The Road Map out of COVID-19…. restaurants falter but French takeaway and coffee boom during lockdown

The Road Map out of COVID-19….restaurants falter but French takeaway and coffee boom during lockdown
Mangez bien! Customers line up around the corner for the famous croque monsieur and quality coffee

As pubs and fine dining restaurants are put through the wringer in Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, the pop-up takeaway cafe Chez Mademoiselle in the artsy neighbourhood of Prahran is booming.

On some mornings lines snake so far around the block that the cafe has been featured on the evening news.

Chez Mademoiselle, a sister business to Chez Olivier, one of Melbourne’s finest French restaurants, has doubled its turnover since the first lockdown in 2020 as home workers line up for their much-needed morning Java.

So why is this sidewalk café such a lockdown winner?

Location is part of the story. It’s smack in the middle of Prahran, a suburb just 5km south of Melbourne’s CBD well known for its culinary flavours and strong LGBTQ community. Prahan has a high number of apartment dwellers suddenly working from home rather than commuting.

“With a nation in lockdown for various parts of 2020 and much of this year, takeaway food became supercharged – there was a 20% increase in Australian takeaway food compared to the previous year,” says Chez Mademoiselle Manager Kevin Tribet.

Chez Mademoiselle is now selling between 1500 and 1800 coffees a week and also doing a high volume of croque monsieur, the classic hot French sandwich of gruyère cheese and ham as well as mouth-watering “sandwich baguettes” – a fresh, crispy baguette of leg ham, cheese and tartare sauce or a vegetarian version with halloumi, avocado, salad and basil oil.

“We have doubled our weekly turnover since February 2020 for both coffee and takeaway food,” Tribet says.

Contactless payments, good hygiene practices and loyalty reward programs have kept customers coming back lockdown after lockdown.

“We’re seeing a lot of young people in their 20s and 30s who may have travelled to work before but are now working from home. After the first lockdown, they just kept coming in every day.

“We also have a contactless loyalty card system, where regular customers’ personalised cards are placed on a window as a way of thanking them for their support in these tough times. We have dedicated staff to stamp them. We provide every seventh coffee free, rather than every 10th coffee.

“Our prices are also typically about 10% lower than average prices in Melbourne –$3.80 for a regular coffee and $4.30 for a large.

“The price of some coffee in Melbourne can range from $4.50 (small) to $6 (large) and more for special milks and extras. In tough times people really appreciate value for money and friendly customer service. And of course the French food doesn’t hurt either.”

Chez Mademoiselle owner David Brandi, who also has 15 other businesses including the Melbourne Swimming Club and Australian Pipe & Tube, says that survival in COVID is all about customer loyalty and innovations.

“We have a lot of experience in French food with our fine dining restaurant Chez Olivier. During lockdown of course fine dining really suffered. But as soon as the 2020 lockdown was over it bounced right back, and I know that will happen after this lockdown too.

“Our extensive customer base love anything French with Chez Olivier. So it was an easy ‘pivot’ to extend to takeaway in Prahran. Our next plan is to be a purveyor of French deli foods with a retail section in the café.

“We are also opening up two more hospitality venues this year – Cocktails & Dreams and Lets Grind.”

For Tribet, who has a Diploma of Hospitality and Management from the University of CFA des Douets, is a qualified chef and has extensive cooking and catering qualifications, it’s all about going the extra mile for your customer.

“As Albert Einstein says, we should strive not to be a success, but to be of value. When people don’t see many other people in their day they are yearning for human contact. They also want good coffee, the occasional freebie and efficient service. If you do that you can’t really go wrong.”

David Brandi adds that understanding consumer behaviour is also important, and that consumer needs have rapidly changed in the past two years.

“Across the board, the pandemic has put consumer loyalty up for grabs. And if you don’t adapt quickly enough to the new norms, customers will tell themselves: ‘I’ll try someone else.’

“It used to be, ‘Buy 10 coffees get one free’, and you’d stamp a card. Now it might be one in seven coffees.

“Overseas COVID-19 quickly initiated a lot of new loyalty innovations, such as buy two meals and we’ll donate the third to a first responder.

“The industry has also seen ‘food travel’ innovations like wine in a bag (premium boxed wine rather than old-fashioned papsak cask wine), as well as canned wine for wine drinkers on the go. We’ll be seeing big changes in loyalty programs over the next few years.”