The great outdoors: Café culture in a COVID summer

café culture summer

BeanScene looks at how different Australia’s café culture could look heading into summer with a renewed focus on outdoor dining.

The sun is out and so are Victorians. With the state joining the rest of the country out of lockdown, the worst of COVID-19 is hopefully behind us.

It’s been a year of change for the coffee industry – from closures and takeaway to face masks and pivots – but cafés can finally start to build a sense of normalcy.

That doesn’t mean they can expect a similar summer to last year. Venues need to watch how many patrons they have indoors, names and phone numbers of guests must be recorded, and the threat of an outbreak still looms.

But not all changes have to be bad. Tight restrictions on indoor guests are encouraging many cafés and restaurants to utilise their outdoor space, and for the most part, governments and councils are keen to make this possible. 

The City of Melbourne in particular has voiced its intention to support these businesses, even putting forward six key precincts it wants to transform into al fresco dining areas. 

Tables and chairs lining the streets might be nothing new, but Dr. Quentin Stevens, Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Urban Design at RMIT University, says extending this to footpaths or carparking space opens up new opportunities for many cafés.

“Melbourne already has a strong tradition for this kind of European café culture. Unlike Europe, we have a better climate for it and can do those things more of the time,” Quentin says.

“The necessary infrastructure – from power built under the ground to frameworks that shade feature can be added on to – already exists. It already happens. This is just a wake up to those who haven’t seized that opportunity to get into it.”

Quentin’s field of research involves temporary and tactical urbanism. The former refers to putting up something temporary, like a market or circus, with looser restrictions than permanent infrastructure. Tactical urbanism, however, is work done outside normal planning and regulatory processes. As Quentin puts it, “not breaking rules, but working creatively with them to get the solution you want when the normal processes won’t help you deliver it”.

He says these concepts create a chance for cafés to experiment with how they offer outdoor dining. On the extreme end, the Urban Coffee Farm and Brew Bar designed for the 2013 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival demonstrates what is possible with temporary or tactical use of a public space.

The project used forklift pallets, shipping containers, and actual coffee trees to transform Queensbridge Square in Southbank into a café and ‘coffee jungle’.

“Although that dominated the space more than most cafés will be able to, it shows how you can create an atmosphere with minimal expense that can change people’s perception of how to use the space,” Quentin says.

More practically, cafés could implement ideas that have already been road tested in other countries, like the United States or in Europe and Asia. These range from communal benches with glass panelling to separate diners to plastic bubbles suspended over tables.

“There’s not a one size fits all answer, and there’s different things venues can do depending on their atmosphere, character, and space available to them,” Quentin says. 

“It’s less risky in a way to do these things short term, because you’re not tying yourself down and making huge investments. There’s also more goodwill from other parties, whether that’s the local government, neighbours, or pedestrians and drivers. Everyone realises the circumstances are different and vendors have to take that onboard and take small risks to see what can be done.”

Quentin says the City of Melbourne is well placed to expand capacity for outdoor dining and public space, with already wide streets, a focus on public transport over cars, and existing outdoor dining. But suburbs and cities across Australia are primed for evolution too.

“In the suburbs, there’s a lot of spare land and many untapped opportunities. The inner city has to make strategic choices and trade-offs, but Australian cities are very low density and there’s really room for everything,” Quentin says.

“I was doing field work in Perth last year and they had installed parklets onto streets, to encourage more people to do things outside. Although they have a benign Mediterranean climate there, people would habitually dine and have their coffee indoors. They had everything they need for outdoor dining, they just had to build that culture.”

At time of writing, Australia has just celebrated its first day with zero community transmission in almost five months. Though the country seems to be recovering from COVID-19, Quentin says some of these changes are likely to be permanent, and venues, councils, and communities should make the most of it.

“One of the main shopping strips in Yarraville [in Melbourne’s western suburbs] was recently voted the fifth coolest suburb in the whole world. A few years ago, they closed off Ballarat Street in front of the Sun Theatre and laid down fake grass and extra seating,” Quentin says.

“When it was first put in, the traders were fierce opponents of it. They said it’s going to stop people coming through and make it harder to park. It was only temporary, for a few months, and by the end of that time, traders were the strongest advocates for it. The saw the value and uniqueness of what they had. 

“The Melbourne CBD is in that kind of moment where we can see – at scale – a shift in what the streets can be and what kind of life people could have in the city.”

café culture summer
Suburban Social in Queensland decorated its wind barriers with a mural also found inside the venue.

An emphasis on outdoor dining will also provide cafés and hospitality businesses with greater exposure and branding opportunities than they may have had before.

Mark Star of outdoor branded products specialist Star Outdoor says cafés that are smart but practical with their outdoor dining will be the ones to succeed.

“In Melbourne, when you walk down those alleyways, there’s business after business and it can be hard to remember where you’ve been to before. Getting that brand recognition out there is very important,” Mark says.

“It can be done in a number of ways. We did a job recently in Queensland, where this bar had a beautiful mural inside the venue they wanted reproduced on their wind barriers. It brought the inside out. Thinking about the laneways in Melbourne with all the graffiti, a plain black wind barrier and umbrella with a white logo misses the opportunity a little bit.”

Star Outdoor has seen increased demand across Australia, not just Melbourne, for outdoor items like umbrellas and wind barriers.

“Here in Brisbane, it’s almost business as usual, but even so, people don’t want to be around each other in a high density. At the same time, we’re spending more time locked away at home and are really seeking out the opportunity to talk to someone. I think al fresco dining will play into that,” Mark says.

Business owners also need to think practically and safely when branching out onto the street. If not permanent, outdoor fixtures need to be easily deployed or removed. 

Mark says councils may be lenient for now, but that won’t last if set-ups pose a liability.

“They need to think about it from a workplace occupational health and safety and public liability point of view. Knowing Melbourne, a nice sunny morning can turn into a pretty ordinary afternoon, so they need make sure they have the right amount of securing. Otherwise, an umbrella is a huge parachute waiting to take off,” he says.

“You’re also going to need to partition off seating or space, so you don’t have randoms just turning up. COVID-19 has changed the nature of what we call a wind barrier. In the past, it was a branding opportunity that also cuts down on a bit of breeze. Now, it’s a safety mechanism, keeping control of customers so only those that have been registered can come into the space.”

Many coffee roasters and suppliers may also offer branded products like umbrellas and wind barriers to a café, and Mark says it’s important to weigh up whether it’s more beneficial for them to promote their own brand or play off someone else’s.

“If you own a business like a café, you’re likely to sell it one day. If your brand is the one the customer remembers, that increases your intellectual property (IP). If you have a coffee brand plastered all over the front of your café, you don’t get the same bonus to your own IP,” he says.

Like Quentin, Mark sees there being a permanent change in how people behave due to COVID-19, and cities and businesses will need to accommodate.

“People are still reluctant to use public transport and are sticking more local. Little community-type cafés and restaurants are going to be the real winners when people choose to walk rather than drive,” Mark says. “Having these cafés come out onto the street is the next big thing.” 

For more on tactical urbanism, click HERE.

This article appears in the December 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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