A word none of us ever had in our business plans - until now.
The last few weeks need no reintroduction, the various stages of hospitality shutdowns across the globe have crippled our industry and we've all witnessed it first hand. Forcing all of us to bend to the will of this virus and government mandated closure venues - putting more than one million hospitality workers jobs at risk in Australia alone. COVID-19 has affected everyone reading this piece in some way.
I know I've felt it hard. Being the proud (and very tired) co-owner of three venues in Melbourne; Bar Liberty, Capitano and Falco Bakery. All previously celebrated and loved by our customers and now, all empty except one.
Before all this happened, the diversification across our hospitality group was at times a headache - a very difficult juggling game of trying to deliver the best wine, the best pasta and pizza and the best baked goods. All with three very different teams in three very unique venues and all with very different customers. This sweaty juggling act has been like having 3 children, all difficult but all loved dearly and maybe somedays you wish you could just spend your whole afternoon with the one who's behaving best right now.
The differences and diversification across our venues though is now what's easing the pain and keeping our lights on during a crisis.
Our wine bar, Bar Liberty has felt the pain the most out of the three, just like any other bar right now - it's incredibly difficult to pivot to online sales and delivery when your entire business model is built around luring people into your cosy venue to enjoy stella service and atmosphere. We tried though and quickly realized that keeping it "open" was simply not feasible. But even with the doors to my first (and favourite) closed- there was no way we were going to let our staff be put out on the street. This is a time for leadership and for those who can, the time to step up to the plate.
The solution has been to rapidly adapt, using the tools immediately in front of us.
Combining all the values into a big family essentially, filling in each other's weakness and supporting the entire group through a shared effort. Falco Bakery has become a central hub, our bunker and base. Luckily under the current rules of shutdown it is and has been allowed to stay "open" in a stinted and controlled iteration- bread being an essential item has allowed this. So we've taken all our wine and beverage from Bar Liberty and put it on the menu at our bakery, and we have one of our Bar Liberty staff members working everyday on site to chat to take away customers about wine if they want a little direction. We've extended the hours of the bakery too- after seeing a huge increase in traffic and a shift in what customers are purchasing, we simply had to. We've seen Falco become a symbol of Smith Street during quarantine, a place people are choosing to walk to during their allotted allowed exercise time, somewhere to turn to on a Friday night when you feel like escaping the news cycle with a good bottle of wine and something delicious to snack on. This has been hard work and things look and feel very unfamiliar, but this diversification means we are still operating and most importantly still employing our incredible teams.
Staff after all, are everything. We are nothing without them, there is no business without them in the good times and there certainly wouldn't be anything without them now in the hard times. When I speak about leadership and steppin' up to the plate during a crisis- the most inspiring examples of those doing so- are those on the front lines of this. Not venue owners or investors, it's the managers, the wait staff, the chefs and everyone in between. They're the real heroes of our industry right now. Adapting in the trenches, bringing great and innovative ideas forward and continuing to bring smiles to peoples faces- regardless of how tough things are on them right now too.
I've seen this from every one of our staff in the last few weeks. As soon as restrictions started, our head bartender at Capitano immediately bottled our cocktails and made them available for pickup and delivery- bracing our restaurant for further restrictions before they went into place. All of our teams also increased our menu offerings for take away- offering frozen pizzas, pasta and a variety of assemble-yourself options for our customers. They partnered with a delivery option that takes a smaller percentage of sales than Uber Eats and each venue has put on deals and promotions that have kept our customers smiling and feeling appreciated. Every staff member across the group has put in the hard-yards and made me emotional with their resilience and effort.
This has ensured our survival.
Publicly - I want to thank our little family of staff, all their names listed below because they deserve to be known, along with my Co-Owners Casey Wall, Manu Potoi & Christine Tran;
Thijs van Lierop
Through all of this we are not only surviving though, we are learning to live in a new normal and so are our customers and community. Falco is actually busier than ever right now, Capitano's website crashed last week from demand and Bar Liberty is consistently selling out of wine and nibbles through Falco's doors. Things are still tough, very tough but we are keeping our chin above water and I think the reason is simple.
Food and drink brings us together, beyond the palate- we eat and drink to be together, to make new memories or to relive old ones. If you're lucky enough to have your food and drink make it home to someone's kitchen table with their family- you must and have to be peddling a pretty damn good feeling.
Our venues have always been about just that, making you feel good, every time you walk in.
Bar Liberty was and is a no bullshit wine bar, filled with the best juice we can find. All are welcome and accepted here. Capitano was built off the back of approachable, hearty and wholesome America-Italian dishes. Rich, simple, delicious food that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Simply feel good food. And Falco... come on, good bread is the key to happiness and our peanut butter miso cookie might as well be classified as an SSRI. Don't believe it? You haven't tried it obviously. It'll make you smile faster than a Bugatti does 0-60mph. ( 2.3 seconds )
This is why we are able to adapt and continue through the fog of the crisis - we are deeply connected to happiness and positive experiences for our customers. Just as we all should be. We can not forget the pivotal role food and beverage plays in our everyday life. It's a slice of escapism and respite and right now we all need that more than ever.
After all this is said and done, in six to twelve months. There is going to be a new normal. The effects of this won't be going away, those who adapt and innovate now- not just around their current business model but around how they can make their customers happy through new at-home methods will win, well beyond the crisis. Because after all this is over, we are going to enjoy food and drink differently, we are going to be fussier with where our dollars go and how our time is spent. People are going to want real experiences like never before, it's going to be a new era for dining and the bar will be set much higher. There won't be much room left for arrogance, ego and snobbery - if people are going to give you their already ultra valuable time and money you better make them smile with what you put on the plate.
The customer will demand more of us all - rightfully. So, what are you going to do about it?
If you are a bar owner and would like to contribute to Bar Entrepreneur Frontline please email me at Simon@DiffordsGuide.com. Thanks to support from Havana Club all published contributions will be paid for, with a matching amount donated to The Drinks Trust charity (formerly The Benevolent), or a local hospitality charity of your choice.