Australian restaurants share how they plan to reopen for sit-in dining, as state governments roll back COVID-19 restrictions

Restaurants will be able to have up to 10 customers.
  • Some restaurants have announced plans to reopen after state governments allowed up to 10 people to gather in restaurants.
  • Lucky Penny in Victoria and Palate Restaurant in New South Wales are among the restaurants to reopen.
  • Business Insider Australia asked what measures they’re implementing to operate their restaurants under these new restrictions.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Restaurant owners are looking forward to reopening their doors at the end of this week.

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed a three-step plan on how the country is going to steadily ease its coronavirus restrictions. Included in the first phase is allowing restaurants to have up to 10 guests, where previously they could only open for delivery and takeaway.

Bill Drakopoulos, restaurateur at Sydney Restaurant Group, told Business Insider Australia via email he believes it is safe for restaurants to start reopening for dine-in guests. The Group operates restaurants including Ormeggio at The Spit, Ripples Milsons Point and Aqua Dining.

Drakopoulos said most of the group’s restaurants will start trading this Friday, with up to 10 guests seated at any one time as per the government’s phase 1 guidelines.

“Some of our restaurants will not open this Friday but will plan to open in several weeks, or at the introduction of stage 2,” he said.

The Group will be implementing COVID-19 Safe practices and inducting all of its workers to make sure they adhere to them. “Our appointed safety officer will be conducting tutorials with all our managers who in turn will be responsible [for] educating staff and policing our COVID-19 Safe policies and procedures,” Drakopoulos said.

Patrick Brennan, General Manager of Palate Restaurant Mudgee, told Business Insider Australia the company had closed its seating but remained open for takeaway and deliveries.

The restaurant even launched its own ‘community meals’ service which delivers $8 meals to the elderly and people who are infirm. “That’s kept us extremely busy,” Brennan said. “In five weeks, we’ve done just over 700 meals. If you look at it, we’re losing money on it but that’s not the point. What we’re trying to do is get food out to the people who are most vulnerable.”

But with the restrictions easing in New South Wales from Friday May 15, the business is going to open for seating at two times – 5.30pm and 7.30pm.

“There will be 10 people in the restaurant at that time for both sittings,” he said.

Matt Lanigan, Managing Director at Lucky Penny in Melbourne’s Chapel Street Precinct, told Business Insider Australia the company had to make a few different plans depending on what announcements were made.

“We’ve made one plan around doing set times for bookings for 10 people,” he explained. “So you can book in for a bottomless brunch and that will be a 90-minute setting and then we’ll have half an hour to sanitise and clean the area and then get another group of 10 in.”

He added that the business will continue to run its online grocery store, where customers can either do pickups or takeaway.

The restaurant is initially going to do bookings to keep in line with social distancing and prevent customers from having to line up.

“On weekends our place is very busy, we would turn over 300-400 people and if we can only have 10 in at one time, we may have lines on the street,” Lanigan said. “I don’t think it would be very smart or good of us.”

Lanigan believes he is ready should something change.

“Whilst it would be great if we could go back to 100% normal trade, we’ll just adapt and we’ll try some things. If that idea doesn’t work then we’ll look at something else,” he said.

JobKeeper is not a sustainable model, restaurants argue

Lanigan said that fully opening the cafe for only 10 people “doesn’t make much sense” as it spans across 240 square metres.

“Once it goes up to 20 people or if they do one per four square [metres], then that will change our thinking,” he said. “Then we can have 50 people on site and 10 staff, so then it makes a bit more sense business-wise. Whereas if it’s just 10 people on-site, we’re going to have to put on more staff but we’re not going to generate enough revenue to cover that, so we’ll actually be in a worse off position financially.”

Lanigan was grateful for the JobKeeper payment but says it is not a sustainable model.

“If the JobKeeper initiative from the federal government wasn’t introduced, we wouldn’t be operating right now,” he said.

“But because that’s in place, we can provide a service to the community and that’s great. At the moment it’s not a financially viable model or sustainable – it’s something that can keep our doors open, it can keep people in jobs, it can keep our suppliers with jobs, but our landlord’s not getting rent.”

So in light of that, he said the restaurant is not going to be putting more staff on until it can have more people in the venue that are able to spend money.

“We don’t even know, they may ease restrictions but people might not want to go out,” Lanigan added. “And they might not have any expendable income because they’re out of work as well. We don’t know what the consumer behaviour is going to be.

“And, so like a lot of things in hospitality, it’s very reactive to what the trends are and what the market’s doing. So we’re just going to be prepared to react accordingly.”

The possibility of another coronavirus outbreak

When asked whether he’s concerned about the possibility of someone with the coronavirus entering the restaurant, Lanigan said yes – but that isn’t going to stop the business.

“It’s a very high tourist destination, especially on the weekends – both international and interstate,” he said.

The company will be putting signs up inside saying ‘if you don’t feel well, go home’ and it will have the best practices as outlined on the government website.

“We won’t be scared to the point of paranoid, but we will be aware that it is a highly contagious virus and we need to be leaders in the community in showing the best practices of how to get back to business,” Lanigan said.

Brennan also shared the concerns about coronavirus but he emphasised that it was about ensuring everyone does the right thing. He explained that Palate Restaurant has hand sanitisers on its reception desk, staff members wear gloves and guests are encouraged to use contactless payments.

“We’re taking all the precautions that we can to ensure that our staff stay safe, and also that our customers stay safe as well,” Brennan said.

Sydney Restaurant Group will make sure all guests are booked in so their contact details are available if there are any concerns.

“We will presume our guests are coming because [they] don’t believe they have the virus,” Drakopoulos said. “By ensuring we have records of all bookings our guests are contactable if there is any cause for concern.”

A positive sign

Brennan considers the lifting of the restrictions as a positive sign for the broader Australian community rather than just the restaurant itself.

“I look at it [as] a positive sign because the community now can get out,” he said. He explained that while when would do deliveries, the constant feedback from customers was “I can’t wait for your restaurant to open”.

“It’s mainly good for the mental health of the customer – the ability to go out,” Brennan said. “There’s so many people who used to go down to the markets and get out on weekends and they haven’t been able to.

“Now being able just to go out for a couple of hours, have dinner [and] go home once a week brings some semblance of normality back into their life.”