MELBOURNE'S venerable Flower Drum restaurant is under severe financial strain, with mounting debts and a slump in patronage because of the economic downturn.
The famous Cantonese restaurant has suffered a fall of at least 20per cent in turnover in the past six months as "fine dining" struggles.
A former employee estimated trade was down by as much as 40per cent.
All three owners have been forced to remortgage their homes to keep the business afloat, according to a hospitality source.
Flower Drum's financiers are believed to be monitoring the debt-laden restaurant amid concerns that it will be unable to ride out the recession.
"The place is hemorrhaging red ink and the owners are trying to string together loans so they can make it through until September," a source with knowledge of the restaurant's finances said. The source declined to be named.
Chef Anthony Lui and his son Andrew are also in dispute with co-owners William Shek and Patricia Fung over the direction of the restaurant, according to two former staff members.
Operations manager Jason Lui confirmed trade had fallen by 20per cent, with the restaurant's lunchtime trade taking the biggest hit.
"This is a very difficult time, but we are OK," Mr Lui said.
He denied there was a rift between owners and refused to discuss their financial situation. Ms Fung declined to comment.
The waiting list for the exclusive eatery in Market Lane was three months during boom times, but The Sunday Age booked a table on a recent Friday night at 6pm.
Former manager Charles Phan, who left the Flower Drum last year, said the restaurant's turnover had fallen sharply, but the slide was not confined to the Flower Drum.
"This is the worst I've seen it since 1980," he said. "I know it's dropped at the Flower Drum because it's dropped everywhere in Melbourne and almost everyone is struggling."
Hospitality consultant Frank Wilden said that the economic gloom had forced many corporate clients to shunMelbourne's fine dining establishments.
"It's a really tough time for everybody around town and the lunch trade has been decimated," he said.
"Corporates don't want to be seen to be spending money, and if they're away from their desks, they're worried they won't have a job when they get back."