It’s only been three weeks since Jad Nehmetallah, owner-operator of The Picnic Burwood in Sydney, started to notice a downturn in trade. The fall in sales came at the same time as venues started to implement stringent hygiene practices: providing hand sanitiser for diners as well as staff, using take-away cutlery, disinfecting surfaces even more than usual, cashless payments and saying no to reusable coffee cups.

Then, the federal and state governments started to mandate social distancing measures. It began with stipulations like maintaining 1.5 meters between individuals, before operators were told they would need to limit the number of people inside their venue to 100, including staff.

In response, business owners adapted. Nehmetallah and others tried to move to a predominately takeaway menu, reduced the number of staff on the floor and the amount of people in the kitchen. Menus were reduced in size in attempt to decrease labour costs.

“We launched The Picnic Classics takeaway menu and chose eight items to be all day,” says Nehmetallah. “Usually we would have 15  or 16 items on the menu, so we reduced it by 50 percent. We created an awesome toasty menu as well. And we just were starting to promote it online and through takeaway.” 

“People come to cafes for an experience,” says Nehmetallah, of the difficulty that came with adapting to a new takeaway-heavy business model. “People come to The Picnic for the complete experience, to be welcome, to sit, to eat, to photograph, to enjoy their time with their family.”

He and his team got to work developing ways to transfer that experience to an at-home environment. First, Nehmetallah came up with The Picnic Basket, a package to be hand delivered by The Picnic employees to anyone within a 5 kilometre radius of the cafe. “I thought, ‘If I’m sitting at home, and I’ve been racking my brain for the last seven days, I’ll just need somebody to cheer me up and a sandwich’,” he says. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just bringing a little bit of fun and light heartedness by adding a game, a hand sanitiser and a personalised message. You can’t come to us for an experience, how about we deliver you an experience.” 

Nehmetallah says he’s lucky in a sense. “You’ve got groups like Merivale, with 70+ venues, that can’t do a contingency plan with take-away options for every single venue,” he says. “It doesn’t work.” 

Finally, on late Sunday 22 March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced all venues would be restricted to takeaway and delivery only from midday on Monday 23 March.

“And they’re saying it’s only stage one,” says Nehmetallah. “How many times have we remodelled our businesses in the space of ten days? It’s exhausting, we’re done, we’re fried. People are like, ‘We’re shutting down, we don’t want to deal with this; we’ll see you in three, four months’.”

On Tuesday 24 March, Nehmetallah joined that list of operators, making the decision to close The Picnic Burwood temporarily. “If we can keep up the social distancing we might come out quicker than we think,” he says.

INehmetallah announced on Instagram that he’ll be helping his staff and community by delivering home baked trays, although even that may change to reflect any further government orders. “I don’t feel comfortable with putting my staff in a position of risk and encouraging the community to be outside,” reads the post. “I’m pleading and begging you all to self isolate as much as you can. We need to flatten the curve before it’s too late. For my hospitality friends out there I’m asking you to please shut down or remove take away and maybe just do delivery.”

In the meantime, the top priorities are covering two of any hospitality businesses’ biggest overheads — rent and wages.

“I’m a tenant in a government building, owned by council, so 100 percent, I need rent relief from them,” says Nehmetallah. “Then, we’re not asking to profit, we just want enough money to pay our staff; just half our wages or ‘x’ dollars a week.”

Nehmetallah is a positive person by nature, so naturally he’s seen the light at the end of the tunnel and found a way to move towards it.

“I feel like if you’re an entrepreneur and you want try to take some positivity out of this, I would say, the lesson is to reassess our businesses more often,” says Nehmetallah. “There could be opportunities that we can now realise. It’s going to rewind the clock a bit and slow things dow — that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I feel like we should use this time to reinvent the things we do, reinvent our brands and keep innovating.” 

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