I’ve been writing this blog for many years. I continue not because many people read it. It’s mainly because I enjoy writing, think a lot about restaurants, and like to capture my thoughts. I’ve also realised that the successful bloggers are often form (photo quality) over substance (writing quality). My average photo doesn’t take long and until a couple of months ago I had an iPhone 5. I have a different perspective.
Lately I’ve been thinking deeply about dining post this health crisis, and I’ve been having quite a few conversations about it in my area.
Due in no small part to the influence of my Mum, I am very conscious of germs, without quite being a germaphobe, and I am clean, without being a clean-freak. I put safety first so I have been known to touch the handrail of a train escalator, but I am conscious that I am doing it. I have cleaned the bathroom exclusively for almost 24 years since I first left home and still do to this day, and I do it very well, but I don’t do it weekly!
Coronavirus hasn’t rocked me as much as I expected it to. While maintaining safe social distancing from the outset, I made sure I got to experience the last of my cafe and restaurant experiences right up to the restrictions starting, only cancelling once when we didn’t get the comfort we were looking for during the restaurant booking and confirmation process. I wondered how I would cope from going to cafes almost every day to nothing; from going to footy matches and horse racing to nothing; from trips to the shops for one or two items being a non-essential risk. What saved me initially was the novelty factor, which I knew would wear off. Then as the novelty wore off, the new business model for cafes and restaurants doing quality takeaway, completely saved me.
I have a little love affair with the Cherry Tree Hotel. I think Catherine and I have ordered pizzas, parmas, beers, and hand sanitiser, about a dozen times. We have become closer to cafe staff at Pillar Of Salt, and Top Paddock, ordering their excellent coffee and quality cafe fare regularly. We’ve had multiple meals from Vaporetto and Matilda159, and supported a range of places like Tivoli, Lume, Penny For Pound, Mayday, Inward Goods, Blackhearts & Sparrows, Tipo 00, and Cutler & Co, with our continued patronage, which is naturally in consideration for an exceptional product they put out. It has kept life interesting, and I’ve enjoyed spending extra time with Catherine and our little boy Sydney. He turned one during the restrictions but it was still a nice immediate family celebration, and we had a terrific Elmo cake from Swan Street Bakery & Patisserie.
What I didn’t expect was a mild discomfort with the easing of restrictions. Over the past weeks I’ve noticed a substantial amount of breaking and bending the rules. I don’t expect that to get better going forward and I’m hoping a certain amount of luck sees us all through. It is probably the reason for my hesitation in making instant restaurant bookings as the restrictions ease using a phased approach. I would comfortably say from my observations that there is around 20% of people who are not thinking AT ALL about social distancing when they are out and about. The rest of the population have somewhere between a healthy respect for others, to a proper diligence about what they are doing, and what those around them are doing. It’s like good drivers. Everyone can drive, but good drivers avoid accidents by anticipating what other drivers are doing. In Australia it seems we do not give feedback to others who do the wrong thing. While I have wanted to, I just cannot bring myself to confront a complete stranger and I’m sure most people are naturally that way inclined.
The business model of allowing 20 people to dine at the venue is quite complicated. It is not just a question of profit. Reputationally you do not want to have a potential issue through outbreak for the sake of 20 diners and a negligible profit? Gearing up staff levels again might be okay if you have workers who have been stood down or have had reduced hours on JobKeeper, or staff who can increase their hours, but is fraught with hardship for new hires, and potentially threatened by a second wave. 20 people means extra areas to sanitise, extra risk from exposure (to all staff), and there is no guarantee the patrons will accept lower levels of service (ie how many staff do you have ready for a maximum of 20 covers is potentially difficult as the area needs to be large given the social distancing requirements of 4 square metres per person). I can understand why all venues are contemplating not doing it or waiting to see how others are going with the easing.
The best candidate is fine dining. You already expect certain spacing at most expensive restaurants and the margin on food is better. The worst candidate, almost counter-intuitively, is small dining spaces. Because of social distancing, a small dining space might not even be able to hold 10 people! A couple of no-shows and you are having a bad evening. Cafes that are well run and have access to appropriate booking technology might be able to do okay, but it is not the right model to have people waiting out the front for extended periods to get a table. You can start to appreciate how difficult this is. No matter the space, you need to have something to eat more substantial than a snack if you are drinking alcohol. Being from Perth I am used to this rule from my twenties, but I’m not sure how Melburnians will take to it.
For staff, I am worried they will also have higher stress on top of the fact they are serving multiple diners who they are exposed to for lengthy periods. In some circumstances they could become an umpire between strangers who don’t agree with the spirit of the game, or its rules. For example, if people greet each other with large long hugs (like I saw in the park last Sunday – all under the observation of their kids – good example!) do you ask them to leave? Do other diners complain to the staff and put them in a difficult position? Do the authorities get called for not adhering to social distancing? It is a couple of months since restrictions began and there will be a lot of people who are stressed and anxious, with lesser mental health, and that could be a recipe for confrontation.
On the flipside, I think we have seen a good level of maturity with the majority of Australians, and those I’ve observed in my area. As long as the majority continue to show thoughtfulness and respect when out in public, and use the normal polite and friendly mannerisms we are known for around the globe, I can see a real community spirit as locals start gathering in dining spaces. It really is up to all of us to be patient and show cafe and restaurant staff that they are valuable to us. To be tolerant to others, and where it is needed to be diplomatic when discussing the rules with strangers, or to stick up for those in need. I’m sure we can all appreciate as we see the devastation overseas, that we are very lucky to be able to get a takeaway coffee, let alone sit down in a cafe once again from 11.59pm on Sunday 31 May.
I’ll tread warily, and I may not be one of the first diners on Monday 1 June at any of my favourite places, but I wish anyone reopening all the best. When I step in to your venue I promise to be a thoughtful, respectful and polite diner, and take a moment to look around and appreciate something we once took for granted.