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When COVID-19 hit the Australian hospitality industry in March, many venues shut up shop. But many also took the opportunity to transform their business model to ensure they survived the uncertainty that lay ahead. We look into how one Sydney venue converted their business into three separate offerings and how they brought the community together at a time where the unknown instilled fear in many.
For many hospitality venues, across Australia and abroad, the past six months has been a rollercoaster of a ride. One minute doors are open and customers are flooding back to their beloved venues, the next, tables and chairs are stacked and the once buzzing streets are abandoned.
And while the uncertainty continues to rock the industry, we conducted a survey with 1,000 Australians to help understand the opportunities for venues across the country. During our research, 54% of respondents voiced that they were eager to support their local hospitality businesses.
This highlights that there is still the opportunity to create demand for venues that are able to adapt their business model to reflect the current conditions. Not only can this change in approach attract customers and inject some cash flow, it also gives you the opportunity to ensure your staff remain in a job. And that’s exactly what The Bella Vista Hotel in Sydney’s north-west has done.
When they were forced to close their doors to the public in March, the hotel – which is part of Momento Hospitality Group – introduced Food Truck Express. Running every Thursday to Sunday evening, the initiative allowed customers to order, pick up and indulge in their favourite meals from a number of different food trucks, all without leaving the safety of their own cars.
To ensure safety measures were followed at all times, customers simply joined the line of vehicles, scanned a QR code to generate a menu and ordered from the choice of 10 food trucks. All payments were then facilitated via Eftpos and delivered to the car by wait staff from the hotel. With our research showing that 39% of respondents identified social distancing as their biggest concern with eating out of home – creating innovative ways to reduce this contact is critical.
Speaking about the development of the concept, Group Executive Chef, Sam Youngs told The Shout: “The way it came about was Marcello [Colosimo] our CEO, came to me, because we have a food truck, and said ‘maybe we could lend out the truck to someone, like a chef who’s struggling, and we can help them.’ I thought that’s generous and a cool idea, then had a thought and came back to him and said ‘what if we get 10 food trucks operating?’
“They’re all sitting dormant, they’re all owner operated, all struggling at the moment,” he continued to explain. The drive-thru food truck concept was then born in partnership with 10 local food vendors.
Fire And Brimstone BBQ, Burger Head, Cluckn Chicken and Original ChocoWrap Dessert Truck were just some of the local venues operating out of the space at the time. Speaking to Goodman Fielder Food Service, Pitmaster Brad Shorten from Fire And Brimstone BBQ explained Food Truck Express helped keep his business alive, while also re-sparking a sense of hope within the local community.
“[COVID-19] has literally changed every aspect of our business,” Brad said. “Once we heard the restaurant and food truck needed to close, we straight away looked for an opportunity to market ourselves in a different way.
“When I heard they [Momento Hospitality Group] were trying to arrange the drive-thru food truck at Bella Vista Hotel, I immediately contacted Sam and asked to be a part of it. The whole idea was amazing and exciting and exactly what we all needed at that time,” he added.
When reflecting on the biggest impact the food truck concept had on his business, Brad admitted, “it helped keep our staff working and cooking five days a week, as well as keeping our brand in people’s minds.” The business also found that once the rollers were pushed up, the ovens set-alight and the steady stream of cars began passing through, that employee’s morale instantly boosted.
“The customers were blown away with the concept,” Brad admitted. “Especially at a time where social distancing was really affecting all our lives, being able to order amazing takeaway food from multiple different food trucks without leaving their car [was an incredible experience]”.
Tim Rosenstrauss, owner of Burger Head Penrith echoed Brad’s comments, explaining to Goodman Fielder Food Service the concept allowed him to keep money flowing through the business during a period of uncertainty. “We saw the virus bubbling up and getting worse, and friends with venues in the CBD felt the hit first and were reporting their sales down heavily and then we started to get a bit worried,” he explained.
“But when the Easter Show was cancelled, that was the big hit and the big wake up of ‘woah this is getting real’.” Tim added that he had two fears once coronavirus had officially hit; one being all sales dropping and the second being all the instore traffic turning to UberEats “because of the commission”.
But after deciding to develop their own delivery service and take-part in Food Truck Express, Tim admitted their business changed for the better. “It went really well. It [drive-thru] helped us massively,” he chirped.
“For The Bella Vista Hotel to leverage their power to help small businesses out was unbelievable. [We were able to] give more shifts for the staff and it helped us stay afloat. It was really smart, really well organised and executed well,” Tim continued.
Along with the food truck concept, Momento Hospitality Group also converted The Bella Vista Hotel warehouse into a drive-thru shop for locals. From alcohol, fresh produce and grocery staples, Essentials Express at Bella had everything – especially during a time where panic buying was at its peak.
Popular items included toilet paper, meat packs and pre-batched cocktails, as well as fresh pasta made by the chefs from the hotel. Matching the food truck concept, Essentials Express at Bella consisted of a no-touch set up, where customers didn’t leave the comfort of their cars.
Upon arrival, customers completed a form with their purchase and staff would then pack and deliver it to the car. “This initiative has kept over a dozen staff employed as well as moving through stock for our suppliers, who are all very appreciative in these tough times,” Jason Jelicich, CX Director for the group told The Shout.
“The other benefit of this initiative is that we have been able to run-down our cool-rooms, which were full to the brim when the closures were announced, saving tens of thousands in wastage.”
And to ensure they left no stone unturned, The Bella Vista Hotel also offered Zoom cocktail making classes for patrons who purchased the products through the warehouse.
“What we did is supply them [customers] with cocktail kits, and then have our bartender talk them through how to make cocktails on Zoom,” Chief operating officer, Leon Colosimo told CMO. “We were trying to be as active as we could, so we started a lot of these new businesses and they were really well embraced. So in terms of making the most of a bad situation, that is what we did.”
Like The Bella Vista Hotel, Fire And Brimstone BBQ also made the decision to convert their menu into a home ready pack. “We started cooking our meals and then vacuum sealing them, so we could sell them to customers to take home and reheat,” Brad explained.
“That way people could still have amazing BBQ in the comfort and safety of their own home. This venture is still continuing to this day,” he added, while explaining there was no end-date in sight.
So, was it worth it? During the months of peak COVID-10 restrictions in Sydney, the Momento Hospitality Group has reportedly been able to keep the majority of their staff.
And for a period where cashflow was at a bare minimum for many venues across the country, Momento Hospitality Group was able to generate exceptional revenue. According to The Shout the first four days sales were close to or exceeded $20,000 per day.
Brad also explained that while developing new and profitable concepts can be stressful at times, now isn’t a time to sit back and wait for restrictions to be eased because for some it may be too late. “You need to think and act fast to the ever-changing situation,” he advised, adding “look at situations and take advantage where you can.”
Burger Head owner, Tim echoed Brad’s comments, encouraging businesses – big and small – to not sit back dormant. “If you sit around feeling sorry and playing the victim, then that is what you will be,” he said. “You have to get proactive and come in with a mindset of how are we going to beat this.”