18/05/2020 - 10:23

Hospitality hungry for recovery

18/05/2020 - 10:23

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Perth bar and restaurant operators are looking forward to reopening, but hope further easing of restrictions will be on the menu soon.

Hospitality hungry for recovery
Brendon Sim plans to reopen Bar Lafayette and W Churchill this week with a set menu. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Perth bar and restaurant operators are looking forward to reopening, but hope further easing of restrictions will be on the menu soon.

Perth bar and restaurant owner Brendon Sim likens the atmosphere in the CBD’s Brookfield Place during recent weeks to a dystopian movie.

“It feels like a scene from I Am Legend,” Mr Sim told Business News.

“I turn on the alfresco music to give the precinct a bit of life … just to let people know that it’s not the end, just on pause.”

Mr Sim’s Bar Lafayette and W Churchill, popularly frequented by the precinct’s CBD workers pre-COVID-19, have been shut for about seven weeks.

“When shutdown was announced we were as prepared as we could be,” he said.

“The restrictions and lockdowns didn’t come as a surprise; in Australia we had a cheat sheet, a week or two behind the rest of the world.

“For the three weeks prior to closure we watched our stock levels and ordered very conservatively.”

While some hospitality operators have sought to ramp-up takeaway services amidst government-imposed lockdown measures, Mr Sim said the feasibility of a takeaway model just didn’t stack up for his businesses.

“A huge chunk of the CBD workers were told to work from home, so we decided against it,” he said.

“Health wise, our industry has definitely been hit hard.”

Several establishments across the CBD and the city fringes have recently waved the white flag: South Perth’s The Red Cabbage, The Claremont Hotel, The Old Brewery, Beaufort Street’s The Flying Scotsman and cocktail bar Choo Choo's in Brookfield Place are among those to publicly announce permanent closures, with growing speculation many more are struggling behind closed doors.

“This was a nail in the coffin for a lot of people,” Mr Sim said.

“However, there will be some great opportunities that will arise from this. For the ones still here, we’ve all worked to operate a bit leaner … it’s a new norm now and everyone is thinking laterally.

“I can’t wait to see the new ideas and innovations born from this pandemic.”

As of today, hospitality venues across the state will be allowed to cater for up to 20 people for dine-in meals as the state government enacts phase two of easing coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Sim, who was able to secure JobKeeper payments for nine of his 28 staff, will be reopening both of his venues this week but on a 10- or 20-person group booking basis, requiring pre-orders from a set menu.

He said JobKeeper payments had been a lifeline, and hoped the government would consider extending the stimulus past September for industries including hospitality, which could continue to experience a 30 per cent drop in business considering capacity restrictions.

Planning for the future, Mr Sim drew inspiration from the British wartime leader with whom his bar shares its name.

“There’s a great quote from Winston Churchill: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’,” Mr Sim said.

“I know I don’t want to eat out of a takeaway container for at least a month, I think others feel the same.

“So go out, treat yourself, we’ve got you.”

John Parker, who operates The Royal Hotel (below) and The Standard in the CBD, is also preparing to partially restart operations.

The Royal Hotel.

Mr Parker said he was planning to reopen his 50-seat restaurant Fleur, which sits inside The Royal, on the first weekend of June (on a bookings-only policy with a set menu of $95 per head).

“I feel like I’ve got a social responsibility to reopen the bars so people can come out and catch up with friends again, but there are too many uncertainties,” Mr Parker told Business News.

“I’m in a reasonable position; I paid all our creditors. Your readers will think I’m mad doing that but it helps me sleep knowing I don’t owe anyone money.

“For some of the smaller ones who are going to try and open now … I don’t know if they’re just going to be digging themselves a deeper hole.”

Mr Parker said he generally operated his venues off the 75 per cent capacity rule to at least break even.

Given The Royal is licensed for 700 people, he said the 20-person limit – representing less than 3 per cent of his venue’s capacity – had meant it was unviable to reopen that part of the business.

While JobKeeper had provided some sustenance, Mr Parker said one of the biggest challenges moving forward was paying rent.

He hoped landlords and government would work together to consider rent freezes and other relief measures.

“We might need to put up pricing, I think we’ve been too cheap for too long,” he said.

“There’ll be others trying to get what they can [who] will start discounting.

“This is time for us to reset, but we’re going to have to do it as a group.”

Anecdotally, it’s been a slightly different story for suburban hospitality trade, which has benefited from people working at home suffering cabin fever.

Kailis Hospitality Group managing director George V Kailis said regulars and locals supporting takeaway trade at his Canteen offering in Trigg had helped keep the team busy.

“It’s been difficult for hospitality because being social is in our DNA,” Mr Kailis told Business News.

“Without seating it has been a different ball game.”

Mr Kailis is planning to resume dine-in sittings this week at his additional coastal offerings, Island Market in Trigg and The Shorehouse in Cottesloe, keeping his largest venue, Kailis Fish Market Cafe in Fremantle, closed for the time being.

Some industry players have called out the state government to further ease restrictions.

George Kailis is partially resuming operations at his Island Market and The Shorehouse (below) restaurants this week. Photo: ShotByThom


The Island Market.


The Shorehouse.


Mr Kailis said he was focused on taking a staged approach, tailoring the business around new rules.

“The size of our venues enables us to social distance people really well,” he said.

“The bigger picture is getting over the coronavirus; if we were to open with 150 people and get hit with a second wave ... that’s 20 times worse.”

Mr Kailis said that, without his 250-strong workforce of eligible employees receiving JobKeeper payments, it would have been harder to get going again.

Now was the time to get creative, he added. Kailis group’s coastal restaurants planned to focus on bookings, a set menu and weekend trade only (for now), as well as driving initiatives to support local producers, giving the first 100 bookings a bottle from Denmark-based Castelli Estate Wines.

This weekend, Mr Kailis said, was almost fully booked.

“We want to be financially viable, we’ve done the math. It [footfall] will still be extraordinarily low,” he said.

“But this puts the wind in the sails. The brands have been dormant; this brings them back to life.

“There’s an intrinsic value, not necessarily financial. In a month’s time that momentum will hopefully propel businesses forward.”

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