August 10, 2021 | By Graeme Kemlo

While the sixth lockdown of the hospitality sector in Melbourne would see more businesses shuttered, Stephen Mercer, Victorian Chair of the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association said the city still retained its reputation as the food capital.

“It’s tough, very tough.  Lots of people have left our industry, but our membership numbers have grown,” he said, estimating there were about 45,000 restaurants and 8,000 venues nationally.

While he acknowledges the lockdowns were necessary for public health he said, “we always seem to get locked down on a Friday, just when we’ve bought in the produce for the weekend’s restaurant or event bookings”.

He has joined the Providoor program begun by Shane Delia, known for his Middle Eastern themed restaurants, where top tier restaurants provide takeaway meals for diners to finish off at home.

“It has been a very positive outcome from the pandemic and I am sure there will be other changes for the better,” Mercer said.

For more than 20 years he and his wife Ute have run Mercer’s Restaurant, a fine dining establishment, in the outer Melbourne suburb of Eltham. Each week during the pandemic he posts his degustation menu online and a video showing customers how to finish off the meals at home. But he admits it is not always easy for other restaurants and caterers to quickly adjust their businesses after a fast lockdown.

He regards himself as fortunate to operate a fine dining restaurant where he can focus on degustation menus rather than a full a la carte offering or carry the risk of funding the special food and drink provisions for a large event.

The Restaurant and Catering Industry Association is well aware of the risks, being forced to postpone its annual awards evening for 800 guests at Crown Melbourne from August to October.

“I am concerned that it might still have to be postponed again,” said Mercer.

“This will not be the last lockdown…we’ll go in and out of lockdown for the remainder of 2021, so I am taking a defensive approach,” he said, adding he understands that those who focus on events run the greater risk of being caught in a snap lockdown.

“I managed to do an event, a dinner for 70 at the local college last Wednesday, just before we went into lockdown,” he said, but he does not happily carry the risk.

“Six weeks ago I was meeting in Canberra and we were told about the vaccination passport, which apparently Victoria does not favour. But the Federal Government wants to push ahead and implement it for air travel, for major events at stadiums like the MCG,” said Mercer.

And although he realises it might be controversial for proof of vaccination being a prerequisite for entry to hotels, restaurants and bars, Mercer believes this will be necessary to allow Melbourne business to safely reopen.

But asked whether in the meanwhile Melbourne might lose its crown as the food capital he is not concerned.

“Just judging by my own restaurant, every time we come out of lockdown the phone runs hot…people are really keen to get out and enjoy a culinary experience.”