Summer in Melbourne may look like downtown Plaka filled with outdoor seating areas, pop-up cafes and al fresco dining in an effort to speed up the recovery of the hospitality industry, one of the hardest hit since the pandemic began.
Restaurant owners which Neos Kosmos spoke with had mixed feelings regarding the plans, pointing to impracticalities ranging from footpath sizes to Melbourne’s fickle weather, but they also expressed cautious optimism.
George Mylonopoulos of Hunky Dory in Oakleigh said the plans to open pavements, streets and lanes will be of minimal help. In normal circumstances his restaurant has a capacity to seat 73 indoors and 34 outside. With the 4 square metre social distancing rule in place, his restaurant will only seat 10 customers at a time outside.
“This is hardly worth the process of setting up the tables,” Mr Mylonopoulos told Neos Kosmos, adding that restrictions of serving alcohol outside were a further obstacle.
“Alcohol consumption is where the money is made in our (hospitality) trade,” he said.
John Ghionis from Spitaki Souvlaki in Fairfield said people are already choosing to eat on benches so setting up outdoor tables would be a “cleaner way of doing things” as there would be some control.
“My existing space is what I’ll be using but I’m also getting permission from my two neighbours on either side so that I can spread it all out,” he said, grateful that the gift shop and the real estate agent on either side of his store have agreed to the use of their store front after hours. Even with the extra space, however, he’ll have 15 chairs as opposed to 50 so “obviously there’s going to be a big difference”.
Naturally, the larger the outdoor space, the luckier the restaurant. Tammy Missailidis from Degani’s at Northcote says that it would be helpful if council were particularly lenient. “We’ve got the space on the footpath and we also have the park across the road. We don’t have permission for the park at this stage,” she said, adding that this would be the only way to help business go back to normal and still adhere to the COVID-safe rules for table distances at two metres apart. Even then, she says the weather would play a crucial role in the success of the plan.
Melbourne weather does not help matters, say the owners Neos Kosmos spoke to, including Helen Glynatsis of the Aegean Greek Restaurant in Fitzroy. The venue ordinarily seats 300 with a big dance floor and stage to host social events, such as weddings, dances, christenings and Christmas celebrations – but the outside area is narrow and only allows for tables which seat two people at a time.
“It will help if the councils waive their fees for tables and chairs outside and the grants for umbrellas outside will help,” she adds. “There are also big overhead costs for operating in Fitzroy, too high to even open up with seating outside for 20 people at a time.”
Mr Mylonopoulos, whose shop is at Eaton Mall, was appreciative that Monash Council would not be charging diners for outside business. He also was satisfied with the updates he was getting through emails and webinars.
Angelo Sardelis from Chew Burger feels hopeful. “I think they might help drum up a little bit of business and I’m getting prepared and putting seating out the front for that reason. I’m hoping it will,” he said, concerned that “there’s not enough space” to make a “huge difference”.
He adds that survival at the moment is mainly due to the support of the locals and the government’s JobKeeper programme that has helped his business survive.
Ms Missailidis said that JobKeeper has been a help to Degani’s though the business was not eligible for one of the grants. “The second $10k grant we were eligible for. It is helpful, but considering how much you’ve lost, it’s not much. Everyone’s in the same boat and we’re just riding the wave,” she said.
All shop-owners were particularly grateful to their communities, though the 5km radius rule has crushed businesses. “In comparison to the first lockdown where it was takeaway without the 5km rule to this one with the rule, there has been a significant decrease in sale because of that 5km rule,” Ms Missailidis said.
“I don’t just rely on locals,” Mr Ghionis said. “I rely on all of Melbourne and we get people [….] from all over Melbourne.”
“I’ve gone to Doreen, South Morang, Epping, things that are like 40 minutes away, for free, because I appreciate them coming here when we’re open. If they’re 30, 40 minutes away and coming, the least I can do is when they’re not allowed to come is for me to take the food to them.”
Mr Mylonopoulos wishes the government had introduced a COVID-safe plan in April as “He pointed out that no COVID-19 cases were reported from hospitality businesses that had opened for a brief two weeks in June/July after the relaxing of the first lockdown in Melbourne,” he said, adding that his business had a COVID-safe plan since April and could have worked with that plan. “We completed a COVID-safe course online which was done through the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association. We had all the information which we passed on to our staff. We gathered information from our customers for contact tracing,” he said, adding that the detailed plan required by government included details on all procedures from opening to closing each day, including ventilation, cleaning and hygiene procedures.
“It took a full day to complete the plan which consisted of answering three pages of detailed questions. It was a lot of work.
“We spent time and money on sanitizing stations and training our staff. No one has come to check on us and none of it was put in to practice even though it was a very good and safe plan. If all the businesses had followed that plan it would have been a very good way to go as we would know how to act in any situation,” he said.
Mr Mylonopoulos said the state government needed to sit with businesses such as his and hear them out.
Mr Sardelis hoping that business will pick up rapidly, “because being cooped up for six months is going to make people want to come out for at least the first few months”. He just hopes the numbers don’t rise again as a result.
“I’m just grateful we have the ability to work and our health is good at the moment,” Ms Missailidis said.