re slowly learning about what our clientele is after,” he says.

“People are discovering us each week,” he says.

Image: Broadsheet

‘People came in and threw $50 notes in the tip jar’

According to Maccarone, Marios is driven by the community.

He says customers left substantial tips, and they received positive feedback in person and in writing.

When Marios was able to open for dine-in, customers came in droves.

“When we re-opened, so many people were thankful that we were still here and thankful to come back,” he says.

“The thing that meant the most to me was seeing people come through the door.”

Maccarone adds that the relationship is reciprocal, with Marios providing customers with the opportunity to make the most of their time out of the house.

“There’s people who live in the area and live on their own, and during the first lockdown they weren’t allowed to visit anybody, which was brutal. We’d provide people with an excuse to come and say hello,” he says.

“It wasn’t just us, but a lot of places across town, and in country and regional Victoria, where it was a two-way street. We were supporting people, and they were supporting us.”

Dick says that, as a new business, a portion of their customers come to Bar Texaco because they want to see local places thrive and succeed.

“It’s a unique period of time in Melbourne, and the environment hasn’t been like this before. There’s low tourism, and a low international student numbers as well, so there’s less money circulating. It’s a difficult time to have a new, or established business,” he says.

“But new businesses outlets are opening periodically where we are, and this section of Sydney Rd is starting to populate, with people seeing value in having a shop [here].

“Customers are coming here because they want to get a taco, or a glass of wine and a feed, but there is that sentiment [of] core locals who believe in the businesses in this area.”

 

‘We’re very proud of what we’ve got here.’

While Marios were quick to adapt to changing circumstances over the last year, Maccarone says they are eager to get back to what they’re known for.

“We really want to do what we’ve always done, which is to provide people with a comforting meal, or challenge them, depending on what they feel like,” he says.

“We learned things along the way, but not enough for us to change our business model.”

While Dick says they are focused on building up Bar Texaco, and reigniting their catering arm as the events industry emerges.

“We are growing organically and serving a great product so people are inclined to come back,” he says.

“We’re looking at doing large events towards the end of the year, and steadily growing the restaurant each week.”


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