Tales from Tasmania : The Hospitality Industry vs Covid 19 – Part 2

Sharing stories of experiences during lockdown and thoughts towards the future by Tasmanian hospitality professionals. Here in part two we continue the conversation with another group and tell their tales.

Today’s Guests

Waji Spiby
Waji is a published cookbook author with his own range of condiments. More recently he’s been catering at major events and has introduced a range of home delivered meals on his website.

Christian Ryan
Christian is the Head Chef and co-owner of the award winning Aløft and a partner in The Standard.

Matt Hidding
Matt is a director of popular eateries Belles Burgers, Belles Pizzeria, and Taco Taco.

Pippa Dickson
Pippa is co-owner of The Salty Dog in Kingston.

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

Matt Hidding
It started off all doom and gloom but we kind of saw the writing on the wall so were as ready as we could be to pivot to the takeaway/delivery only model. I kept working throughout but definitely much fewer hours than usual which, to be honest, has been quite nice. It has given me time to reflect and restructure things in my business life as well as having more time with my family. During the beginning stages of the restrictions, I kept in contact and caught up with fellow hospitality owners and friends much more than I usually do and the camaraderie with everyone was really great to see, even though the situation was dire everyone was there to support each other. 

Pippa Dickson
I am writing this 83 days after our core management team and the three owners of The Salty Dog Hotel at Kingston Beach got together to discuss what we could possibly do to respond to the rapidly unfolding Covid-19 situation. The day before on Friday afternoon March 20, the PM announced the new 1.5m social distancing regulations (and three days later he would announce the closure of dine-in). Having witnessed some of our youngish ‘tradie’ cohort on the Friday night making jokes about corona virus we decided immediately to put the safety of our community (including our staff) first and foremost, we closed all dine-in across all spaces. Confusion and second guessing reigned.

Early on Saturday March 21 we met with our FoH Manager and head chef. Despite some scenes locally and around the country to the contrary, we wanted to assert this was serious. This was a pandemic. We went around the table and each of us articulated how we personally felt. We opened a safe space to listen to each other’s fears which included family issues, concern for elderly parents, personal health issues and of course each of our needs in regard to income and work.

Within a few hours we had a plan for communicating with our whole team (20 plus), our suppliers and we made a complete transition to takeaway meals; pick-up and delivery, and, a new menu that was more accessible in terms of price and for family sharing, while not compromising our ‘pub style’. We decided that we needed to be ready for change on a pin-head and that, as much as we could, we would remain there for our locals. This included, for example, changing the menu as frequently as possible for our loyal customers and build regular patronage, this would be even more important than ever before. Right at that moment, I think we have never felt so grateful to our community, 7000+ followers, who responded immediately with messages of support.

There have been many stressful times with the pub over the last 4.5 years. This, in no uncertain terms, completely surpassed anything prior. Many of our staff, including a few very trusted team members weren’t eligible for job keeper for various reasons including being on visas and halts to employment over the previous 12 months. But, at that early point, we didn’t even know about job-keeper. The uncertainty, our overheads and rent negotiations became debilitating. On top of that, each of the three owners, all hands on in different ways, have other substantive full time positions in tourism, hospitality, the arts and international trade, the most immediately affected industries. It would be an enormous understatement to say that we were stressed.

Christian Ryan
The last three months have been pretty crazy for us all. Obviously the world around us has been
terrifying and very unpredictable, I have however worked really hard to keep myself busy mentally but also to just try and enjoy a forced break. As a business owner I’ve always got something going on and I really felt guilty for a few weeks. I felt like I was being lazy and should be working in some capacity. I just had to remind myself being at home was what we were asked to do to help the curve so I should embrace it and not feel bad about it. Over the last 3 months I’ve taken the time to learn how to renovate sanding and polishing floor boards. I’ve read and watching a lot of food material getting the brain ticking and inspired for returning to work and probably drank a hell of a lot more then I should.

Waji Spiby
The last three months have impacted me heavily due to the nature of my business. All functions cancelled, my business was operating for the last two weeks of March trying to do home delivered food which wasn’t taken on by the public. No time off trying to drum up business.

What have been the biggest hurdles staying open?

Pippa Dickson
Managing cash flow has been the biggest challenge. It still is. Keeping morale going and constant communications with the community so that we could be ‘front of mind’ on social media have all been difficult and exhausting.

Waji Spiby
Hurdles are trying to get the new business going with no bookings coming through and no cash flow.

What have been the biggest hurdles reopening?

Christian Ryan
Reopening for us will be coming up in a just over a week. We have had to work along side the pier to get things open as they don’t have much need to get it up and running properly till Mona is back open and the boats are running again. I think the hardest thing for us will be adapting the business to survive the coming months where we are looking at the heart of a very cold winter with no tourism and potentially a summer ahead still void of many or all visitors. I worry that our hardest days as restaurant owners during Covid19 times is still ahead.

Matt Hidding
The biggest hurdles reopening has been trying to keep within the changing regulations and also trying to keep the public aware, there is a fair bit of misinformation out there and as all states are different so trying to explain to some people that what you saw in the media doesn’t apply to Tasmania has been quite difficult, as a whole most people have been understanding and helpful. Staying open the number of deliveries was a challenge, as we had never done before it was quite hard to get used to the timing and try to figure out new systems to make it work efficiently and cost effective.

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

Christian Ryan
We originally had planned to start a take away menu the week everything closed and had it all
prepped and ready. Once the call was made for lockdown the pier also closed and we had to
abandon the take away idea till we were able to re-open in some capacity. We will be opening Aloft again in just over a week but our hours and days will be reduced until there is demand for more. We will also start a take away menu the week after we open. Its clear being winter many people still don’t want to be out or don’t feel comfortable being in social situations. Our take away will be an experiment much like everyone’s currently is and we will evolve it as time goes on.

Waji Spiby
The take away and delivery hasn’t worked for me, I cant see the take away to survive at this level as there is too much offer it will take away from the existing businesses already offering this service.

Matt Hidding
For us absolutely I don’t think we can stop doing deliveries now. For your more high-end restaurants I don’t think there was or ever will be a market for takeaway or delivery of that type of food as its more of an experience as a whole that they are offering.

Pippa Dickson
We would like to think it can continue as an extra or alternative revenue stream but since reopening for dine-in, takeaway orders have taken a dive. We loved to see our community sharing how they’d creatively plated their roasts at home and we’re still dreaming about opening a provedore, but we just haven’t had the capital to do further renovations.

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

Waji Spiby
I can see there will be a demand for local ingredients in the short term and think it will revert down the track unless border restrictions stop imported ingredients coming in it’s a nice thought this would be the case but I cant see it.

Christian Ryan
I think going forward we need to really be using local more then ever. Its cost effective cutting out the middle person, the produce is consistently great and its also helping those around us who grow, catch and farm to support their lively hoods. If we loose them and the opportunity to cook with their produce then Tasmania will take a huge step back in a culinary scene that has been growing and bringing great food evolution and tourism to our state.

Matt Hidding
I hope so but I don’t think Covid will necessarily change this. I think people may look towards locally owned eateries to support so this may pass on down the line to local producers.

Pippa Dickson
We’ve always focused on locally sourced produce and have always prided ourselves on being inclusive (sometimes to our own detriment in terms of menu length). We also have a policy of always making sure we have fresh and interesting vegan items, for example.

Are you looking at changing your menu and direction?

Matt Hidding
We have streamlined our menu a bit and aren’t looking at changing it back. Its definitely made me look at different business models and what may work in the future but for now our direction remains the same

Pippa Dickson
We have a fabulous new chef from Argentina and we made a conscious decision to work with him to bring  South American flavours that no-one else was doing locally. We are committed to our community and what they want, like great tasting generous parmies, while introducing new approaches from time to time.

Waji Spiby
I have changed directions with home delivered food and looking at going back to manufacturing my product range again.

Christian Ryan
This whole shit situation has to come with some silver linings and I think the chance to restart and
refresh is probably the biggest one. Businesses evolve and change over time. Some of these
changes are on purpose and some of them you don’t even realise have happened till you get a
chance to stop, sit back and look at things from the outside. This self-reflection mixed with a very
different dining landscape will mean we do need to change the way we operate and focus on running things in new ways. Before Aloft originally opened and we realised that we could take a lot more people then we planned things were going to be different. Once we started being able to doing nights with 100+ customers the menus and service needed to be adjusted to make this easier to manage. Now that we are going to be restricted in our numbers by not only the laws but also by the lack of tourism and cold winter months ahead, We can work on dishes that are a bit more labour intensive in service and be able to work with smaller suppliers that we couldn’t get enough product off before. We will be reopening Aloft with a smaller menu and also a smaller wine list, Then we can put more time and love into frequently changing to keep things exciting not only for the dinners and also the staff.

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

Pippa Dickson
Avoiding a race to the bottom in regard to low margins. The industry needs to become much more effective at communicating the ‘value’ of hospitality. Strong growth has meant supply has outgrown demand and led to price driven competition. It’s not sustainable. And right now, let’s face it, a major challenge will be getting through Winter.

Waji Spiby
Challenges for the future to get interstate to use Tasmania as the main destination as international is going to take a long time to come back. I think the future for Tasmania will be ok, I think the other states will come to our state when the boarders reopen.

Christian Ryan
The hardest thing is going to be getting customers to relax and feel normal again and also working
with a huge drop in numbers for potentially the next 18 months due to people being unable or to
scared to travel. Job keepers end will also be a huge challenge to all businesses but in particular the tourism and hospitality sectors that won’t be able to function properly due to travel restrictions that are out of our control. This chain reaction will in turn will affect suppliers, farmer, and loads of other people. I do hold a little hope as many industries that don’t need job keeper as much loose the support, Then perhaps the government will continue to help us as they have already said that international travel wont be happening till next year.

Matt Hidding
The tourist market is an obvious one but also regaining the public trust so that they feel safe to go out again.

How optimistic are you feeling?

Christian Ryan
I am trying to be as positive as one can be and I think it’s made a little easier as an industry we are all in this together. But it is a hard time and I’m certain we haven’t seen the worst of it yet. That being said Aloft has had good fortune over the last 3 months, suppliers and landlords have been
understanding and supportive and things could be a lot worse. We just need to focus on keeping our heads above water for the coming months.

Matt Hidding
I’m currently feeling pretty optimistic like I said before its been a good time to reflect and change a few things

Waji Spiby
I don’t feel so optimistic for my catering as I feel this is twelve to eighteen months away before the corporate business comes back.

Pippa Dickson
We’re hugely buoyed by our community of supporters, but in terms of sustainability, we are guarded. We’re worried about a long tail economic effect. We’re also dying to start live music again and support local artists, when this happens at stage 3 or 4, we think we will see morale and community cohesion increase at that point.

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

Waji Spiby
Syra and Vanidols South Hobart

Christian Ryan
Its been great to go and visit Matt and Ali in at Sonny since they have re-opened, and a Sunday lunch at Fico will be fantastic to do soon. Now that we will be operating reduced days for the moment. I will be pushing for all of the team at Aloft to use their spare time getting out and supporting local businesses that we haven’t been able to eat at in a while or try new places. Without tourists we are all starting fresh and we have to all get out and help each other get through this.

Pippa Dickson
We’re still getting around to ordering Masaaki’s sushi!

Matt Hidding
Probably Lucinda but I don’t get out much!

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

Waji Spiby
What I would like to see in Tasmania is higher quality of younger chefs and to take this industry as a serious career.

Matt Hidding
I’m hoping this enacts some positive changes in the industry and opens up the public view to the challenges of running a hospitality business and maybe we will see some changes in the customer’s perspective. There is a lot of hospitality professional workaholics out there with much more spare time on their hands so we may just see some innovation as well.

Christian Ryan
There’s nothing we can do to change what’s gone on but I think its how we pick ourselves back up, work together and support each other that will show what an amazing food scene we have in Hobart and get us through to better times.

Pippa Dickson
We’d like to see a commitment to the improvement of contemporary training from government and industry, if this doesn’t happen soon Tasmania won’t have a workforce for the future. We also want to see an end to poker machines in pubs and clubs. They’ve stolen the soul from hotels over the last 30 years and any real possibility for innovation in terms of creating food focused destination venues and opportunities for training and employment.

A big thank you to all that took time out to contribute. You can read part one here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s