How this café has adapted to the new normal

No matter where you live in Australia, the announcement of COVID-19 restrictions around cafes and restaurants hit hard.

While many establishments chose to temporarily close during the lockdown, others kept their doors open. One such venue was Lights in the Attic, a café that kept trading through the heaviest of the restrictions.

According to Manager Ching-Harn Yang, the initial decision to remain open wasn’t a straightforward one.

“It was really uncertain. No one knew how bad it was going to be. We’d seen what was happening in China and overseas. We all had that worst-case scenario in mind that the business might go into lockdown, which would mean everyone loses their job... that was before the government subsidies were announced,” says Yang.

It wasn’t the only tough call that had to be made.

With the income from customers dining on the premises suddenly lost, the number of staff required on any given day was reduced. With employees working fewer shifts, this was stressful for everyone involved in the business.

A barista smiles while he makes a coffee

“With less people working, everyone has been doing a little more than usual. Knowing that people are relying on this job to pay rent and pay bills, it was a very scary thing,” says Yang.

Supporting staff was two-pronged, from providing relevant information about things such as updated rosters and government regulations, to offering support from a mental health perspective.

“We tried to keep sending out updates and messages to the staff, not just about the business situation, but to see how they were doing, especially with everybody stuck at home without being able to do other things.”

While food sales dropped off significantly in the period when dining-in wasn’t offered, the takeaway coffee trade actually spiked. An active construction site across the road ensured a steady flow of tradies, labourers and project managers, while local residents began to visit more regularly.

“People that live in the area but work elsewhere have been working from home, and coming here has been a little ‘essential trip’ for them, when they would normally buy coffee near their office,” says Yang.

A photo showing the window of a cafe

This has presented the opportunity to build rapport, something that wasn’t always possible in the past due to the hustle and bustle of the café scene.

“Because the business was a bit quieter, we’ve had the extra time to say hi and have a chat, and I think we’ve also picked up some customers from our competitors that were closed at the time,” says Yang.

When stage three restrictions were eased in early June, it was a significant milestone for places like Lights in the Attic that had been trading solely on takeaway. Yang feels adjusting to the new dynamic , like taking bookings for the first time and additional cleaning protocols, has been relatively smooth. 

“It’s been on both ends – we are asking customers to do things for us and on the other hand we are making sure people feel looked after and feel comfortable sitting inside and eating.”

Coping with the demands induced by COVID-19 has been trying on multiple fronts but there have been lessons learned as a result.

A cafe owner sits at a benchtop

“We started doing delivery, which we’re not sure if we’ll keep in place. And encouraging people to book their tables in advance has made things easier to manage,” says Yang.

“A lot of the time people used to just wake up and decide they’d come but it’s prevented people just rocking up and finding out there’s too many people and being turned away.”

Continued changes to restrictions in restaurants, pubs and cafes will no doubt see the next few months present further unique challenges for venues. With any luck, the likes of Lights in the Attic will continue to meet those head on.

For small businesses, there has never been a more important time to look after your mental health.

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