Attica is one of Australia’s most talked-about restaurants. When its Melbourne dining room closed, the team turned to home delivery with a radically new – and more inclusive – menu.
For chef Ben Shewry, there’s no greater comfort food than his mum’s lasagne. “I know a lot of people say their mum made a fantastic lasagne but my mum made a really fantastic one. Lasagne was one of those special-occasion dishes for my family. I have a lot of love and affection for that dish.”
So when his three-hatted restaurant, Attica – arguably Melbourne’s finest – was forced to close its doors on 23 March, Shewry turned from fine dining to a new focus on comforting family fare. “The very first thing that came to my mind was, 'What would people want to eat when the going got tough?'"
And so two businesses were born in the space of five days: Attica at Home, a delivery service, and Attica Bake Shop, a pop-up bakery next door to the Ripponlea restaurant. Within hours, there were queues around the block for the new Attica Bake Shop – but that was a problem. As well as drawing crowds in the age of social distancing (“Not a good look,” says Shewry), the bake shop was so popular he was working around the clock to keep up with the demand.
“It was a huge, overwhelming success,” he says. “We sold out every day but I was up at two in the morning for the bake shop and then making lasagne in the afternoon for the deliveries at night. I’d still be there at midnight. After a week of that the writing was on the wall. I was going to burn out and it wasn’t going to be fair on my staff, either. So we decided we had to focus on one or the other and it was obvious that Attica at Home was going to be the thing that would save us financially.”
While the humble lasagne, salad and garlic bread ($60 for two) might seem like a sharp U-turn for one of the world’s finest restaurants, Shewry says Attica’s hallmarks of quality service and great taste prevail. “Yes, some of our delivery food is very different to what you would eat at Attica if you were dining here but underpinning it all are the same ingredients, people and philosophies. We’ve just had to scale it up.”
The home delivery offering was a way to keep his staff employed by turning the front-of-house team into mobile waiters. “They’re still getting dressed up and making sure that their hair is amazing and they’re in their pressed uniforms and suits and aprons. There are a lot of delivery companies out there but I don’t think there’s a lot of great service.”
By the end of April, the new business had not only saved all 37 staff but added three team members to keep up with demand. “Our front-of-house people have become our logistics team – organising it every day is a huge job. My partner, Kylie, is operations manager and she developed the online system. It’s not within my skill set at all. My skill set is creating stuff.”
And therein lies his best advice for making the pivot: get a little help from the experts. “Kylie worked with our technology companies and it was three days from the idea to having the ecommerce technology built. They worked around the clock while the team and I pushed to develop menus and recipes and renovated the bake shop. It was just about hustling.”
This hustle, he says, “is very much a part of the DNA of the restaurant. A lot of things that had prepared us for this moment. When you’ve had a few hairy situations previously, when you’re nearly going broke, you become pretty determined not to go broke in the future when great challenges arise.”
It’s a hope he shares for other SMEs who are doing it tough. “Try to lead with kindness rather than cynicism and cool things can happen,” he says. “I know that nobody will save us – we have to save ourselves – but at the same time I’m trying to offer my community something. It’s not just purely business. It goes hand in hand.”
With this in mind, the New Zealand-born chef started Attica Soup Project with food writer and neighbour Dani Valent, offering $5 to out-of-work international hospitality staff from every $25 soup sold. “It was becoming obvious that nobody was going to take care of them and that didn’t really seem right. I would have been in that same situation a few years ago now. I’m a migrant here as well.”
But it’s an outpouring of love from his adopted city that has gotten him through. “Our idea is to survive, just to tread water. The future is very uncertain. But the people of Melbourne have just been unbelievable. They understood our situation and got behind us. We’re so grateful that we’re living and working in this city. I’ll never leave this place. Other businesses reached out and I am so grateful to all those people that have helped our company survive. You can really tell people’s character when things get tough – you find out who your true friends are.”