Krishna Botica and her partner Tony McGeorge opened Britomart’s Cafe Hanoi just a year-and-a-half after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Now with Covid-19, they’re facing a crisis of a whole different magnitude.
JEREMY HANSEN Hi Krishna. Just for readers to know the context, we’re on a Zoom call, both of us in our respective homes. Your restaurants are all currently closed. How are you spending the days at the moment?
KRISHNA BOTICA We’re trying to keep to a routine. I get up super-early and go for a walk with the dog. Most of the morning is on business planning and making decisions, and the afternoons are generally schoolwork with Osgar [Tony and Krishna’s son, Osgar, is 6]. And we’re packing up our house so we can rent it out. We’ll move in with my dad or my stepmother. At night-time, the family meal is the main focus, and we’re in bed by about 8.30. We’re not sleeping particularly well so we have to go to bed early. We’re working hard to stay on top of the stress – meditation, walking, yoga, all of those sorts of things can alleviate stress. I don’t think anybody in business is a stranger to stress. It’s manageable. But if we weren’t doing those things, I’d be a cot case.
How did you handle temporary closure of your restaurants when Alert Level 4 came in?
We heard about the shutdown on Monday afternoon along with everyone else. Right up until 1pm on the Monday our staff were expecting letters as to whether they were being made redundant to cope with the downturn in business we’d experienced in that first phase of Covid-19. We decided to hold off until we heard the announcement, and that changed everything. So on Tuesday we were able to tell our staff that maybe we would be able to keep everybody employed.
So the government package has been helpful for you?
It’s certainly saved, in our case, 40 jobs. We’re continuing to have conversations with our team and connect with them. Essentially we’ve gone to zero revenue, so there’s nothing to pay out anyway. We’re doing two weeks at 80 percent of their wages and then it’ll be the wage subsidy only. It’s not ideal. There are 20 to 30 percent layoffs in the hospitality industry as a whole.
Can I take you back for a minute to when you started out in this business? You began waitressing when you were 17, but you also did a degree in Italian and English and thought about being a teacher. What was it about hospitality that drew you in?
I didn’t have much interest in being a teacher, and I’ve had to be one for the past week and I’ve realised I’m not good at it! I’m a social creature. I loved theatre at school and afterwards. There’s a good correlation – it’s a reason why there’s lots of actors working in restaurants. You’ve got to put your game face on. And my family are all foodies. My mum was a baker, my dad loved cooking and we were raised with international food around us. I was one of the owners of Prego, and I also worked at SPQR for two and half years, and at Metropole. I was in my late 30s when we opened Cafe Hanoi almost two years after the GFC. There was a lot of risk, but we were naive enough not to be too scared.
Are restaurants a tough business even in good times?
I would say many industries are tough. The building industry is constantly tough. People who are software developers find it tough. Retail has been hard for a decade. But the profit margins in restaurants tend to be low, around two to four percent in the industry overall – but a lot of those are family-owned businesses just keeping families afloat. But anything other than normal trading environments make it extraordinarily hard for the restaurant business.
Back to the current situation. What do you think the restaurant market going to be like in four weeks?
I don’t believe it’s going to be just four weeks. I believe it’ll be absolutely dependent on which alert level we’re at. People are going to be extremely cautious. Some people will be desperate to get out and about and assume some level of normality. People who have had four to six weeks of anxiety and no social interaction will probably all respond in different ways. If it was me, I would be hugging every stranger that crossed my path, but others might not react that way. There are people worried about their jobs. We would go to takeaway only at Alert Level 3 and that will pay the rent, if that. But we can only trade properly at Alert Level 1.
It may be too early to say, but how do you think this will change the way people eat out? Will there be a greater sense of value in community and the pleasures of gathering together for a meal?
I think we’ll sees a greater sense of celebration, but people will go out less. I think before this, hospitality and restaurants became incidental as part of the way of life of a lot of people, and I would say they will become a conscious decision rather than a default one after all this. Everything that’s going on at the moment is extremely sobering, and people are having to understand that they have to cherish the moments they get when they are out in the world. We are social beings – nothing is going to change that, but with limited money people’s habits will change.
How do you adjust your business to suit the potential new reality you’re describing here?
The first priority is going over plans for Alert Levels 3, 2, and 1. At the same time, we’re interested in asking some of our staff to be aware of more details and paying attention to certain things they do, like standing close to customers, because people will be more aware of that. In terms of our offerings, we are lucky enough to have something to look forward to. Opening a new version of Cafe Hanoi beside The Hotel Britomart is the perfect opportunity to put some changes in place to respond to this new situation. Maybe we’ll look at a model in which people don’t spend too much but have a relaxed and positive experience. We need to make it extra-special.
Will you have to seat people further apart?
I think it’s going to be quite a long time before that goes back to where it was. We’ll be seating people further apart for a while. You lose the buzz, but people feel safe. Restaurants have always been about trust anyway. You can’t afford to lose that.