Since nationwide coronavirus restrictions began on 21 March, the hospitality industry has been focused on following the practical measures advised by Australia’s state and federal governments to ensure public and staff safety.

It has also been focused on trying to survive these restrictions and the current situation, with no idea what the industry will look like on the other side.

We closed, we waited, we are still waiting.

Business preservation in our sector is now a pipe dream. Who would have thought this steamroller “Covid effect” could turn three Michelin-starred restaurants into soup kitchens overnight?

There is literally no framework for this, no rebuilding cheat sheet. It has already been incredibly difficult for all of us to direct a business, settle staff, process government advice, calm our loved ones, home-school our kids and check our dwindling bank accounts while urban foraging for toilet paper in chaotic supermarkets.

The added stress of an impending recession due to less disposable income, public hesitancy to gather in confined places and future waves of Covid-19 makes this the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my professional career.

The model was flawed, pressures great and margins thin

Let’s not kid ourselves, however: the hospitality industry as we knew it was terminal anyway. We were only cheerfully ignoring that fact, while walking hand in hand with the administrators down the red carpet of another awards night. The model was flawed, pressures great and margins thin. Switching to a Covid model of takeaway has been tricky, running on little-to-no profit with endless outgoings.

It’s hard not to feel helpless as a small business operator right now. Jobkeeper is a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, and the government-backed bank loans are a joke. Even if you actually get a loan from the bank (which you won’t if you carry any ATO debt, and I guarantee almost all of our industry does), you’re then required to pay it off in the midst of a potential depression. On the subject of foreign workers, our government failed. Our industry relies on that talent and the tourism and hospitality sector have thrived because of it, however the government distanced themselves from them faster than MasterChef distanced themselves from George Calombaris.

Chef Duncan Welgemoed: ‘It’s hard not to feel helpless as a small business operator right now.’ Photograph: Andre Castellucci

Every move we make now must be to position ourselves as essential food businesses. We need to focus on a model that employs, supports and drives communities. Paying for the true worth of the product and passing on that cost to the consumer, without fear of reprisals or criticism.

The perceived value of food is distorted – people are willing to purchase a 250g sirloin steak at the butchers for $14 to cook at home, but have issues spending $30 for that same steak to be cooked with all the trimmings, presented, served and cleared by someone else.

We are partly responsible for that due to the “look at your neighbour” pricing model, where oversupply of restaurants and big-format food businesses have reduced the number of regular, repeat business and in turn, decreased overall turnover. It creates the illusion that undercutting your competition was the only way to attract diners.

Some in the industry sought to increase their margins by underpaying staff – notable operators and TV chefs have been guilty of this. It is wrong and illegal to financially exploit your employees, and those who do should not be forgiven very quickly. But to pay your staff correctly while fulfilling customer and critic expectations and turn a profit is incredibly difficult.

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Without exploiting employees or folding your business, I think the solution is that we all have to be realistic about what is achievable in our venues, and forget about the pressures of online reviews and ratings systems. I’ve already attached all of our restaurant awards to the ankles of the influencers that have haunted my business and tossed them overboard – they have only served as dead weights in this sea of uncertainty. The fear of negative online ratings, guide scores and reviews leads to unnecessary overstaffing, and in turn less profit.

We are stranded on a desert island, and instead of waiting for a ship to pick us up we have to figure out a killer menu using only coconuts

Restaurants need to maintain their current standards of hygiene, but not have their businesses reduced to hospital waiting rooms. The fundamental question that should be asked is why do people eat in restaurants? It’s not about eating, it’s about the social interaction, the atmosphere – it’s dinner and a show.

The need to buy local has never been greater. Many of our outstanding Australian producers cannot export their produce at the moment, or have lost substantial business due to the decrease of restaurant turnover. Structuring your menu and ordering to incorporate a greater percentage of locally produced ingredients will in turn help and sustain them, and deliver a better eating experience to your diners.

A lot of businesses won’t make it through the next six months, but the ones that do have the opportunity to reinvent and shape our industry for the better.

In my eyes a successful restaurant post-pandemic will be one that is confident in its product, one that focuses on the bottom 95% of the market, and one that is financially sustainable.

We are stranded on a desert island, and instead of waiting for a ship to pick us up we have to figure out a killer menu using only coconuts. If it’s takeout, drive-through, drone delivery, spiritual manifestations or merch stands we should look at it and deliver it to the best of our abilities.

I’ve let go of the past – but I’ll be goddamned if I let go of our future.

• Duncan Welgemoed is the chef behind Africola in Adelaide and author of a forthcoming book of the same name



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