Venues in New South Wales can welcome patrons for dine-in from this Friday 15 May. But, operators are still heavily restricted. Just 10 diners can eat in at a time at restaurants and cafes, with National Cabinet’s one person per 4 square meters mandate still in place too.

While the industry was expecting a slow path back to full capacity, such tight limitations came as a shock. Many are wondering wether it’s worth offering dine-in under stage one of the state’s roadmap to reopening; many have already decided to wait until stage two, when they can seat 20 diners, or stage three, when 100 patrons will be allowed.

Chef/restaurateur Somer Sivrioglu is caught in the middle. The Turkish-born chef started taking bookings for his Balmain restaurant Efendy almost immediately, but the decision to reopen his second venue, Anason in Barangaroo, has proven more difficult.

Efendy has continued to trade throughout the shutdown, offering takeaway, delivery and a weekly soup kitchen for those in need. As a result, the venue has been able to maintain its connection with diners. 

“We made the decision at Efendy quite easily — we’ve had a lot of support from our locals in Balmain,” says Sivrioglu. “So why not give them the option. We can base the menu around our takeaway menu and then we can do 20 people over two seatings on top of takeaway and delivery. That was a major consideration: we’re already open so it only requires one extra service staff member to assist our guests.” 

Anason on the other hand closed completely, meaning it will take more resources to get back up and running — resources that most likely won’t be covered by revenue at this stage. “There is not enough demand for takeaway and delivery and our product is designed for dine in,” explains Sivrioglu. “We really want to [open], but I don’t know if it will make financial sense.” 

Revenue isn’t the only metric to consider however. Sivrioglu is concerned about the welfare of his staff, 80 percent of whom are on temporary visas with no access to government support. “It’s a lot to do with the staff,” says Sivrioglu. “They want to come back and they need the work. Some of them have been with me for two to three years. As long as I don’t lose too much money, I’d rather open it and get them back into the job.”

When the situation eases, Sivrioglu believes business owners will be remembered by their actions. “I don’t want to be someone who chickened out and closed simply because we didn’t earn profit,” he says. “That shouldn’t be the only consideration. We have an obligation to our workforce and to our suppliers as well.” 

Sivrioglu is the first to admit that the majority won’t make money with just 10 diners in at a time, but every little bit counts: “We have to go through the motions. We work with a lot of small suppliers, some of them lost 90 percent of their business. We need to get them back on their feet too.”

Hailing from a family of small business owners, Sivrioglu understands that, at the end of the day, money does matter. It’s all about balance.

“If we open Anason and we don’t have 20 people each service we can’t do it,” he says. “Most of my neighbours in Barangaroo will wait out stage one, they might start somewhere in stage two to get ready for stage three. Most of them are bigger restaurants than us.” 

Again, finances aren’t the only consideration. “We’re so used to having a busy restaurant, we don’t want people to feel like they’re just dining by themselves, there’s no buzz so we aren’t given them the full experience,” says Sivrioglu. “I understand why some restaurants don’t open — it’s not just financial. It’s about giving customers what you promised.” 

Sparse dining rooms will be accompanied by new hygiene procedures too. While Sivrioglu would appreciate an industry-wide set of mandated standards to follow, he’s comfortable with the practices his team has developed. One person will be in charge of disinfecting tables after each diner leaves and another will make sure the bathroom is cleaned after each use. Disposable menus, quality single-use napkins will be available and tablecloths have been removed. Efendy is lucky to have ample space, so tables will be at least 3 meters apart, with delivery and pick up orders to be retrieved from a separate area.

“We’re doing everything we learned in the last week of trading [before the shutdown],” says Sivrioglu. “We sent a memo to the staff to say, even if you’re just feeling queasy don’t come. We have plenty of staff. Anyone who is not feeling well can take the day off and I will give them sick leave.”

While others simply won’t consider reopening under stage one, Sivrioglu can’t help himself — it’s in his blood to give it a go. Friends and family in Sivrioglu’s home country of Turkey have faced even harsher lockdown measures for more than two months. “It’s managing better than many other European countries, but none of those countries are as lucky as we are,” says Sivrioglu. “I have lots of chef friends and families saying it’s terrible for their mental health. They aren’t used to being in seclusion. Some of them haven’t taken a break for years. It’s a different lifestyle all of a sudden.”

The chance to welcome guests again is a chance to offer those less fortunate something to look forward to. “We are one of the first countries to open and some of my friends overseas are saying it’s hope… it will happen to them soon as well,” says Sivrioglu.  

A dining room with just 10 guests might not be buzzing, but early signs are promising. “The amount of phone calls we had, from the moment it was announced, it seems like people have been waiting to come back,” says Sivrioglu. 

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