Charlie Carrington was at home on Sunday 22 March when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the shutdown of all dine-in operations from midday Monday 23 March. The chef’s initial thought was to take two weeks timeout to recoup and come up with a plan. Instead, he woke up the next morning and posted an impromptu offer to his combined 20k-plus Instagram following.
Carrington’s Melbourne venue, Atlas Dining, is known for its rotating menu. Each month, he and the team switch cuisines to offer guests a travel-inspired dining experience. After launching the restaurant in 2016, Carrington became Australia’s youngest hatted chef in 2018. Not wanting to diminish the title, Carrington was reluctant to try takeaway and delivery.
“I know how hard it is,” he says. “There are too many variables and too much can go wrong in my opinion. Our brand, to me, is more important than that. We are a hatted restaurant and I want to give that hatted experience at home. I’m all about offering an experience and now we can bring Atlas Dining, the restaurant experience, to someone’s house.”
So, how is Carrington bringing Atlas Dining to home kitchens around Melbourne? With Atlas Masterclasses. The concept is true to the venue’s roots — it’s all about showcasing different cuisines.
Each week Carrington and his team put together ingredient boxes available for pick up or delivery on Tuesdays between 10am and 5pm. Starting at $49 for a single box that caters for one person over three nights, the packs include all the components needed for a different meal each night.
Then one Wednesdays, Carrington gets in front of the camera to cook the menu, with home cooks able to watch the videos on The Master of Atlas YouTube channel. To top things off, a live Instagram session at 5:30pm gives customers the chance to ask questions.
“My girlfriend actually suggested the idea,” Carrington tells Hospitality. “We’d always talked about doing some sort of YouTube channel and in-home cooking, but nothing had come of it. That Monday morning I woke up and my girlfriend had texted me, saying ‘why don’t you do something like this..’.”
Realising he had enough contacts to help with different aspects, including videography, Carrington decided it was worth a shot. “I put it up on social media and started selling it before we’d done anything. It was a bit of ‘announce what you’re going to do and then work out how [you’ll do it],” reveals Carrington. “We started pushing it [and] got sales, [so] then I had to do it. I never in my wildest dreams imagined it would go so ridiculously well.”
While it sounds like a risk, diving in head first has worked for Carrington in the past. “Just like when I opened the restaurant, I jumped in headfirst and sucked shit for a few weeks then worked it out,” he says. “It’s been pretty amazing to learn and be running around like a headless chicken.”
The team did pay the price in the first week, with a few mistakes made, but Carrington now has faith they’ve ironed out the kinks. And luckily, diners have been forgiving under the circumstances: “I think everyone gets that it’s someone trying to have a crack and do something new. For that reason, they’re really understanding and helpful.”
The move has paid off in more ways than one. The plan all along was to create a new model that would allow Carrington to keep his staff onboard — not only has he managed to maintain full-time hours for the entire team, he’s now in the position of hiring. “I really love my team and I’m very happy with them,” says Carrington. “All of them are just amazing people and pretty much all of them are from overseas. They’re not getting any benefits as Australians are. So for that reason, my whole goal was to keep them all busy. Then, I’ve actually employed about four of my ex-staff members who are from overseas as well.”
Now, the Atlas Dining team is bigger than ever and Carrington predicts he’ll be hiring even more in the coming weeks. Looking even further into the future, Carrington remains positive despite the cloud created by the coronavirus crisis.
“I don’t think hospitality as we knew it, will be back to the exact order,” he predicts. “At the end of the day it’s a pandemic and it’s a very sad time [but] I’ve never been more positive. There are people who will be upset and there are people who will try everything they can to make something good out of a shocking situation — I’d rather be in the second boat.”
The attitude has seen him harness creative energy. “I’ve never learned so much in a week,” says Carrington. “I’ve never had to deal with so many little issues in a week. It feels like real startup mode and I’ve loved every second of it. It’s just an incredible experience to get creative and do something new; to see what you can actually come out with.”
Although Carrington acknowledges it’s a hard time for most, with many likely to lose their businesses through no fault of their own, he’s focussed on innovation and is glad to be seeing more of it than ever. “There are other people out there who are doing incredible things with takeaway and making things happen out of nothing,” he says. “I think hibernation is more than fair too. People will rest and when they come back, they’ll be ready to rock with brand new creative and interesting ways to step up what they’re offering.”