7 May 2020

Al Brown describes how restaurants will work under level 2

From Checkpoint, 6:06 pm on 7 May 2020

Restaurateur Al Brown is champing at the bit to reopen when New Zealand's Covid-19 level 3 lockdown eases to level 2.

Brown's three Auckland businesses - Depot, Federal Delicatessen and Best Ugly Bagels - have been closed under level 4 and level 3 lockdown. So Thursday's announcement on level 2 rules brought some hope. 

But for those in the business of food and drink, the new-found freedoms come with strict rules. Under level 2, restaurants and bars have to be able to seat all customers. 

They must be separated according to social distancing rules, and only one server can wait on a table. 

"I'm hoping that single server means one server can serve a number of tables but no one else can serve those tables," Brown told Checkpoint

"If it was a single server for every table and we had 20 tables, there's no way we could make a buck.

"I think there's a little bit of confusion over that, but I presume that's what that means." 

He said his restaurants should operate well under the level 2 rules. 

"Most restaurants have a section, so one waiter will look after five tables in that section and especially with the distancing … we've had to haul out a whole lot of tables, so we'll be fine." 

Pulling out tables to make distancing possible means losing about half the seating in the restaurant, he said. 

"We're going to have less staff, we're going to have a smaller menu. People are going to have to be patient, until we gently get into this new system of how it works. 

"We're going to have disposable menus, you can't have a bowl of sugar, or if you have salt and pepper on the table you're going to have to swap those out and clean them down between the next table sitting down. 

"We'll work it through but as long as everyone realises that we've got to do this correctly and properly." 

But there will be an impact on the atmosphere that restaurants like Brown's Federal Deli and Depot provide. 

"We're not just a hunger and thirst solution, we're entertainment. When we had the restaurant with half the tables empty [at level 2 before level 4 lockdown began] … it was a bit of a nightmare. 

"We've eliminated or taken the tables out so at least it feels like there's not empty tables around you, because so much of it is about the buzz. 

"We weren't really interested in opening up in level 3 and doing take-out because we're offering something that's way more than just a plate of food, it's about the service, it's about the vibe, atmosphere… so many other things," he said.

"Plenty of restaurants wanted to get engaged in the take-out, but that's a whole different kettle of fish, and just like the takeaways I think a lot of them did really well for the first few days, and of course all the regulars of restaurants want to support you, which is great but the reality is once you do the math on the food that comes home from your favourite restaurant, you can't eat like that every night. 

"And it feels like yep, you're still getting the food but you're still looking at each other across the table, and you're not in some fun, high-octane atmospheric place, which is what we're all about." 

Brown said the wage subsidy has been fantastic, and he's managed to keep all his staff. 

For him personally lockdown has allowed some rest, but he's aware it has been tough for a lot of people too.

He is very excited to be opening up again as soon as it is allowed, he said, with staff all keen to get back in and crank up the ovens. 

"We love what we do… I'm in my mid-50s, still work the floor a couple of nights a week with the team… It's like an orchestra, every night you don't know what's going to happen… I miss the buzz. That's what it's about - making people happy through food and fun and service." 

The restaurants' suppliers are ready to go in level 2 as well, and there have been some long phone calls, Brown said. 

"Their part of the family, been supporting us for a long time, we've been supporting them, so you can't have a two-minute conversation, you end up having a half-hour conversation about what they're going through.

"But they're gung-ho to get the oysters out of the farm and get them to us, or the pastrami out of the smokehouse for the reuben sandwich, etc." 

If the country does not move from level 3 to level 2 next week, Brown said his restaurants cannot hold out much longer. 

"I believe we did the right thing of going into lockdown and I wanted to protect our staff," he said, but after seeing several days of low numbers or no new confirmed Covid-19 cases, he is expecting to open next week.