21 January 2022

Canberra restaurateurs taking COVID-19 safety into their own hands

| Lucy Ridge
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Sam Conway and staff at Gang Gang Cafe in Downer

San Conway (front) decided that dine-in customers are too risky for his staff at Gang Gang Cafe in Downer. Photo: Supplied.

Businesses across Canberra are struggling with the recent impact of Omicron, and the hospitality industry has once again been hard hit. ACT cafes and restaurants are working hard to navigate these challenges, but there are concerns some businesses may not recover without more government assistance.

Sam Conway owns Gang Gang Cafe in Downer with his two brothers, and they’ve made the decision to stick to takeaway service in an effort to keep their staff safe from Omicron, while still giving them enough shifts.

“I think we just came to the conclusion that we had to play it safe, and takeaway is kind of the only option at the moment,” he tells Region Media.

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Current government advice is that dine-in service is still allowed, however Sam feels the risk is too high in their small space and doesn’t want to be in a position where staff and customers were being exposed to COVID-19 at the cafe.

“The main concern for us is how are you meant to stay open if you’ve got no staff?” he says.

Some government payments are available to people who test positive or are required to isolate, but Sam says it is unclear if any support will be afforded to staff who are not considered high-risk contacts in the event of the cafe closing, either due to COVID-19 exposure or even if they don’t have enough staff to run it.

Ben Willis in kitchen at Aubergine restaurant in Griffith

Chef and owner of Aubergine restaurant, Ben Willis, says customers were disappointed when the restaurant had to delay its reopening due to staff isolation from COVID-19. Photo: Lean Timms.

“If you’re already bare bones staff and one person can’t come in, that’s sometimes the deciding factor if you can open that day or not,” says Sam.

“It would be nice for the staff to know there’s some support.”

Ben Willis is the owner and chef at Aubergine restaurant in Griffith. After a couple of key staff members were exposed to COVID-19, he had to make a last-minute decision to delay reopening after the Christmas break.

“The biggest expense for the business through all of this is just opening and closing,” he says. “There’s a lot of labour and a lot of food cost that gets eaten up.

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“It does make me nervous about reopening again.”

Despite this setback, Ben says he feels fortunate to be part of a well established business with a loyal clientele.

“I’m very fearful for the people who are just opening businesses, or have opened in the past two years,” he says. “You’ve just never had a chance to establish yourself with your clientele – that would be tough.”

Miss Van’s is a new restaurant that opened in Canberra city in late 2021, and has already been impacted this year with staff shortages. Long wait times on PCR results extended their closure as they waited to hear how many of their staff had been infected or exposed.

Andrew Duong and staff at Miss Van's

Andrew Duong (centre) and his team at Miss Van’s are hoping for more government support in 2022. Photo: Miss Van’s.

Owner Andrew Duong is frustrated at the lack of government assistance.

“There’s very little support this time around,” he says.

“Business owners aren’t getting any relief at the moment to pay for our guys who are going on sick leave.”

While they wait for staff to finish isolating, Andrew is planning a new simplified menu that can be delivered with a smaller team in order to save on labour costs and reduce exposure time for staff. He’s hoping to weather this storm with the support of the public, but says more government help will be required.

“There’s going to be a lot of restaurants that go down this year if nothing changes for the better,” he says.

January is generally a quiet month for restaurants in Canberra, and isolation or fears about exposure are leading customers to cancel their dinner plans.

Takeaway window at Gang Gang cafe

Gang Gang cafe owners hope that takeaway service will keep their staff safe from exposure. Photo: supplied.

Ben says he’s hearing from other restaurant owners that they are seeing up to 40 per cent of bookings cancelled as customers are caught in quarantine or decide they no longer feel safe dining out.

“Making a viable hospitality business when you get a lot of cancellations is really difficult because you’ve got costs and you’ve got staff locked in, and if those bookings cancel closer to service time you’re committed to those employees,” he says.

Ben emphasises it is necessary for people to stay home and it is often out of anyone’s control, but it’s another challenge for businesses that are already doing it tough.

It seems inevitable that restaurants will continue to face sporadic closures as staff shortages take hold due to COVID-19. The hospitality industry in Canberra has shown incredible resilience throughout the pandemic, but some businesses may not cope for much longer.

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Gordon Williamson10:44 am 23 Jan 22

So a restaurant which opened in late 2021 (in the middle of a pandemic) wants government assistance because there is still a pandemic?

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