In what has been a testing time for many in the industry, the lateral thinking of one restaurateur has seen his business not just survive but thrive.

Barry Iddles, owner of Sorrento Catering, 360Q and Elk Restaurant.

If you wanted to offer a restaurateur any advice on handling the economic impact of a global pandemic, you could just say, “Be like Barry Iddles”. Iddles has three venues in regional Victoria: Sorrento Catering on the Mornington Peninsula; 360Q at Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula; and Elk Restaurant at Falls Creek. In the first quarter of this year, business was going great—revenue was 20 per cent up on the year before, and he had a quarter of a million dollars worth of functions booked and paid for. So you’d expect the lockdown, at the end of March, would be enough to break him. Except it didn’t.

The initiatives that Iddles took to keep his business going (after refunding that quarter of a million bucks worth of pre-booked functions) are a wonderful example of how a tiny bit of preparation and a lot of smart thinking can not only get you through lockdowns, but set you up to thrive on the other side.

When the second lockdown started in Victoria, a few restaurateurs were saying, ‘Offering takeaway isn’t an option for me because my restaurant’s in a regional area and my customers are too far away’. You’re in a regional area. Was that your experience too?

“No. I always live my life by six Ps; prior preparation prevents piss poor performance. It’s about getting off your bum and doing whatever it takes to survive. We didn’t make any money out of doing takeaway, but as soon as we were reopened, all of those people that we’d looked after in the first lockdown were our first customers, and they’ve been mega supportive.”

Takeaway wasn’t your only offering, of course—but before telling us what you did, tell me about those first few weeks, just before the first lockdown in March, and immediately afterwards.

“I’m a member of Foodie Coaches which is a body of restaurateurs and cafe owners around Australia, that bounce off each other and give each other ideas. After talking with colleagues, I decided the shit was going to hit the fan, so to speak. And on the 16th of March, on the way back from a function in Rochester (in country Victoria), I stopped at Reward Hospitality in Geelong, and picked up 1000 takeaway containers. I also picked up labels at Officeworks. I decided we would have to go into takeaway, should business slow down.

“The following weekend we were told that we could have one person for every four square metres. 360Q at Queenscliff is in a double storey building. We managed to open both levels for the Saturday night, which we normally wouldn’t do.

“We also had some weddings booked in Blairgowrie and Cranbourne. But with COVID being rampant in everyone’s mind, the numbers dropped to 80. That was our last function, so to speak. You have to be strong in the mind to survive. I treated it like it was a light switch and we just turned our switch off, as far as the restaurant trade went, and went into our new format.”

Preparing the ISO packs at 360Q. The success of the takeaway packs led to new offerings like cooking classes.

So tell us about the new format—which was a combination of take-home dinner packs and Zoom-based cooking classes.

“The cooking class evolved from the dinner-pack. We started off offering a 14-day isolation pack which we pre-sold [as those infected or at risk of infection had to self-isolate for 14 days]. The isolation pack was four home-delivered evening meals on a Monday, and three home-delivered evening meals on a Friday. We promoted it via our email list and social media.

“We sold 45 isolation packs, and then I realised I was missing some of the market. People were saying to me, ‘we’re not in isolation, just in lockdown—can we order a pack?’. So then we went to offering the four meal and three meal scenario for others that weren’t isolating.

“From that, I started doing Zoom dinner parties. If someone was having a birthday, we’d sell a three-course meal. and deliver it to, say, five houses where two people would be in each house. And they’d all Zoom in and have their dinner party. Because of the unique liquor license we have in Queenscliff, we could also sell local wines.”

Given there are extra costs involved in a takeaway option (including delivery costs), how did you make that work from a cost-versus-revenue perspective?

“I realised that we were delivering to one house in every second street, and I thought if we could pick up a few more houses in those streets, we could do really well. I quadrupled my turnover by sending out 11,000 postcards via Australia Post’s unaddressed postal service. You can pick a postcode to deliver to. I picked Queenscliff, Point Lonsdale and Ocean Grove. The first two have a population of about 900 permanent residents, and Ocean Grove has about 9000, so you’re probably looking at 10,000 houses. It was an investment of nearly $3000 to do the mail-out. I would say we picked up an extra 500 customers from it. You lodge a form on a Wednesday, the cards have to be submitted on the Friday to go out the following Monday, and they’re delivered over that week.

“This had an impact on our digital marketing too. Our Facebook and Google Analytics showed us we grew our audience to about 197,000 in two weeks. We picked up our delivery service, so we ended up delivering right around the Bellarine, so Portarlington, Point Lonsdale, Saint Leonards, Drysdale, Curlewis. Our run would be about 80 kilometres to deliver food.”

It must have cost you in terms of lost time to driving, and wear and tear on the van… what were the downsides to the delivery service?

“The meals were packed in a plastic container, which was my only downside. I hate using the plastic containers. But for storage and pack down, they are fine. For anyone delivering a four-day pack or a three-day pack to people, the money’s there.

“My daughter said to me, ‘Oh God, you’re driving to Ocean Grove for 30 bucks’. I said, ‘30 bucks is 30 bucks. What will happen is those people will become fantastic customers to the restaurant’. But also, because of that promotion, I was actually doing 10 deliveries into Ocean Grove. There’s 300 bucks.

“It’s about looking at the big picture. people will make excuses not to do things. I chose to try and keep all of my people gainfully employed. I think for their physical and mental wellbeing, it’s quite important that you look at what you can do to keep them mentally active.

“And everyone was so appreciative of what we did. If we got locked down again, I’d actually start doing ‘keto COVID’, because people were saying they got so fat on the first lockdown, I think I’d spin and start delivering keto-style food.”

360Q at Queenscliff.

How did the cooking classes eventuate from all of this?

“We’ve got a great database that we email to, and I think it’s really vital that all restaurants, and all caterers, have an amazing database. And it’s pretty easy to build one. We would have 20 people logging in for cooking classes on a Thursday night. They were $45 for a three-course meal, which was pretty cheap. We’d just drop off the ingredients and go onto Zoom for an hour. We did seven weeks of cooking classes, and I quickly learned how to use Zoom. I think after three weeks, I was pretty up to speed with it.”

Email is seen by a lot of people as a bit old school—we all get so many emails nowadays. How did you make email marketing work for you?

“In each venue we collect birthdates—people can join our mailing list and we give them a complimentary main course on their birthday, or in that birthday month. I know how well it works. I have 5000 on one database. Our restaurant at Falls Creek had about 6000. Recently we sent the one out from Falls Creek, saying that due to COVID restrictions on seatings, you would be best to book your table as soon as possible. In two and a half hours from the time the email went out, we took 130 tables booked online and I would have taken probably 150 tables that emailed. My whole day just got lost putting bookings in.

“We send an email out using Mailchimp every fortnight and we put in this what’s happening, our specials, what we’re doing different. An organisation called Trained by Myagi have got me doing cooking classes now. It’s an online platform where we’ve got 10 cooking classes, so 10 weeks of cooking classes.

“I’ll go back to the cooking classes. Everyone that did the classes wants me to keep going. They were quite upset that I stopped, and I stopped the week the restaurant reopened. We reopened on the 1st of June.”

Is there anything you did that you regret? Anything you won’t repeat in this second lockdown?

“I opened Falls Creek which was probably a mistake. I never wanted to open Falls Creek this winter. I decided it was too dicey. The lifts were open for four days, and I thought, ‘Well, I can’t keep doing cooking classes and run another venue, so I’ll let the cooking classes go’. But I will pick the cooking classes up once I’m out of here. We will run them online, and we’ll also do in-house cooking classes.

“People absolutely loved it. I decided to do a simplistic style of cooking class, so I take three or four ingredients to create a dish and it was super, super popular. We did a vegan ice cream which literally was chickpea liquid, sugar and coconut cream, and they couldn’t believe how simple it was. I’ve got guys now that are still making it every second day. They’ll end up fat because coconut cream’s not slimming. It’s brilliant.”

And are you doing anything new this time around?

“For lockdown number two, I have a contract at the Australian Gardens at Cranbourne. The Royal Botanic Gardens haven’t closed the site this time, whereas last time they locked the whole site down so we couldn’t do anything. It’s free to get into the gardens, and so we’re just promoting it as health and wellness walks. Go for a walk, grab a coffee, grab some takeaway—I don’t care if they only take $500 a day but it’s about having the team go in and get out of the house, and do something for the day. Even if we’re only open four hours, it’s fine.”

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here