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Making It Work: Dinner, delivery on the menu for Ballarat's Johnny Alloo

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Australians have had to adapt after their livelihoods took a hit from government restrictions introduced to curb the spread of coronavirus. In this series called Making It Work, we look at how individuals and businesses have pivoted to stay afloat during the crisis.

Ballarat cafe owner turned restaurateur Matthew Freeman ran a popular cafe in the business and medical district before the COVID-19 shutdown in March.

Once restrictions came into effect, few of the restaurant's 15 staff were needed and the business wasn't going to make enough money to pay wages.

matthew freeman johnny alloo
"Everyone can sell coffee but the point of difference is how you sell it and connect," says Johnny Alloo restaurant owner Matthew Freeman.

Freeman says he had to figure out quickly how to make the business more profitable - and the solution was transitioning much of their trade to takeaway.

"What I'm big on is that a cafe is essentially a vessel for community communication and connection," he says.

"I looked at other ways to do it, whether it was to have people come in for a takeaway collection or delivery to someone's home.

"Everyone can sell coffee but the point of difference is how you sell it and connect."

The community support that comes with being in a regional area has been enormously helpful, Freeman says.

"We've got really great connections with customers - loyal and regular - and secondly, the virus itself didn't present in too many cases in Ballarat," Freeman says.

Freeman was already running a smaller coffee shop in Ballarat, which he'd owned for 4.5 years, when he opened Johnny Alloo last October.

"This was a new venture. We redeveloped the building which took 14 months. It was a big job so it was unforeseen that we'd be out of business five months after opening," Freeman says.

Johnny Alloo offers an Italian take on Australian cuisine and was named after the first man in Ballarat to open his own restaurant.

"He was a Chinese man but we don't do Chinese food. We're trying to pay homage to hospitality and have the connection of community which he received," Freeman says.

Under pressure

"For me I was trying to control what was in my power. I wasn't getting too worried about things that were outside my power, but I was trying to act as someone solid to others in the business who were anxious and weren't dealing with the stress of it well," Freeman says.

Not making rash decisions paid off as he decided whether it made sense to make the whole workforce redundant when they may  be needed again in a few months.

"We then applied for JobKeeper and this helped get the business going," Freeman says.

"We're essentially opening up for another 35 hours a work, and still 30% down on what we were doing - I was just thinking how do I keep these guys' jobs?"

Freeman says having the business remain open and the same staff around has helped the community.

"Being stable has served us well - our customers have seen it's the same people working here."

Learning to adapt

Within a week the business expanded  from coffee, breakfast and lunch into dinner and takeaway.

"We had to think about what translates to takeaway packaging and also what people would want from a takeaway experience," Freeman says.

"We had to align our offering with people's needs."

The Johnny Alloo dinner menu is completely different from the takeaway menu because of considerations on price point and what looks good on a plate.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

We're pumped to launch into dinner tomorrow night & share with you an experience we're proud of. Our dinner menu is available online & on Facebook. Feel free to inbox us for dinner reservations. Open Thursday, Friday & Saturday nights. Cheers!

A post shared by Johnny Alloo (@johnnyalloo) on Jun 3, 2020 at 2:41am PDT

"We've had to change a lot and that's been challenging, constantly having to change everything.

"There are always a lot of moving parts - people ordering products, cooking them, developing new menus, making drinks, setting pricing, and updating the internet - every time you change something, there's a lot of hard work."

Takeaways offered included minestrone soup, Wagyu cheese burger, chicken schnitzel, and pork and veal meatballs.

The business also looked at what else they were offering and how to make it work for their new model.

"We now make gourmet sausage rolls, our own pastries that we were formerly buying in," Freeman says.

"I needed to reduce goods but keep labour so we made our own pastries and reskilled staff in that department."

There are definitely a lot of new customers as a result of the business staying open, says Freeman.

"A lot of other businesses closed, with a lot of them  making the knee-jerk reaction based on assuming it wouldn't be sustainable, and getting rid of staff."

While some casual staff lost hours, all Johnny Alloo staff have kept their jobs.

The future

Freeman says post-lockdown Johnny Alloo will continue to provide an evening service.

Currently the restaurant is open for 20 people for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and there is a cocktail menu as well.

"Dinner's all new and it's on the back of the virus - it's opened up a new vessel for people to come in and experience what we do and we're going to continue to do that three nights a week for drinks and an a la carte menu - Thursday, Friday and Saturday."

The restaurant has already hosted functions, including a medical dinner and a 30th birthday for 20 people.

"So from my point of view, it's been really good for the business to stay open because we didn't have to retrain people or get new staff in, so it's been easier to get back to business," Freeman says.

An important lesson for Freeman was that efficiency is key in this industry.

"I'm trying to be smart about how we use our resources and staff. It's easy to put the blinkers on and say we've made all this amazing product but if it doesn't earn you an income relative to the input then there's no point to it.

"With hospitality you'll always have a bit of inefficiency but I'm trying to get people efficiency because in uncertain times it's the only way to be sustainable.

"Gone are the days where you walk into a restaurant and have staff everywhere.

"People will now have to get used to waiting to be served otherwise it's unaffordable."

We're cutting through the confusion to help you manage your money during the coronavirus outbreak. Click here for more on how COVID-19 could affect your job, budget, super and investments.

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Julia Newbould is a financial writer and commentator with a background in journalism. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.
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