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Waiting on tables? Some cafes are in no hurry to resume normal service

The easing of lockdown restrictions, and a return to cafe service on 1 June, was keenly anticipated by many in highly caffeinated Melbourne. But the strings attached, and the lurking Covid-19 risk, have persuaded some businesses to sit tight and await the next stage. Will C. Povey reports.

Waiting on tables? Some cafes are in no hurry to resume normal service

After weighing a range of issues, including safety, the Cedar Bakery team in Preston decided to wait a little longer before resuming table service. There were still Covid-19 cases turning up every day, said manager George Khoury. “We didn’t want to contribute to that.”

Words and pictures by Will C. Povey
 

It had been a long 70 days since 23 March, when store manager George Khoury last set a brimming cup and saucer in front of a cosily seated customer.

All over latte-loving Melbourne there were reports of cafe patrons and baristas alike counting down to the easing of restrictions on 1 June allowing cafe’s to seat limited numbers of patrons.

Yet the big day came and went with Cedar Bakery in Preston still closed to sit-down customers.

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Now 80-something days into serving take-aways only, Khoury is pragmatic and patient. “You adapt or you die.”

Victorian restaurants and cafés are now permitted to seat up to 20 patrons per enclosed space, but only if they comply with requirements such as physical distancing, extra cleaning, and logging patrons’ names and contact details for potential case tracing.

With so long between drinks, it might have been fair to assume that venue managers like Khoury would be falling over themselves to again be serving at tables.

At Cedar Bakery, a Preston institution since after opening its doors more than two decades ago, long paddles busily dip in and out of the bank of bread ovens and the barista is working flat out, but the bread and the brews are all going straight out the door. The bakery’s 120 black industrial-style seats remain, for the moment, empty and out of bounds.

“We thought about what you need to open,” explained Khoury of the decision to not open up, and to continue with lockdown operations.

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“Firstly, you need someone taking bookings, someone on the phones. Taking bookings that don’t turn up, and you’ve got staff here? You’ve wasted your time. Our staff are already looking for things to do.

“Safety of our customers was the other priority,” he said. “How do we know we won’t go back into lockdown?

There were still Covid-19 cases turning up every day, he observed. “We didn’t want to contribute to that.”

On top of that, Khoury was concerned about managing the expectations of customers when only 20 at a time could be seated.

“If you say no to them, that you can’t just have coffee, that you must have food … what are the implications of that long term? The negativity that comes with that … it’s not worth it.”

City of Melbourne data from 2018 lists more than 3000 places to get a coffee in Melbourne, and 153,578 seats in which to sit while drinking it. That figure only captures venues in the CBD and inner city – it doesn’t include highly caffeinated suburban zones, Preston among them, or seats in pubs, taverns, bars, clubs or function rooms.

Operating from the border of Thornbury and Preston, Cedar shares High Street with over 70 other cafés. And that’s just to the south.

Cedar was in the early stages of expanding its footprint, opening up a second site in Watergardens, when lockdown restrictions began.

“It was like a perfect storm,” said Khoury. “I was trying to set up Watergardens … doing interviews, training trials, all these things were happening at once.

“We had to make a decision on whether to open … we deliberated for a very long time.

“We made a pay cut across the board, including myself. We delayed for three weeks. There was no real push to open, because [of] COVID.”

The second site opened four weeks into lockdown, and is also serving takeaway only for the time being.

“I think we’re going to see how the rest of the retailers handle these next two weeks,” he said.

“The thing is to assess how everyone else is taking it, and how relaxed the government is about taking names down as well.”

Johnny, a Cedar staff member and the sole worker front-of-house worker the day The Citizen dropped by and many before it, said he wouldn’t be comfortable having to ask customers for contact details.

“I wouldn’t want to give my details at a café,” he said. (Underlining his regard for privacy, he also didn’t want his full name published with this story.)

Barista Johnny said he was concerned about being required to collect names and contact details from cafe patrons.

Barista Johnny said he was concerned about being required to collect names and contact details from cafe patrons.

He said he was concerned about the potential liabilities of cafés holding personal information.

“Litigation is a tool used in hindsight. There’s no negative impact until something negative happens.”

Johnny was pleased to be still working, despite admitting growing a little bored with lockdown life.

Khoury said Cedar hadn’t needed to let go of any of its people since shifting to takeaway only service.

“We cut some hours back, yeah, but we’ve started to re-introduce them now — we didn’t really get rid of anyone at all.”

The management team had tried to stay positive, he said.

“Negativity filters down, you know. And, at the same time, you’ve got to be compassionate with people that are working. Even though they’ve still got a job … there’s days and times — especially at the start — which are tough.

“It’s tough for the kitchen and coffee [staff], working by yourself.”

If Cedar staff didn’t want to work because of health concerns, they didn’t have to, he said.  Exercising that right did not put their job at risk.

Khoury said sales had dropped by nearly 50 per cent in the first weeks of lockdown, but that they came back, partially thanks to the community support.

“I’ll do 10 hours a day,” Khoury said. “The next day, sleep in, big deal, then work seven days straight, or two weeks straight. I love it because you can enjoy working hard, but then have the flexibility to have one or two down days. You’ve got to love it.”

Having adapted their business models to survive on takeaway only, introducing deliverable food items things like wraps and soups and hooking into UberEats, Khoury, along with the rest of Cedar management team are comfortable to sit tight and wait for the next stage of anticipated easing of restrictions, which is due on 22 June.

“We’ve got a lot of family and friends in the café business. I’ll be speaking to them tonight and if they find a lot of negativity and issues behind it then we’ll just delay further.

“We’ve got a lot of locals and regulars that support us. It’s OK.”

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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