As the COVID-19 pandemic throws Australia’s hospitality industry into disarray, Melbourne restaurant Atlas Dining has pulled off a tech pivot that’s not only keeping it above water, but helping it thrive.
When the federal government announced restaurants would have to close their doors to dine-in customers, Atlas owner and head chef Charlie Carrington made something of snap decision to start selling meal kits, allowing would-be diners to cook up their own feast at home.
Within the first two weeks, the business had seen two of its most lucrative days on record.
Customers receive ingredients for three meals, and follow an online masterclass from Carrington himself, via either YouTube or Instagram.
The restaurant usually offers up one set menu, based on the cuisine of one country, which changes every four months. The meal kits, however, switch things up every week.
So far, customers have dined on delicacies from Vietnam, Israel and Korea, while the next few weeks will feature Mexican, Peruvian and French menus.
Ingredients are pre-prepped, and designed to be whipped up in 15 minutes. And if customers love the dish, the recipe is theirs to keep.
Speaking to SmartCompany, Carrington says he managed to get the new offering up and running within a matter of days.
As soon as the government announced restaurant closures on the Monday, he started bouncing the idea around on social media, still unsure of exactly what it would involve.
“I got so much traction, people were sending me emails saying they loved the idea,” he says.
“It took us about two days for us to set up the online store, update our website and get the first packages out,” he explains.
“We filmed the videos that week, and the rest is history.”
So far, the venture has been “extremely successful”, and at least as financially lucrative as running the restaurant, Carrington says.
In fact, in stark contrast to many other hospitality businesses, he’s actually hiring new staff.
Hanging on to staff members is one of the biggest issues facing business owners in this space, he explains. The government’s JobKeeper package does not extend to overseas workers, who make up a large bulk of hospitality staff.
“A lot of hospitality workers are slightly vulnerable and do live on a bit of a shoestring budget. A lot of them have found themselves in tough places,” Carrington explains.
He has now been able to re-employ some former staff members who are overseas workers, he adds.
“I’m really proud of that.”
“People trust our brand”
Before COVID-19 struck, Atlas Dining, and Carrington himself, had a solid reputation and a loyal customer base among Melbourne’s foodies. That’s something the chef says was “essential” to a successful pivot.
“We’ve really stuck to what the brand is all about,” he explains.
“Because we’ve stuck to what we’re known for … I think our guests really connected with that.”
So far, takeup has come purely from Atlas’ social media following and through word-of-mouth.
“It was very organic,” Carrington says.
“People understand with Atlas that we’re all about change and they know we’re also about quality,” he explains.
“People trust our brand and trust what we’re doing.”
And, while as a business owner he feels lucky, Carrington acknowledges the success wasn’t down to luck alone.
“It’s not a lucky thing for us, because we’ve worked very hard for it,” he says.
“But it gives us the opportunity to get real-time feedback and real time ideas … because we’ve got that loyal following.”
At the same time, the new offering has had some takeup from areas he didn’t really expect. For example, a lot of health care workers have signed up.
These are people who are working harder than ever before, he notes. The meal boxes mean they can prepare a quality meal with minimal effort.
“For them, it’s a big time factor,” he explains.
“I felt very lost”
The story of Atlas provides a glimmer of light in an otherwise bleak business landscape. And Carrington has done a full 180 in a matter of weeks.
“After the government announced that restaurants were going to close, I really didn’t know how to feel. I felt very lost,” he says.
“All this hard work that was done for so long — what’s going to happen?”
But, fast-forward a few weeks, and it’s a very different story.
Despite the difficulty of the coronavirus, and the challenging times facing the country, professionally, “it’s been probably one of the most rewarding few weeks of my whole life”, Carrington says.
“I’m doing something new with my career,” he explains.
He’s gone from spending all of his time running the restaurant from the kitchen, to “almost running a tech business”.
And, being able to support the business through this time has been a relief to everyone.
“I can see how appreciative the staff are,” he adds.
“It feels bad to say … but it’s been such an amazing time to see so much positivity from our guests and from the team as well.
“It’s nice for us to feel like we’re really pushing and doing something new.”