Billabongs restaurant at East Maitland Bowling Club has long been a favourite for locals.
On a normal day, before COVID-19, a whopping 450 people would pass through its doors to enjoy all-you can-eat, buffet style dining.
Now, it’s attracting just 35 people per day.
“Things have changed, we are only operating at 10% and are closed three days,” owner Jenny Po said.
During the peak of the pandemic, the restaurant was doing take away and deliveries, but noticed many of the club’s elderly members couldn’t pay over the phone because they didn’t have a credit card.
That’s when the ‘Pay it Forward’ initiative was born.
Every June, the club hosts an event where it offers elderly members a free meal.
This was, of course, cancelled. So, it was suggested that customers who were purchasing take away could donate five dollars to go towards a meal for people in need in the community.
“The response was overwhelming,” Mrs Po said.
“It was incredibly nerve wracking – we were not sure if it would work or not but everyone started calling up and donating money.”
The club then tapped into its database to see who usually attended the June event, and delivered them meals.
“I did a few deliveries and you see them sitting on the porch waiting for this meal to be delivered and it puts a smile on your face,” Mrs Po said.
That first week, the restaurant staff delivered 40 meals.
“Now our doors are open for dining, people have heard about the initiative and, when they pay their bill, they contribute their money,” she said.
The initiative has now expanded to provide anyone in need with a meal, and the calls are flooding in.
“We have neighbours call, younger people call in for an older couple who don’t have anyone who can drop in a meal for them, so it’s nice to know people are caring and looking after each other in these times,” Mrs Po said.
“We dropped one to Medowie to a family who had two children with disabilities and the mum was on her own.
“That’s out of our range, but we still did it.”
Mrs Po said that, as long as people keep donating, the restaurant will continue delivering meals.
So far, 500 meals have been distributed to the local community.
It’s not possible without support, as the restaurant is relying on JobKeeper for its staff.
“Without Job Keeper, we couldn’t keep doing table service; staffing wise we haven’t changed, we are trying to hang in there and hopefully things will work out,” Mrs Po said.
“Our chefs are doing specials, so it’s great they can be innovative and create new dishes and generate new customers, but we have lost some who like to wonder around and pick their own food.
“We have no advice about when things might change. Moving forward, people are a lot more educated about germs being transmitted, so I don’t think buffet will ever come back.
“We are trying to move forward, it’s still all-you-can-eat due to the market, people enjoy having a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
The restaurant is now open Thursday and Friday evenings, and Saturdays and Sundays.