Levanter, Reaping the Rewards of Extended Opening Hours
Rather than closing early or shutting temporarily amid COVID-19, mother and son team Marcelle Hanna and Sam Dawod – who run Levanter Café in the inner-south Melbourne suburb of Balaclava – extended their working hours to 8pm as a way of “do[ing] their share in the pandemic.”
The café – which, according to Dawod, is named after a wind that blows from the Levant region to Southern Europe, and “comes with rain that people often like” – continued serving coffee until closing, and moved tables and chairs around to create space for grocery items such as coffee beans, speciality coffee milks, tamales and 7-8 different types of dips including hummus, labneh, baba ghanoush and Muhammara.
They also created a simplified takeaway menu featuring about 50% of their dishes. While the dips have been successful, Dawod says the menus weren’t especially popular because, in difficult times, customers were less willing to explore meals they weren’t familiar with. He adds that they didn’t include some of their more popular dishes, as they have to be eaten “fresh hot [or] the edge of the flavour comes off.”
With cafés and restaurants in Victoria now open for dine in of up to 20 people, Levanter Café can fit in about seven customers while still enforcing social distancing restrictions. However, he says customers are appreciative of their extended opening hours, and are prepared to embrace the cold of their courtyard – when their interiors are fully occupied – in order to eat at Levanter Cafe.
“I thought some customers were [coming to us] because their favourite café had closed and, when they reopened, they’d go back to normal life. But, that’s not what has happened with everyone,” Dawod says.
“Customers are now saying, ‘Hey Sam, you opened [for longer] when we needed you, now we are coming to you.’ It gave me exposure in the market and, when you’re the only one [serving coffee, takeaways and grocery items until 8pm], people will come to you and see what you have to offer.
“If they like your food and coffee, they’ll come back. If not, it’s not meant to be.”
Authentic Syrian food with sharp flavours and rich spices.
Dawod says he came to Australia about four years ago and, out of a love for coffee and a desire to run his own business, he opened a coffee house.
His plan was to just serve coffee – a product they still specialise in, with Levanter Café using their own blend and San Pedro beans for a range of coffees, as well as a Syrian style Turkish coffee with cardamom that is cooked on the fire.
However, Hanna wanted to add food, so she designed a menu, and starting making Syrian dishes that were, according to Dawod, “unique and different [for Australians] with sharp flavours and rich spices.”
Now serving a range of breakfast, lunch and dinner options, Dawod says their most popular dish is the Levantine Breakfast, a traditional sharing platter with hummus, felafel, halloumi, labneh, olives, shankliesh, boiled eggs, pickles, vegetables and baklava.
He also says many of their customers have adjusted to the takeaway mindset and, while he doesn’t mind this for coffee, he’d prefer people dine in at the cafe.
“We don’t have much takeaway in Syrian culture. A lot of the food is what my mum made for me as a child, and it is designed to be eaten straight away,” he says.
They are still serving food and coffee until 8pm and – while Dawod hasn’t done the accounting to see if it’s financially beneficial – he says they don’t have plans to change their opening hours in the near future.
“If people want to dine out, I’m here for them. We’re open 13 hours a day already, so why not serve people? It’s a good thing to do,” Dawod says.
“I’m doing my bit in any way that I can.”
“More of a Syrian identity to it”
Dawod’s future plans for Levanter Café include a little bit of renovating – including a carpet on the wall – to “give the café more of a Syrian identity.” They also plan to reprint their original menus – which they have been to busy to do amid the easing of restrictions – in the next week or so.
He adds that he is still evaluating what he has learned during this period, and what changes will stay and go in the future.
“I think I have learned to respect people’s fears regarding certain things. For example, if customers aren’t comfortable coming in, we’re [happy to] serve them outside – things like that. We’ve also placed hand sanitiser on each table as a routine,” he says.
“As for [some of our] customers, I think they have have come to appreciate the dining in experience a bit more.”
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