Food for business’s revival?

Honest Restaurant owner Minid Patel in the expanse of potential dining areas on Langhorne and Lonsdale streets. 220079_11 Picture: CAM LUCADOU-WELLS

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

Food may revive the appetite for business among the empty shop fronts on Lonsdale Street Dandenong, says councillor-elect Jim Memeti.

As Covid-19 restrictions ease, outdoor dining areas will be expanded and “change the dynamics” on Lonsdale and Thomas streets, he says.

One obvious dining area is the corner of Clow and Lonsdale outside the busy Agha Juice Centre. An expanse of empty pavement sparsely dotted with planter boxes.

Mr Memeti didn’t rule out the council installing a roof and heaters, as well as pushing for free street-level parking to bring people back.

“At this point of time, we won’t be saying no to anything,” he said.

There’s also a hunger for new enterprise – “positive” people who “want to give it a go” and start a business as Melbourne wakes from Covid lockdown.

He points to green shoots among the vacant shopfronts on Dandenong’s main street like Augustus Gelateria, Lion Bakehouse and Honest Restaurant.

In decades past, Lonsdale Street was booming. It has teetered since the big banks moved out, Mr Memeti says.

The bigger spaces are being filled again such as a real estate agent set to occupy the former Bendigo Bank site.

The old Dandy Inn has been refitted as a restaurant and convention centre HireA.

The long-vacant headspace building will be home to an as yet unknown eatery, Mr Memeti says.

Further along the highway in Dandenong South, the large-scale Tamil Community Centre and Alencia reception centre have emerged.

There are now no empty shops in the Indian Precinct in Foster Street after a fresh lick of paint from the council.

“There’s still a lot of work to do. But Dandenong is in a better position that shopping strips in Chapel Street and Bridge Road,” Mr Memeti says.

Agha Juice Centre’s manager Najab says he’s feeling a “little hopeful” as Covid-19’s lockdown eases. During the restrictions, he juggled reduced hours for each worker and managed to keep the business afloat.

“It was pretty harsh. We did our best to keep our workers.”

Free parking would be a major help. Too many people were slapped with fines, Najab said.

Honest Restaurant owner Minid Patel looks out on a wide empty paved area with in-built umbrellas. He says he’s awaiting approval from the council to allocate tables and chairs.

Next door are three vacant shopfronts in a row. The area needs “activation”, Mr Patel says.

He agrees that food could draw back customers, particularly filling the streets at night.

It would require better lighting and better parking – for one, relocating the bus stops in Langhorne Street and allocating car spaces instead.

Councillor-elect Sean O’Reilly says “out-of-the-box” thinking is required to revive Lonsdale Street’s fortunes.

Traders should meet with the council to “brainstorm” what’s going to work, and a long-term plan established.

“We’ve got to think what is Dandenong CBD going to be in 10 to 20 years.

“I think the current strategy of it being just a retail precinct is not going to work.”

Flourishing shopping centres like Fountain Gate were draining life from retail shopping strips, Mr O’Reilly said.

“If that’s the trend you can’t fight it.

“You’ve got to pivot.”

Mr O’Reilly said boosting eateries could work well with Dandenong Market as a food and produce destination.

“We don’t want it to be a two-dollar shop and cheap clothes precinct. There needs to be something different, a theme or something unique.”

Greater Dandenong business and major projects director Paul Kearsley said the council wanted to make it “easy as possible” to welcome the community safely back to local businesses.

The council unveiled Extended Outdoor Dining Guidelines for businesses to expand into public spaces in a CovidSafe way.

Applications to trade on footpaths, streets and parking spaces, where appropriate, for dining or to await takeaway goods at safe social distance were welcomed, Mr Kearsley says.

“Greater Dandenong Council will work as quickly as possible to assess these applications.

“Council understands this is a challenging time for businesses and we have a range of resources available to assist.

“Council staff are hand delivering information about outdoor dining options and COVID Safe information packs to businesses across the three major activity centres and larger neighbourhood shopping centres.”