Tales from Tasmania : The Hospitality Industry vs Covid 19 – Part 1

There’s a lot of stories to tell about what has transpired over the last few months as many in the industry found themselves either out of work or having to quickly adapt to survive. Equally important are thoughts towards the future. Here our first group of panelists share some memories and views.

Todays Guests:

Paul Foreman
Paul is a celebrated Chef, food consultant, one half of The Chef and The Showman, co-host of ofCourse TV, and has been recently busy at Great Lake Hotel.

Helen Ellis
Helen has a long history of involvement with the Tasmanian hospitality industry being a food blogger, writer, and commentator. Her page Rita’s Bite was part of the inspiration for my own forays into writing.

Massimo Mele
Massimo is an award winning celebrity Chef, TV personality, and champion of Tasmanian produce. He recently returned to his home state to direct the kitchen at Grain of the Silos.

Aaron Metcalf
Aaron was Chef at Amigos Mexican Restaurant for many years before recently taking the plunge and purchasing the business.

Courtney Drew
Courtney is a Chef, caterer and business owner. She is a partner at Fondru’s in North Hobart and an active collaborator in many other projects.

How has the last two months been for you personally? Have you been working throughout or taken the chance to enjoy some time off?

Paul Foreman
Work wise, I continued to work for the Great Lake Hotel 3 days per week. Unfortunately my other consultancies discontinued due to the lockdown. On the bright side, this gave me an opportunity to explore other areas that I had put on the back burner.

Massimo Mele
This is the first time I have been asked this question, important I answer this honestly. Since March 21st all my work dissolved, here in Tassie and interstate. I experienced lots of different emotions, shock, confusion and then absolute devastation as I watched the industry I love and grown up in, fall apart. We were lucky my wife kept working full time so I took on the fulltime care of our boys, was a challenge but now I look back and am glad of the time we spent together.

Helen Ellis
Quiet, peaceful, healthy (due to preparing and eating more healthy home cooked food), cheaper than usual (due to no eating out).

Aaron Metcalf
We worked through it. Having only recently taken over the business and still getting my head around running one, this happens. I had a few really bad days there at the start mentally, but I eventually snapped out of it. I felt responsible for the whole situation as it was my call to buy the restaurant and now we could lose everything, but being a miserable bastard wasn’t going to help anything. We quietly hoped that they would shut us down for a couple of weeks so we could take a break, but if there was a way to keep employing some of our staff we wanted to do it [their employees weren’t covered by JobKeeper], so we did.. It’s been exhausting.

Courtney Drew
Personally a rollercoaster – mixed emotions for my staff and for the future of not only my businesses but the whole industry. I have had a really fortunate opportunity to work on collaborations with good friends and family, to begin rebranding and refocussing fondrus, and able to recalibrate myself – which has been a blessing.This time as crazy as has been, has personally opened up some great opportunities, yet also allowed me to rediscover what is actually important in life.

What have been the biggest hurdles staying open?

Aaron Metcalf
I was surprised how difficult takeaways only would be. We’ve always done them, so we were already set up, but it was a nightmare compared to in-house and takeaway. There’s no entrees, drinks, chatting and booking staggering, just everyone wanting their dinner at dinner time. It took us weeks, and a near nervous breakdown on my behalf one infamous Saturday, to get it under control.

Massimo Mele
The amount of information we need to pass on to our staff and extra training to do on a skeleton crew, takes away from the focus on customer experience. Job keeper, although a savior, has been very difficult and at times very hard to understand.

Paul Foreman
If there is one thing that I have learnt over the years is the ability to adapt and overcome. I believe the hospitality industry is one of the most resilient and hardened industries in the world. Having said that, the challenges, especially in a remote location like the Lakes, have been ‘interesting’. In short, our General Store ramped up to a take away overnight and the Hotel reduced hours to a bottleshop/take away. It has worked well with everyone pulling together!

What have been the biggest hurdles reopening?

Massimo Mele
For us it feels like opening a new restaurant, getting staff and guests to appreciate and be patient as normally we would have more time to open a venue. Both times the government has made announcements we have had less than 7 days to get ready.

Courtney Drew
We have been technically closed for over 10 weeks, and will remain closed for a few more. We want to reopen being fresh and focused and that will take some further time at this stage. Through Billie&Brie (a colleagues business) we are working together on home deliveries of comfort food, and still delivering platters seven days a week. Hats off to all those who stayed open, for various reasons I am sure. It has truly changed the dining landscape in Tasmania (and I am sure many waistlines!).

Paul Foreman
It is about everyone pulling together and working through the guidelines. Our customers have been great and are working with us to make their experience as memorable as possible.

Do you see takeaways and deliveries being essential for a food businesses survival in the future?

Paul Foreman
I hope not. I believe that Take Away food is a specific business. A dining experience is not just about the food, it is ambience, service, music, location etc. Something that can’t be captured in a plastic container!

Massimo Mele
Personally, I think there is a demand for this, whether the model is delivery, providore boxes and ready to cook restaurant meals. Also, an extension of that could be catering drop offs for groups. All depending on what happens next but until there is a vaccine, I would assume people would be hesitant to go out. I think people have really enjoyed going out and buying local food and cooking again. This might not be a trend, for some it could be a new way of life.

Aaron Metcalf
Amigos has always offered takeaways, and for the last 15 or so years we’ve offered our full menu as takeaway. We provided an in house delivery service in the thick of it thanks to the most generous volunteering of family and friends, but still wouldn’t ever consider Uber Eats or similar.

Helen Ellis
Definitely for the short term, and possibly for the medium term. It’s going into winter now, and traditionally quieter as we snuggle down a bit at home in the cold and can be reluctant to shed the ugg boots and trackies for a meal out. With no Dark Mofo entertainment and food happening in Hobart this winter to entice the general public (locals and tourists) out, businesses will be relying more on locals for patronage if they’re going to make it through to summer. Thinking creatively outside the square, and offering deals and home deliveries would really help, I feel.

Courtney Drew
I feel takeaway and deliveries undeniably have changed peoples views and eating experiences over this time, and think it will continue to be a focal point – especially over the long, cold and bloody dark Hobart Winter.

Could we see a demand for more locally produced ingredients on our menus? Will we see more conscious eaters?

Aaron Metcalf
I’m hoping so. It’s a great thing to be able reference a local manufacturer of a particular ingredient on your menu, even if it’s based on cuisine from the other side of the Earth. I’d be happy to pay a little more for ingredients sourced locally where I can, and I’d like to think our customers would too.

Paul Foreman
Definitely! I feel that this has been on the landscape for a while now, but will only increase. Punters are more informed now, and with the Pandemic a ‘back to basics’ mentality is ever present!

Massimo Mele
I think people will now ask more questions and so they should. But not always question the cost. To support local and buy local it does not necessarily cost the business more for the product but the time and labour to source and produce and serve it in a restaurant. I would love for guests to appreciate this and see the value to our community of growers.

Courtney Drew
I am hoping the demand will continue to increase. I feel having the opportunity for a beautiful weekday market (such as hanging garden) is also invaluable to the hospitality scene in Hobart. It’s something I miss from my Melbourne days and I hope to see this expand – for both domestic and commercial benefits, not to mention for the growers and producers also.

Helen Ellis
I think the pandemic has given many of us cause to think about our reliance on outside influences, food and produce being only one aspect, but i think people generally would be more willing to support Tasmanian produce and ingredients more now, especially if it is pointed out in the advertising/menu/social media of the restaurant concerned. Personally I have always tried to seek out local and seasonal but now am more determined than ever to live by that creed due to a desire to lessen our reliance on having to import things into our state, and a desire for the possibility of more jobs being created within Tassie. Others around me have expressed similar views, which I love hearing. I get the impression many people have had the opportunity to ‘play’ with food, and experiment, and have gained more understanding and appreciation for local and fresh products, and I hope that will be reflected in future directions for local producers and growers.

Back in the (from memory) 1960’s when tv first started here in Hobart, there was a five minute locally made and produced ABC TV show called “To Market, To Market”, compered by a youthful Judy Tierney. It was just a quick indication/guide of all the fresh produce available that week in Hobart. It was, as I mentioned, only five minutes at 6.55 every Thursday night, before the 7.00pm news. I loved seeing what was available locally, and wish we had something like that on now to help promote our growers.

What do you think will be the major challenges to the local industry moving forward?

Courtney Drew
Just getting back on our feet as an industry, getting back to basics and creating beautiful and simple dining experiences like I think we all would like to deep down – but get stuck in the monotony of seven days a week – will be the biggest challenge. Hopefully with the positive and growing support of our local communities, this will be achievable. I truly believe people have established a greater understanding of our industry and how so very important and integral hospitality and dining is to our culture and lives.

Helen Ellis
I think the most major challenge to our local business owners is that they probably don’t have sufficient capital to see them through the next six months. It’s going to be a really tough winter and all we need is bums on seats and bar stools, eating and drinking out at all our venues happily every night.

Aaron Metcalf
Probably coping with paying the bills once the government help starts to wind back.

Massimo Mele
Tourism I think we rely on the tourism much more than we think.

Paul Foreman
Stay strong and don’t head down the ‘cheap eats’ option. This is the beginning of the end! We have an opportunity to reset our price model and actually charge the correct amount for our food! You get what you pay for!

How optimistic are you feeling?

Paul Foreman
We are a bloody strong bunch, I feel that we will push through, adapt and overcome. We have a great opportunity to reset the clock and flourish!

Aaron Metcalf
Very. We have a very loyal customer base who made themselves apparent from the start, and I’m sure we increased it by staying open. We love and appreciate them all.

Helen Ellis
I genuinely want everyone to succeed and make it through till Christmas. I’m devastated when I read of places closing down, and thinking of all the heartache and pain that’s gone into those decisions. I will be spending as much money as I can afford eating out, trying to do my bit, and hope everyone will too.

Courtney Drew
Still very much on the rollercoaster, but optimistic regarding the opportunities that lie ahead for not only me but my peers.

Massimo Mele
To be honest I am kind of enjoying hitting the RESET button. We were living such crazy lives before, even in Tassie moving at 100 miles an hour. I think taking the time to focus on what is important and invest more time in those things is important. I do not think we will go back to normal. This is a new world and we can now be in control of how we want it to look.

Which Tasmanian restaurant/bar is top of your list to visit first?

Courtney Drew
Anywhere I can be with my friends and family – to share a meal and a well deserve drink!

Paul Foreman
Landscape is definitely on top of the list. I love it’s simple elegance, ‘restaurant of old’ ambience and well prepared dishes.

Massimo Mele
Well my first experience was Timbre up in Launceston. Matt Adams is a really good mate and one of Tasmanias best chef and happy I was able to support him when he opened.

Helen Ellis
I went out last week for my first official meal ‘out’ and had a great $50 set menu meal, driving specially from the city to Franklin last Thursday night, to eat at Osteria @ Petty Sessions. New owners are a lovely Italian couple who previously ran the Aqua Grill in Franklin.They currently offer the set menu on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights only, and it changes every week. For $50, we got an entree of all local ingredients antipasto platter (housemade focaccia, smoked meat, pickles etc), then the most delicious housemade spaghetti I can remember having in ages, served with Huon Valley mushrooms, local tomato, Spring Bay mussels, calamari and scallops, then a main course of fritto misto. Dessert is an additional $10 if you have room left for it. We didn’t, but got it to take home for later. It was a raspberry crumble and was perfect later for supper.

Aaron Metcalf
Live music venues are the most exciting thought for me

Anything else you’d like to add on how you see the future of hospitality in Tasmania?

Helen Ellis
I think service staff need to be hand picked and specially trained by whoever is concerned within each individual businesses potential future if they want success. The value of repeat (local) business is critical at this stage of the game, and the face of your business is the person who is serving us our food/drinks. If they do a shit job, the customer has absolutely no incentive to return to your establishment. It’s so easy to smile as you put down a plate of food. If my server engages with me, they’ve won me. It’s so simple but actually reasonably rare. But I still have hopes.

Paul Foreman
Just to reiterate, Stay strong, don’t head down the ‘Cheap Eats’ path and innovate where possible!

Massimo Mele
I would love for there to be a forum where growers and chefs come together and discuss produce, availability, logisitics and learn better about the road to supporting local. I would love to see more growers and chefs connected and not just the same top 5 restaurants we read about in the media. There is fantastic produce out there and I don’t for a second think that it is viable for every business but it would be great to see more local produce on our menus. If this pandemic has taught us anything is that we have the ability to feed ourselves from what we have right here on our door step which just need to make the effort to make it happen.

Courtney Drew
I just hope to see us flourish again, and get that amazing community spirit back, and people to further recognise and respect our industry.

A big thanks to all who took the time to contribute, keep an eye out for part two soon with a new line up of guests

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