How quickly things change.
In mid-December, Brisbane’s food and beverage scene was riding high on the back of a typically bumper Christmas season. Just a month later and many restaurants and cafes are closed, or are running reduced menus or takeaway-only operations, the industry brought low by the reopening of domestic borders and subsequent spread of the Omicron variant.
It’s a sudden and challenging new phase of the pandemic for a local industry already exhausted by close to two years of lockdowns and chronic labour shortages, and frustrated by government mismanagement of testing requirements.
“It’s the worst it’s felt in the whole pandemic,” says Dan Quinn, owner of Baja in Fortitude Valley. “It’s to the point where sometimes I just want to give up. But you can’t give up when you’ve worked so hard.
“I’ve never felt like quitting more than right now. It’s pretty disappointing. I’m just trying to visualise a couple of months in the future [after the Omicron wave has passed].”
Quinn has been hit hard by cancelled bookings – he lost 80 diners across the weekend before last – and the highly transmissible nature of Omicron, which at one stage eliminated six staff from his roster due to infections and isolation requirements.
“We have a small team,” he says. “Take two out of the kitchen and four off the floor and that’s my whole business.”
Quinn says the current conditions essentially feel like a lockdown, but with a lack of planning and support from the state and federal governments, and a “shitshow” testing situation that’s left casual staff struggling to access either PCR or rapid antigen tests, and therefore unable to provide a positive result to claim Services Australia’s pandemic leave disaster payment.
“This feels worse than a lockdown,” Quinn says. “Because you’re like, ‘Should we open? Should we struggle? Are people gonna come if we do open?’”
At Rosmarino Ristorante and Wine Bar, over on McLachlan Street, bookings held up over the festive season, but owners Lauren Smith and Andrea Gatti eventually chose to close their 55-seat restaurant in the face of staffing pressures. The couple shut the doors on January 6, only reopening last Saturday.
“We lost two in the kitchen,” Smith says. “Two had called in sick [on January 5], then the other two in the kitchen said they weren’t feeling well. We could feel it was coming, they’re a super tight-knit team. So we just said, ‘Okay, let’s just close.’”
Like Quinn’s staff, the Rosmarino crew struggled to get tested.
“They couldn’t get tested with the crazy line-ups ... and there were no rapid tests available,” Smith says. “That situation has been so silly.
“We’ve just tried to be as relaxed as we can and not stressed out about it. At the end of the day, if people are sick, they’re sick. We feel awful for the staff who are actually healthy. But there’s nothing we can do. So we’re trying not to get too frustrated. It doesn’t do anything for anyone.”
Across town in Paddington, Emily Yeoh Restaurant has been similarly affected, with two of its chefs forced to isolate. Late last week owner Emily Yeoh reverted to a lockdown-style takeaway-only operation.
“When it happened, it happened straight away,” Yeoh says. “You have no time to react. The only thing I could think to do is takeaway. For a small business like mine where you have a small team, it’s like a family. If we’re down one, we’re pretty much screwed.”
But Yeoh’s bookings were already suffering, with the cancellations beginning before Christmas.
“We were just hoping the number of cancellations wouldn’t go up too much over the break,” she says. “But there are a lot of families out there who know someone who’s been infected and they’d rather stay at home.
“You see those numbers continue to go up and friends around you being affected and my husband being asked to work from home … Everywhere is really quiet. It’s dead in the city. We pass through Sunnybank, which is usually so lively, and it’s just dead.”
While other suburban operators are maintaining their bookings, some are having to manage them down because of staffing constraints.
“On a night when we could do 130 covers normally, we’ve had to cap it at 80,” says Jared Thibault, co-owner of Sasso Italiano in Woolloongabba. “We’ve lost three front-of-house staff and then one of the chefs, so it’s been hard in that respect.”
Thibault’s team has been affected by the testing debacle, with his causal workers then struggling to access the pandemic leave disaster payment.
“Don’t even get me started,” he says. “That’s pretty much the whole team [who were forced to isolate] – the drive-through tests, they’re waiting at least five days to get their results. And that’s where the government has fucked up the most – they knew the borders were going to open and they haven’t had any rapid tests available.
“Three guys on the floor applied for the $750 payment ... no one who has applied has actually gotten anything just yet. Luckily, they worked so much in December that they have a little bit of savings.”
It’s not just smaller operators that have been affected by Omicron’s blitzkrieg-like assault on the industry, with Brisbane’s high-flying restaurant groups sometimes having to reassess their capacity to operate from one day to the next. Howard Smith Wharves sister venues Greca and Yoko were both forced to close because of staffing constraints: the former for five days, reopening last Wednesday; the latter for just over a week, reopening on Friday.
“Which is nuts when you consider that Greca, other than the first national shutdown, has hardly closed in the three years it’s been operating,” says Yoko head chef Oscar Solomon, who had to isolate himself after contracting Omicron. “We take a lot of staff to get going. We’re big restaurants and we’re quite busy, so it’s hard to run them as stripped-down operations.
“It’s a nightmare. You don’t know what to do. No one really knows what to do. We feel like a lost flock of sheep walking around a never-ending paddock at the moment.”
Solomon says the current situation feels more heightened than a government-mandated lockdown, as diners see each venue get hit at a different time – often in real time – on social media.
“You’ve only got to open Instagram to see another business copying and pasting what seems to be the same message about being hit by Covid and suffering staff shortages,” Solomon says. “For the first time you’re seeing businesses go through this individually, which humanises it a bit more.”
Despite both Greca and Yoko reopening, Solomon says that most of his team hasn’t yet contracted Covid-19, meaning the spectre of future closures is never far away.
“I was the first one to get it in Yoko, and then my sous-chef,” he says. “It’s only been the two of us since … I’m not sure what we’ll do if it runs through the rest of the team.”
Simon Gloftis’s Hellenika and SK Steak & Oyster restaurants have been hit hard by Omicron, but the James Street restaurateur is now confident both venues will operate more or less as normal going forward, given the number of staff members who have already contracted and then recovered from Omicron.
“SK we had to totally close [for a week] because we couldn’t field a team, and Hellenika was reduced to just its poolside [seating area] so we could look after the hotel guests,” Gloftis says. “It all happened really quickly. I got it myself … I was sort of lucky that I basically lost about 60 to 70 per cent of my full-time staff within a few days. It just went ‘Bang!’ and then ‘Bang-bang-bang!’ It was crazy. Every text message was, ‘I’ve got it.’
“We’ve worked it out to a point where we feel we can get through without closing again,” Gloftis continues. “I’m not going to make as much money, we’re not going to push it as hard with staff hours. But unless something earth-shattering happens, we won’t need to close again.”
At the time of writing, individual venues continue to shape themselves around the Omicron outbreak. Southside has relaunched its popular Houseside takeaway and delivery service alongside its regular dine-in business, and Coorparoo newcomer Paella Y Pa’ Mi is preparing to reopen with an abridged menu running alongside takeaway after six days of takeaway-only service. Late on Monday night, star James Street restaurant Essa announced on social media it would have to close on Tuesday due to staff shortages, reopening Wednesday.
“Generally, people are really understanding,” Solomon says. “But it’s not just hospitality – any service industry that’s got a transient workforce, everyone’s got their back up against the wall.”
“I’ll get through this, but do you want to?” Dan Quinn says. “Do I wanna do all this again? Not really. You’re already buggered from flogging yourself for years.”