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Atlas Dining in Melbourne's South Yarra is an energetic restaurant owned and run by Charlie Carrington, one of Australia's youngest hatted chefs. Carrington founded the restaurant to reflect his passion for global cuisines, but at the end of March a global situation of another kind caused significant downturn in reservations and mass cancellations, with the unimaginable about to happen.

“We went from a buzzing, bustling restaurant to one that was avidly being avoided, losing 80% of bookings in just one week,” recalls Carrington. “I was devastated. For the first time since leaving school at 15, I felt lost.”

“I have carved my identity from being an ambitious chef and founding Atlas Dining - a concept restaurant that changes cuisine every four months. I’m constantly keeping busy by pushing myself and our team to our absolute limits. To think we could no longer remain open left me stumped.”

“It’s one thing when you’re facing a challenge because of decisions you’ve made,” Carrington says. “It’s another feeling altogether when those decisions aren’t within your control. You feel like your hands are strapped behind your back, and there’s nothing you can do to stop your business from being critically impacted.”

“Worse than that, you don’t know how you can keep your staff - who have helped you keep your own dream alive - stay financially stable and secure.”

Monday came and Carrington was despondent. Takeaway wasn’t an option.

“One reason Atlas Dining has such a cult following is the fact we always stay true to our brand. We are an experience-led restaurant that transports people to other destinations - not just through our food, but within the four walls of our restaurant. So, a straight takeaway model just wasn’t an option.”

Desperate to survive, Carrington regrouped and flipped his restaurant concept on its head. 

“Within 24 hours of being told to close, I took a risk. On Instagram I posted an announcement for “Atlas Masterclass” – an in-home cooking experience that would allow our customers to continue to enjoy our take on global cuisines, but in the comfort of their homes. It would involve Masterclass boxes being delivered to their doorsteps, accompanied by pre-recorded and live video tutorials of how to create our restaurant-quality meals for themselves.”

The community response was staggering. 

In two days, Carrington had a new website up. His suppliers were back on speed dial and his entire team was back in the kitchen helping cook, cut, clean, pack and prepare hundreds of boxes for distribution around Melbourne.

“I’ll never forget that week,” Carrington recalls. “Committing to a serious change and innovation forced us to pivot our entire business and its identity in under 48 hours. We went from being a hatted restaurant, to somewhat of a food-delivery service. We literally started a new arm of our business from scratch that we knew little to nothing about. Boy, were we in for a wild, tumultuous ride!”

Vietnam was first on the Atlas Masterclass menu, offering turmeric fish cakes, lemongrass chicken with peanut crumble and a traditional mushroom and herb pho.

“It was surreal. Renowned Good Food critic Gemima Cody was one of the first to review our Vietnamese Masterclass after purchasing a box herself. It felt like life had come full circle as Gemima was the critic who gave us our first hat back in 2016, when I opened Atlas Dining at 22 - also serving Vietnamese dishes.”

Now with the benefit of hindsight, Carrington is able to reflect with a combination of relief and gratitude. “I’ll never forget the community support we’ve experienced,” he says. “Everyone has taken the journey with us, eager to see us survive and thrive. We’ve been afforded the license to make mistakes and learn from them quickly. We’ve also been able to reach new customers in a really unique way.

Two months later, Atlas Masterclass has traversed Korea, Israel, Mexico and China to name just a few, proving just as lucrative as the busiest weeks in the restaurant’s history.

Carrington has been able to keep his entire team employed, plus rehire former staff members who were laid off by other struggling restaurants. In addition, he’s been able to provide steady work and income for delivery drivers, fresh produce suppliers, videographers and food photographers.

They’ve also had to change venues to a larger kitchen with more space to allow for the ever-increasing production line.

“I learned quickly through this pandemic how fragile you are as a small business,” Carrington notes. “Things can change very rapidly, and if you don’t have the ambition to continuously be on your toes and innovate, you’ll quickly be left behind.”

“From a young age, I was taught to just keep going and do everything you can within your limits to keep your passion alive. Luckily, we’re now in a position to run Atlas Masterclass in parallel with our restaurant as it reopens in June.”

“I’m grateful every day for those who have decided to become part of our story. Their support has not gone unnoticed when we truly needed it.”

Charlie Carrington’s chef tips for SMEs:

1. Be brand-centric. Continue to honour what makes you distinctively different in your marketspace. Don't just follow the grain.

2. Take ambitious risks. Take calculated (and some uncalculated) risks and always be on the front foot. Delaying any action in a time of crisis means you'll easily get left behind.

3. Be open to improvement and feedback. Be humble enough to own your mistakes and identify areas to improve. Be transparent with your customers and take them on the journey with you. That way, they'll be more forgiving, and you’ll come out with a greater sense of community because of it.

4. Be generous. To yourself (cut yourself some slack), to your team (cut them some slack) and to your customers (surprise them). Even during times of intense pressure and despair.