Learning From Lockdown

“In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to. If things go back exactly as they were, we will have missed the opportunity to take the good from this bad.” Dave Hollis

In March 2020 the hospitality industry was brought to a virtual standstill as COVID-19 struck and isolation measures were introduced.

It was a situation none of us asked for, catastrophic financially and personally to many businesses and families. Yet, as we prepare to emerge from isolation, there are some unexpected learnings to take with us.

As a food writer telling stories about restaurants, restaurateurs and producers, when COVID struck, I undertook an immediate reorientation of purpose.

It was as though our world had turned inwards, its message to stop and reflect. In self-isolation, communication methods shrank to phone, email and social media. While personally the crisis brought an end to holiday plans and some financial repercussions, the Facebook page ‘View from my Window’ brought a world context to an isolation that for some had major repercussions. Reading about others in crisis also provided food for thought.

Through my laptop, I observed restaurateurs’, café owners’ and friends’ reactions to the crisis.

As café owner and coffee roaster Richard Silipo (Silipo Coffee) notes a crisis brings out the best and the worst in people: “We are all in this together. Covid-19 has in some way reached every person in the world. While some have shown sympathy and helped others, others have been selfish and looked after themselves. Some people have lost everything while other industries have flourished.”

The effects on business were far-reaching, says restaurateur Remi Baron (Le Café Gourmand), “…especially the food suppliers but also the ones we don’t necessarily think about such as bin cleaners, towel and tablecloth suppliers, newspaper and magazines writers etc. It is very sad and painful to see so many people struggling.”

It was a time for everyone in the industry to support each other. Seeing my role as one of support, promoting the people and produce of the area, I veered away from restaurant reviews to concentrate on covering services to those most in need: affordable home delivery for those locked in, inexpensive meals to cook at home, food delivery to those working on the front line and charity schemes helping those most in need (including international students not eligible for government benefits).

A theme became evident: some of the hardest hit restaurateurs, often those who had themselves migrated to Australia, were those who lent a helping hand to others. Often quite privately, with a smile of encouragement, they reached out. As I wrote, my fingers reached beyond the keyboard to bring their stories of hope and comfort to others in isolation.

Restaurateurs willingly shared with me the lessons they would take from COVID times.

People have been foremost in their minds, both customers and staff.

“I have learnt, more than ever, to focus on my family, my staff and my friends, as we all need each other at the end,” Richard Silipo tells me.

“The human aspect has been amazing, how people have pulled together, how understanding our return guests have been and how they have supported us during the crisis,” Patrick Rabbath (Rabbath) says, not only “…financially by still ordering, but more importantly morally by sending lovely and supportive messages,” says Remi Baron.

Adaptability has been key, with “…long term staff willing to accept changes to maintain their job and the business, regardless of their personal needs,” he adds.

“Our sense of community has been strengthened,” says Emmi Kendall (Lucky Bao), “and so has our staff. Overseas workers are not eligible for government benefits when they are unemployed, so it has made our team better by us looking after each other.”

When normal operations slowed and stopped, creativity and thinking outside the square became essential to survival. For some, it was necessary to make new squares, new models that would flourish in a new environment.

Erfan Jalilian (Shiraz, Surfers Paradise) grasped the opportunity to add a personal touch, serving takeaways and Persian groceries from a table at his restaurant’s entrance, getting to know his customers better as they drank complimentary tea while waiting for takeaway. Slower custom gave Erfan the ability to introduce his own home delivery service across the Gold Coast which will remain post-COVID, he says.

“Slower trade gave us the opportunity to do some things we’d always wanted to do at Lucky Bao,” says Emmi. “We became more creative, bottling cocktails, sauces and marinades such as our famous Crack Sauce and Spicy Korean glaze, which are now available to purchase.”

“Food has always been an industry where innovation and creation were key. We need to recognise that the way we consume food will now be continuously evolving possibly at a faster pace than ever before. It has been happening slowly over the years…however I think Covid-19 has accelerated the process and we cannot just stay back. We need to keep up with the new trends, needs and wants of clients to stay up to date and competitive,” says Remi Baron.

Asking new questions leads to new answers. Noting how quickly the streamlining of systems, including products and delivery service took place, “I think it is important to note the resilience of business owners, staff and customers during this crisis. We have never solved problems so quickly and efficiently to keep the economy going as much as it was possible,” says Remi.

The COVID lockdown gave others the chance to re-evaluate not only what they were doing but their actual purpose.

“So much ‘fluff’ existed in the industry before the crisis,” says Patrick Rabbath. “In some ways it was a false economy. When we had to stop providing service, it pared us back to what people actually needed and things became a lot more transparent. We had to come back to a ‘meat and potatoes’ mentality,” he said, adding takeaway items as another income stream and considering a format for weekend brunches.

Consumers, too, have had their own cleanouts, physically, mentally and financially. For some, isolation has provided “…an opportunity to do some housekeeping in where we focus, who we spend time with, what we consume, how we work, what matters and most importantly what doesn’t,” Dave Hollis notes.

Above all, many I spoke to expressed how grateful they were to be living in Australia and emerging from the other side of the crisis.

“I am extremely thankful we are in a country that has a government which has really given everyone the best chance possible considering the situation we are in, from protection to monetary security to the best of their efforts,” says Richard Silipo. “I know the world will be forever changed, but I feel it is forever changed in a positive way.”

Through droughts, fires, floods, and now COVID-19, we are proud to be Australian, facing the crisis together and moving forward.