The Journey Through Covid-19
Traditionally restaurants played a more significant role in the community, they were a place to gather, to celebrate, to mourn together. They could be relied upon to support the local schools, fundraising committees and charities, they supported livelihoods, of their team, their suppliers and associated industries, who all relied on them for their local economies.
Somewhere down the line this was a little lost and with changes to the hospitality environment, removal of FBT, introduction of GST, Penalty Rates, increased Super obligations just to name a few, it became a battle of survival with profit margins dwindling to below 5% for the moderately successful operators.
Only the most passionate. Most committed remained in the industry. The glamour, the profits, the influence, all gone. All that remained was a dedication to the industry, to its’ people, to its’ guests and the community it served.
Some of the new entrants don’t know all this when they fulfil their dreams of owning their own restaurant. Some do and do it anyway, because it’s worth it to try.
The next time you’re out and about, take a good close look at the owner, they’re exhausted with the long hours, they’re stressed with the financial burden, and with staff who just don’t care about their customers as much as they do. Because most of them are transient and just passing through the industry while studying or pursuing their real careers. Keeping up with compliance and regulations alone is enough to exhaust the most responsible owner.
If only there were more Saturday nights in the week, their cashflows might be able to remain current. With 80% of the week’s revenue taking place on one evening, guests are quick to say “you’re so busy” or “you’re doing well” at the full house they witness, because they, and everybody else chooses to go out on a Saturday night. If you want to support your local restaurant (and your relationship) mix it up a little, visit them on other days too.
It’s a very seasonal industry too, the Christmas season is busy and allows many to catch up on their bills and even have a little left over. But then January & February happen, aside from Valentine’s Day, the quietest period of the year, well for us anyway.
I had been tracking Coronavirus from late January, and could see that it was coming while hoping it wouldn’t.
2020 for us was going to be a milestone year, the first year of forecast profit for almost a decade. I hadn’t seen that amount of hype over a wedding season since the year 2000, we were excited for what was to come with a record number of advanced bookings, and could finally update some equipment and replace some furniture, and finally review some of the stagnant management salaries.
But by mid March business began to pause, function bookings too concerned to proceed, the courageous couples determined to get married, did so with half of their guests, the other half too concerned to attend.
Then on March 23rd we were closed.
We had enough to meet payroll for just a few more weeks but not much else, many others were already in overdraft. So many livelihoods depended on the restaurant. Staff & suppliers, having to endure a grown man calling me in tears as all of his restaurant clients were closed owing him & he had young mouths to feed.
I think I had an entire day curled up in a distressed ball, until, unbeknownst to me, my team had rallied amongst themselves to volunteer their time & support to get us through.
I had been working around the clock with our graphic designer/web developer in the weeks leading up to the closure with the concept of Courthouse@Yourhouse, a creative idea I had had many years earlier. I knew we couldn’t compete with the traditional takeaways already available, so we went about creating a proper in-home dining experience, to bring the Courthouse to them if our guests couldn’t come to us. We focused on only the highest quality food we were known for that could be easily transferred to their own dinner plates, and included a tea-light with every order, encouraging them to share their beautiful table settings to welcome our food. Special occasions were now able to still be celebrated at home and the restaurant could almost meet its payroll for the core team. The platform we had developed was a work in progress, but we had done enough to launch on the day after we were closed.
The graphic designer was herself impacted but dedicated to help us create the on-line ordering platform, knowing she couldn’t be paid until business resumed.
We plan on continuing with Courthouse@Yourhouse for the romantic nights in and the private dinner parties at home long after life is restored and have inadvertently found an additional revenue stream while trying to address the crisis.
The community was rallying behind us, supporting our innovations and encouraging us to a level I found so uplifting, that falling over while so many held me up, was simply not an option.
As I continued to track the virus numbers, locally and globally, as well as recovery rates, I was able to forecast the unfolding weeks and months so accurately it even scared me a little. But what it gave me was hope and time. Time to prepare and plan, so that for every announcement we were ready and ahead of it. My team were so focused and engaged on what we were doing to keep us all safe and prevent even a remote possibility of an outbreak that would devastate our efforts.
I am very lucky, the transient staff I mentioned earlier that most venues have, were not on my payroll. I have a dedicated management team that has been working and caring for the business for years. I have a team of young professionals who are studying for their future careers, but who are also engaged and proud to belong to our organization. It’s a big family that has their moments as all families do, but who will fiercely support one another and the restaurant. I genuinely care about them and have supported their needs because of how much they do care. And because I know they care, I can step back and focus on what I need to do, steer our ship safely through the storm waters as they trust me to do.
They have had the kind of turbulence that is only ever experienced once in a lifetime, having to adapt and change course at a moments’ notice from me, or from a new government announcement. This experience will have equipped them with life skills and an education that you can’t buy and has given us all the confidence of resilience in the face of possibly the worst crisis we will ever encounter.
I owe much of my preparedness to the 4 year discovery journey I had embarked on In 2012, where I created and founded a hospitality recruitment company, applied for my E2 business migration visa and relocated myself and my children to Midtown Manhattan, NYC, the hospitality capital of the world, within 6 months of the idea forming.
It reinvigorated my passion and drive, it reignited my determination for my own operation back in Australia, to see what some of my clients faced and how they managed to operate successfully in the most adverse and fiercely competitive environment I had ever witnessed.
My clients ranged from top Michelin starred restaurants, to famous faces, to hole in the wall, grab & go establishments, and they all faced their own challenges with a vigor I had never seen..
On returning home to Australia, I was determined to refine and restore my restaurant back to its’ former glory and beyond, emboldened by my experience, the first mission was to wipe out any complacency that had crept in.
A lifelong learner by nature, I looked at everything at our disposal, from adapting new technology to enhance efficiency and service, to moving fixed mindsets and attitudes that were impeding on the ultimate goal, the most optimized version our operation could be, with a legendary standard of service. All adopted just in time as we were finally beginning to see the rewards and 2020 was going to be our best year for decades.
In many ways it still is…
Covid-19 has been an opportunity and a catalyst to restore ideas and processes that were laying dormant. An opportunity to genuinely connect & communicate with our guests and our community. To evolve and innovate and improve. But most importantly, a new appreciation for our dynamic industry, the beautiful people who serve it, and the value of every single seat and the guest that sits in it.
The journey up to the moment our world changed, and then through it, has been one that I will treasure. I have more hope for a better future than ever before having witnessed the human spirit at its best with only glimpses of its’ worst. We won’t all get to the other side safely, and sadly, many dreams will be shattered by the crisis. But the industry will be stronger and healthier, as a result of the many measures it has adapted, and the fortitude the remaining operators will have acquired.
It won’t matter who is in government and how many absurd or debilitating policies they introduce, because we will have developed a Teflon coat of resilience, a herd immunity if you will, having gone through the ravages of Covid-19.