Auckland fixture O’Connell Street Bistro will close next month after 24 years of service as Covid-19 continues to hit restaurants hard.
The fine-dining restaurant survived the power crisis in early 1998 which forced them to shut down temporarily and a fire in 2016 which resulted in an eight-month closure – all while keeping their team fully employed.
But Covid-19 has proven too much for the establishment which has become one of the many hospitality businesses crippled by the pandemic.
Owners and founders Chris Upton and Amanda Mason said they made the difficult decision because of the insecurity of Covid-19, which saw them continue to pay fixed costs throughout lockdowns, and the unsuccessful renegotiation of their lease.
“With the continuing lockdowns and the challenges of operating at level 2 in the first two months of 2021, and with no clear respite ahead, it is unsustainable to continue,” Upton said.
“While the Bistro has been our life’s work for close to a quarter of a century, we have never thought of it as simply ours. It belongs to every one of our fabulous patrons who have supported us and enjoyed our hospitality.
“We have enjoyed one hell of a wonderful ride and our heartfelt thanks go out to all of our guests who have made the Bistro part of their life.
“We feel great sadness knowing we are at the end of an era, but we also feel joy and satisfaction knowing that together we all created an amazing and special place.”
Over recent weeks, one restaurateur told the Herald she was forced to take out a second mortgage on her family home. Another industry stalwart had, for the first time in 24 years, experienced nights with zero customers and no forward bookings. An inner-city pub owner said even if he had to keep paying rent, it would be cheaper to mothball his business for a year than yo-yo between shutdowns. And down at the Viaduct, the heart of the America’s Cup challenge, one operator showed us his books – a $224,000 drop in January takings compared to the same month last year. In February, business was down almost $700,000.
Two weeks ago, Upton, who paid $230,000 rent annually in pre-Covid times, told the Herald he did not know what his future looked like.
It was about considering how much you had to pour into the business for how long and whether it was worth it, he said at the time.
“There’s no one out there, the streets are empty, the phone doesn’t ring, the forward bookings are almost non-existent, there’s no corporate entertaining.”
December was “okay” but since then, business was down 70 per cent, he said. He dropped three lunch services, cut staff numbers from 16 to nine and went “cap in hand” for rent relief. The famous wine cellar that used to carry a $100,000 collection held just $30,000 worth.
“It’s got to take its toll sooner or later. There’s got to be decisions made soon. We are a formal, fine dining restaurant, but we still class ourselves as a bistro … I don’t think that any amount of advertising or social media telling people that you are now [for example] a tapas restaurant is going to bring people in at this stage.”
With the decision now made, Upton said they were now focused on supporting their team and delivering an exceptional experience to guests for the last four weeks of service.
The Bistro has had its share of awards over the years including being cited as one of the Vanity Fair’s top 42 places in the world to visit in 2007 and the Award of Excellence from the New York Wine Spectator magazine from 2001-2016.
But Upton said it was not the end of the road for them and they may look at another venture in future years.
Until then guests have four weeks to enjoy one last taste of the famous rabbit pappardelle, which has been on the menu for 20 years.
• O’Connell Street Bistro is open for lunch on Thursday and Friday from 11.30am and dinner Tuesday to Saturday from 5pm with a final dinner service on Friday April 16.
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