Hospo CheckIn: Simon Blacher

We checked in with Simon Blacher, a director of Commune Group who operate Hanoi Hannah, Tokyo Tina, Neptune and Firebird – all in Windsor – among other venues. Like everyone, what a ride they’ve been on, including opening a restaurant two and a half weeks before lockdown was announced…

June has them excited and, an aside, Simon is also talking to me on the next edition of What’s Next?, in collaboration with Worksmith next Tuesday. 

1. What was the timeline for you to turnaround the businesses into takeaway and delivery offerings? Did you close ? 

Running a group of restaurants through COVID has been an interesting challenge . While some of our venues were already geared and set up to-go, others had to be re-configured. 

We are still tweaking and adjusting every week to find the balance of what the changing marketplace wants. While it is a crazy time, in a weird way, I kind of like having the scope to “try anything.” 

All the rules have been thrown out and operators are free to give anything a go. That being said, I cannot wait for the day when ALL the restrictions are lifted and we can get back to business as usual. Full restaurants of people enjoying everything we have worked for…

We had a different approach for each of our businesses. We were in a fortunate position that Hanoi Hannah already had a strong takeaway following and we were able to shift that site into a fully fledged takeaway business quite easily. 

Through this diversification we wanted HH to be a Vietnamese food brand that hit all aspects of dining. While we never saw this cluster fuck coming, the multiple offerings under one umbrella brand has allowed our operations and our existing market to shift in takeaway seamlessly. 

Tokyo Tina was a different story. We had a takeaway offering but it was never at the forefront of the business. We did take a pause to develop a more concise menu and figure out our kitchen operations. Since reopening we have focused on our ramen and boa game. Last week we also launched a heat-and-eat range and a rice bowl menu. As well as a takeaway booze option we have really tried to cover all bases . We thought “let’s throw the kitchen sick at this” and see where it lands.

Neptune was again another challenge in itself. Without taking a breath we very quickly launched ‘Neptune Provisions & Liquor’. Essentially a range of heat-and-eat meals, pre-batched cocktails, bottle shop, pasta sauces etc. We embraced the online shopping platforms to incorporate delivery into the offering. It has been pretty well received and we will continue to push. 

Then there was Firebird. Who would have thought that you would spend two years planning a restaurant, open trade for two and a half – very busy – weeks and then lockdown! It was a difficult reality to stomach but we have moved past the disappointment and have fired up the kitchen again with a limited edition roast duck offering every Friday.

While I think it sounds pretty cliched, adversity breeds creativity and this is being seen throughout hospo today. It has always been a creative industry but 2020 has seen it stretch beyond anything we have seen before. Finally, I think the crisis has – hopefully – reinforced how important this industry is for everyone whether you work in hospo or work to enjoy hospo.

2. How do you see the hospitality industry operating after this has passed? 

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think the industry will have to continue to be adaptable. I think consumer sentiment will shift into a combination of takeaway and dine in. Diversification will be key to success, allowing the consumer to enjoy your offering through a number of avenues, will be important. 

I think the impact will be felt very differently across the various levels of the game. The ‘top end’ may find it hard without the steady stream of International travel and commerce; CBD locations may again find it difficult without the major events that make Melbourne what it is. The ‘middle casual’ may get hit if many of their target market is having their income impacted by the crises . 

I think takeaway and delivery is officially here to stay and any operator needs to consider this as part of the revenue stream. It’s not sexy but it’s the new world for the moment. 

3. What do the restrictions being lifted from June 1 mean for you and your businesses? 

We are sure excited to turn the engine back on again for dine-in customers.

I think the challenge of re-opening will be just as great as lockdown. We have a different strategy for each business. The balance between compliance, potential turnover and customer experience will be the biggest challenge for us. 

Like everyone in hospitality, we are constantly trying to control cost whilst maintaining a strong presence in the market. This challenge will be amplified as restrictions are lifted and turnover increases. We will continue to push our takeaway offerings in conjunction with dine in. The two options will have to co-exist for sometime as we slowly ease out of COVID .

Our teams are all chomping at the bit the get back on the floor and get the dockets flying in . 

4. How are you and your teams? 

Like anyone in the game , it feels like a bad dream that we are all waiting to wake up from . That being said the “pause” has allowed me to re-think what is working and what is not. It’s a challenge working across various brands with multiple offerings but the creativity between venues has helped pave the way forward. 

Our teams have, all-in-all, taken it in their strides. Like many hospitality venues in the country we have a number of employees on visas which we have tried to look after as best we can. 

Our staff have been super understanding and positive, and are now working in roles and tasks outside of their usual day-to-day. If anything it has probably brought everyone closer together which is a positive . Everyone is chomping at the bit to get back to it. I am super excited to see this enthusiasm crystallise during service when we are back at it.

Interview: May 21

© 2018 Blund


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