Melbourne is famous for its food and hospitality culture. Cool cafes and funky restaurants line the streets of the city and its suburbs.
So how do these businesses respond when the COVID-19 pandemic essentially wiped out the ability for people to gather in close proximity and enjoy a meal together?
For Laki Papadopoulos, the answer lay in staying true to his values and doing the right thing for his community.
When Laki launched The Vegie Bar back in 1988, he wanted to create an eating house environment with a focus on healthy, whole foods.
“Truthfully, at the time I had no idea I would still be here 30 years later,” he says. “Back then, Brunswick Street was very different to what it is now but it was full of hippies and arts students so I thought it was a cool area for a vegetarian eating house.”
Over the years, Laki says consumer preferences and better awareness of food origins has meant there has been ongoing interest and demand for his plant-based products – and today he has several plant-based Melbourne institutions.
In 2015, Laki and his business partner Mark Price added Transformer to the original Vegie Bar and followed up again in 2017 with plant-based gelataria Girls and Boys. All three businesses are located directly next to each other meaning diners can easily visit the other venues after they finish at one.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic first spread into Victoria and the government placed restrictions on movement, Laki and his team quickly realised they would need to adapt their product offering to this new world.
“For many years we've been talking about selling at-home meals so the pandemic really sped that process up for us,” Laki explains. “The easiest thing we could do instantly was frozen meals. We thought it was the easiest way to make large batches of food and sell it as cheap as possible because all of a sudden our community had to tighten their budgets.”
In less than 24 hours, Laki’s team had to build an online store where customers could place their order and pay cashlessly. And they had to work out the logistics of safely delivering the product.
“We really had no online presence prior to the pandemic,” Laki says. “Our products were available to order on food delivery apps but that was it. I've been procrastinating for years on going online. COVID-19 just turned it on turbo-charged.
“I thought we better do something or we won't have a business anymore.”
One thing Laki says has been a challenge in this change to at-home dining was losing his role as “vibe conductor” for his restaurants.
“All of a sudden, we lost the customer experiencing of our fit-out, our music, our service. I had to somehow create the vibe again in people’s homes. We aren’t just selling food – we still have to create some sort of an experience for the diner,” Laki says.
“People are looking for little luxuries at home.”
That experience can’t just be eating.
“I don't believe people go out just for food. I think people go out and want human interaction. At the moment, that's being taken away from us,” Laki explains. “Everything I've learnt in the past needs to be unlearnt and I have to somehow create my vibe on a computer screen which is pretty tricky to do.”
Fresh or frozen?
The frozen meal offerings from Laki’s restaurants were hugely popular during the initial lockdown period but following a short easing of restrictions, Laki noticed a quick drop-off in interest as people wanted to venture out again.
However, the team knew at-home dining was a business proposition they wanted to continue offering long-term so Laki invested in a new packaging machine which uses nitrogen to preserve fresh food for longer. Little did he know, this machine would be even more necessary as Melbourne faced into another six-week lockdown period.
“This machine is a game-changer because our food now has a 10-day shelf life (longer too if frozen) without using any nasty chemicals, additives or preservatives,” Laki says. “The nitrogen process is 100 per cent natural so it fits our values and philosophy around serving the community whole foods.”
Laki says the team are still experimenting with which dishes best-suit this new process and he is excited to begin expanding its offering even further in the future.
So what does the future hold for the hospitality industry which is so heavily reliant on social movement?
“Technology is what will save us, in the end,” Laki decides. “It's never going to be the same. It is survival of the fittest at the moment. And not just the hospitality industry but every industry.”
Laki’s team have innovated to add QR codes on the tables so when customers are allowed to return to dining in they can scan the code with their phone, order and pay, all without human-to-human contact - increasing the safety standards of his venues.
“That's a massive game changer for us and we’ll lean into the eating house model of The Vegie Bar for that to succeed” he says.
“We’re happy for people to come in, eat their meal and move on without too much cross-selling or up-selling. But that's where it's going to hurt some businesses more than others.”
Laki says he will continue to look for little bits of positivity in the negativity. His team will continue to try sell their products cheaper, make them tastier and make them faster. Three absolutely opposing forces all fighting with each other…..
“It's a constant and never-ending improvement. That's life, isn't it?” he admits.
Angelo Manos is General Manager for Commercial Brokers at ANZ