Sarah Crowley and Dom Aboud were only six months into managing a new restaurant in Orange, NSW, when COVID hit. Sarah sat down with us to talk about the unexpected silver lining she discovered in the pandemic’s first lockdown — and how she’s tackling some of the challenges facing hospitality businesses today.
Sarah Crowley, General Manager of The Union Bank, has always been passionate about food and connecting with people over a good meal. But she never thought she’d be running a restaurant in her hometown of Orange after spending so much time away.
At nineteen, she left home and hopped on a plane for the classic Australian experience of globetrotting, meeting new people, and experiencing all kinds of different cuisine. It wasn’t until ten years later that a unique opportunity back home in Orange came knocking.
“I met Dom at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney, where he was at the peak of his career as a chef and I was actually just transitioning out of hospitality to open up my own business as a jeweller...but you always get pulled back into hospitality in weird and wonderful ways.”
“Dom was approached to take on The Union Bank in Orange — he had never seen it before he took the job. But I’ve always known the space...it’s such a huge building that it basically feels like two venues. You’ve got this beautiful dining space, a beautiful courtyard, and multiple function rooms.”
When Sarah describes The Union Bank, you immediately get a sense that this is a special venue with a unique atmosphere on offer.
Diving into a new business before COVID changed everything
Sarah and Dom hit the ground running with their new restaurant, building a second bar and creating two unique menus: a formal dining experience inside and a more relaxed feeling in the courtyard outside. But Sarah admits that it didn’t turn out as they’d hoped.
“We were in the middle of summer, so it was kind of thriving outside. But you would have people come in, order one entree, and sit on that order.”
Sarah says in terms of the money coming in — and the fine dining experience they were trying to create — it just wasn’t working. Then COVID hit in March 2020, and they had to plot a way forward for the business in lockdown.
Overhauling their business in the 2020 lockdown
“We were open six months to the day, then shut down,” Sarah says. “We had to fire our whole team. Reopening after fourteen weeks, it was basically just me on my own.”
Sarah felt crushed and uncertain about the businesses’ future at first. But the lockdown ended up giving them something that’s rare in the ‘always on’ world of hospitality: time to stop, catch a breath, and reflect on what they wanted to change about their business.
“When we started the restaurant, it all happened so quickly that we didn’t really have time to sit down and establish who we wanted to be as a business. We were both very young. And outside influences were kind of telling us what we should do.”
“But we’re not the kind of people who really love formal dining. That’s just not us. We want to come in and have funky music playing, with a friendly greeting at the door...we want to sit for five hours and eat and drink and undo our top buttons and sit in a comfortable chair.”
Sarah and Dom have made big changes throughout their business — from the menu to the decor and atmosphere. They hope that the revamped Union Bank will showcase the kind of dining experiences they personally love and want to share with people.
Facing snap lockdowns in 2021
After a tough 2020, some of Sarah and Dom’s new ideas for the restaurant were a huge success. Their themed Thursday nights saw the restaurant completely booked out, with over a hundred people enjoying passionately prepared international cuisine each week.
For a while, at least, it seemed as if the worst had passed. Then Orange was hit with a snap lockdown on July 20th, 2021.
“We heard about it at six o’clock that night,” Sarah says. “And by twelve midnight, we were in lockdown. So we had no time to prepare. But within twenty-four hours, we had a takeaway menu up.”
Pivoting to takeaway and keeping staff connected
Since their original menu wouldn’t travel well in boxes, creating a new takeaway offering was a major challenge for The Union Bank — and a chance to try something different.
“We’d never done takeaway ever. It’s such a whole different ball game: the portions, everything looking different, not having your friendly waiter standing there topping up your wine.”
Sarah says the first two were a little bit rocky and they did have one or two unhappy people — including someone who jumped online and posted a nasty review that attacked Sarah personally.
“Someone can be so quick to jump online and slander a business. It’s like some people just don’t understand the industry and the stresses...I feel like sometimes we have to be actors. We can’t have a bad day because people will see that. We have to be on 24/7. And that’s hard.”
“But at the end of the day, you can’t please everybody. And if you can keep that in the back of your mind, if you know that you did everything you could have, then the rest is on them.”
In spite of those challenging moments, takeaway orders kept The Union Bank extremely busy and the business was able to keep on their full-time staff. One of Sarah’s main priorities now is looking after her team, whether they’re back on deck or still on pause for the moment.
“I’m trying really hard to keep our staff connected,” Sarah says. “I know a lot of them live on their own, so it would be really lonely at the moment. We’ve offered to have staff in tonight for some kegs, some free beers on us, and just to connect with one another.”
At the time of this interview, Orange had just come out of the July lockdown. The Union Bank was once again offering dining in their beautiful venue a few days per week, and Sarah was hoping to gradually bring more staff back on. Now, at the time of publication, Orange is facing yet another snap lockdown.