“Stop blaming the bats,” says Giorgio de Maria, wagging a finger at the camera.
The wine consultant and distributor is dressed as Batman, a bottle of Le Coste Rosso in the foreground. Viewers might expect him to launch into tasting notes or a sales pitch, but the wine barely gets a mention. Instead, his Instagram video satirically jabs at those directing racism towards the Chinese community, following media reports that Covid-19 started in a Wuhan wet market selling diseased bats.
Although lockdowns and restrictions around the country are now lifting in stages, when it comes to restaurant experiences, takeaway and delivery remain the new norm for many Australians.
But operators such as de Maria are connecting with customers in unprecedented ways.
His other videos include an attempt at tasting cask wine from behind a face mask and an introduction to George de Marrison, a character with an uncanny resemblance to Scott Morrison who prefers his amaro alpino with a lump of coal.
“I just thought, ‘Fuck, this whole situation is ridiculous; I just want to do something ridiculous,’” he says. “I put the video up and so many people commented and sent me messages and said, ‘Do more!’”
De Maria says the videos were never intended to sell bottles – before coronavirus, his company Georgia De Maria Fun Wines only sold wholesale – but now he’s shipping vino to homes around the country. In his home of Sydney, he makes deliveries himself, coming up with video ideas and practicing the accent for de Marrison in the car.
He plans to launch live masterclasses next, complemented by deliveries of 60-millilitre tasting bottles. He hasn’t ruled out dressing up for these sessions either.
Chefs, too, are turning up on the doorsteps of customers. In Melbourne, chef Nick Stanton is boycotting delivery services, and helping deliver pizzas himself with the rest of the Leonardo’s Pizza Palace team. In Adelaide, Africola chef-owner Duncan Welgemoed initially partnered with Uber Eats to deliver, but quickly switched to his own team.
“Our front of house staff, the customers recognise and know them. The crew is really, really enjoying it and we have really thankful customers,” Welgemoed says, adding that some have even dropped baked goods and booze at the restaurant in support.
And when Welgemoed forgot to add flatbread to an order, he ran it to the house himself. The family was so humbled by the chef’s appearance that they all stood at the door in an apology-off.
“The only awkward bit out of the whole transaction is the social distancing thing; when customers want to shake hands or hug,” Welgemoed says. “Instead we have to drop food off at the doorstep like a fucking ransom and take 10 steps back. It’s so sobering.”
Kate Reid, co-owner of Melbourne’s Lune Croissanterie, hits the road every weekend to support her new pastry delivery service. “I feel like croissant Santa,” she says. “Our deliveries go nuts on the weekend. I’m needed.”
One customer was so shocked to see the face of Lune at their door that they reflexively closed it in surprise, before reopening it to bashfully accept their box of pastries. Someone else spotted the branding on Reid’s T-shirt as she walked towards an apartment block. “Oh my god,” he said, “Are you a Lune delivery driver? This is a game changer!”
Now that businesses are finding a rhythm, Reid is trying out other ways to keep people engaged from home, including a pastry collaboration with Attica.
“I’m learning and growing, and the business is learning and growing,” she says. “I hope we remember some of the positives we’re learning from this.”
Under the moniker Digger, a boisterous, profanity-loving caricature of Pickett himself, he posts daily stories about what’s on the menu at his venues and announcements such as free meals for the unemployed.
Pickett’s first video was an empathic missive to the industry, intended to deliver a “we’re-all-in-this-together” message at a time when many operators were still reeling from the early effects of the virus. But Digger – who has a penchant for disrobing on camera – soon emerged .
“I didn’t mean for them to be wild, I just started posting. I thought I’d just be me and not give a fuck,” says Pickett. “If you don’t know me personally, you think, ‘He’s pretty serious guy, got a profile, pretty intense’. But actually, Digger is just like the rest of us.”
After receiving of hundreds of messages from entertained viewers, Pickett says Digger is considering obliging requests for a YouTube channel. If that leads to more orders, which then help him keep the 70 per cent of his staff that don’t qualify for Jobkeeper, all the better, he says.
Even as Covid-19 restrictions lift, covers will be fewer and spacing between tables greater. There’ll be new considerations to take into account when handling cutlery and pouring wine. Sanitation will be as strict as ever, but there’ll also be a need for venues to talk up their cleanliness regimes. As Welgemoed puts it, “It’s going to be a really fucking weird time; very first date-ish.”
Let’s hope these new-age connections remain as the old ones are reconsidered. And let’s appreciate the ones that stick around – a door held open, a coffee order remembered – more than ever.