It has been a tough few months for the hospitality industry however some success stories are emerging. Restaurant Mason is one of them.
The Newcastle restaurant owned and run by chef Chris Thornton transitioned to fine-dining takeaway and the orders rolled in. Customers loved dining in style in the comfort of their own homes.
The ISO Guest Chef Series built on the success of the regular menu's takeaway offering. The first guest chef was Gareth Robbs, of Bistro Molines, followed by Tim Montgomery alongside sommelier Stephane Pommier.
"In my wildest dreams I could not have predicted its success," Thornton told Food & Wine. "I think people saw it as a way to recapture some form of normal life, break the monotony of isolation and to celebrate special occasions."
The gradual easing of social distancing restrictions by the NSW government kicks up a gear on June 1 when restaurants are permitted to seat 50 diners, if strict guidelines are adhered to.
"I'm feeling equal parts excited, cautious and weird about it all at the same time," Thornton said.
"We had accepted that we were going to be in lockdown for months and had settled into our takeaway groove and then all of a sudden we were gearing up to serve dine-in customers again, so it's been a bit of a rollercoaster.
"Personally I'm a bit torn - I'm excited to to serve customers in-house but also sad that the takeaway may start to die down. We are just making sure we are doing everything correctly to ensure everyone's safety."
Shutting the doors to his contemporary Australian restaurant wasn't an option.
"Our staff rely on us for their livelihood so we had to adapt very quickly. The takeaway side started off slow but the team was determined and every week it got busier," he said.
"I think the two main contributors have been our amazing regular customers and our philosophy on food - we have always put quality ingredients, excellent cooking technique and flavour at the forefront of our food and that philosophy transferred really well into a box.
"In saying that, though, it wouldn't have been viable without the government assistance and the generosity of our landlord. And Megan Evan our amazing food photographer's social media savvy was invaluable in both keeping our customers informed and reaching a new audience."
Although the restaurant is now permitted to feed 10 dine-in customers at a time, takeaway will continue. Thornton has found a new and unexpected market.
"Without a doubt takeaway has opened up Mason to a whole other customer base," he said. "We've found that it is been especially popular with couples who have children. Whether we continue takeaway depends on whether it maintains its level of success or drops off as restrictions are lifted."
Apart from giving the interior a fresh coat of paint, Thornton says he will keep on doing what he's done at the Hunter Street restaurant for the past eight years.
"If anything this experience has solidified my confidence in what we are," he explained.
"Losing our hat this year was disappointing but the reason why [the restaurant's interior] was more annoying than anything else. But hat or no hat our drive to constantly keep improving and making our customers happy will never change.
"I feel the pandemic has given our industry a chance of a semi-fresh start and I think we will all be more appreciative of the experience of dining out. As the saying goes, you don't realise how good something is until it's gone."
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