The saying, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, couldn’t be more relevant in this current economic climate as businesses looked – and continues to look – for ways to survive during this world-wide coronavirus pandemic.
Staying in business during the coronavirus restrictions has been a challenge for the majority of businesses in Cairns and Far North Queensland (and, of course, all over the world). And while restrictions are starting to ease, our economy still has a long road to recovery. Among the hardest hit businesses have been restaurants and cafes.
Social distancing rules and the complete absence of any tourists in Cairns has resulted in many being forced to close their doors. Others pivoted their businesses to stay afloat before restrictions began to ease up.
“It’s been a very difficult situation for those in the industry,” says David Leith, Director of FNQ Media which publishes two local food magazines (FNQ Food and FNQ Restaurant and Caterer). “There are some takeaway outlets that have hardly skipped a beat during this crisis, others have closed and there are some that have successfully migrated from previously providing table service only into now providing delivery or take away.”
One local restauranteur, Danny Moore of Prawn Star seafood restaurant, kept his business up and running, albeit on a much smaller scale, by organising a delivery service, something his business didn’t offer before.
“We made the decision to pack up three of our most popular meals, put them in foam food-safe boxes with ice, discounted them and offered to deliver them for free,” he says.
“It was good, and it was growing, and we will continue doing delivery in the medium term while there are still restrictions in place, but I don’t know about the long term. If there is a demand, we will.”
John Japp, owner of La Fettuccina restaurant, converted his table service menu to offer takeaway, something his business offered before but focused on weeks before the COVID-19 crisis hit, and restrictions were put in place.
“I know a lot of people who own restaurants, bars and cafes internationally, so I was gauging what was happening here on what was happening overseas, so we started pushing hard on our takeaways two weeks before the whole lockdown happened,” he says.
“While we had takeaway before, it probably took up about three to five per cent of our total market. There were new modifications we had to make such as packaging and marketing to focus on our take-away side.”
John, who has been in the industry since he started off as a kitchen hand 20 years ago, has owned La Fettuccina since 2006.
“This restaurant has been here for 35 years,” he says. “I’ll be damned if a little bug is going to knock us out!”
Ram Mittal, owner of Ala Turka, added an online ordering component to his website to help stay afloat during lockdown.
“Our online order is an order-and-collect facility,” he says. “No one knows how long this is going to go on for, which is why I was exploring other options.
“It wasn’t very successful, but I needed to be here for my lease, and I also wanted to support my staff and the local community.”
Many restauranteurs helped retain staff under the Australian Government’s JobKeeper program, which not only helps financially but also allows employers to change their employees’ job descriptions to keep them employed.
“I haven’t had to lay any staff off,” says John. “All my staff are on JobKeeper. They’ve been painting tables, sanding and doing whatever is necessary to aid in La Fettuccina’s renovations, which we had originally booked for May.”
Prawn Star had to lay off nine employees, but owner Danny was able to bring three back, thanks to JobKeeper. However, six of his staff weren’t eligible for the government assistance because they were on student visas.
“I think the government has done a tremendous job with the JobKeeper’s scheme,” he says. “Even though I have to pay my staff and wait for the government to pay me back, it has been really helpful.”
While restaurants and cafes adapted because of the necessity of continuing business before restrictions eased, the reality is it wasn’t very profitable financially. But, to many, it was more important to keep connected with their customers.
“I think there’s been a lot of adaptation, not just through the sheer necessity of continuing business, but also with a longer-term understanding that they need to show a level of activity to ensure once the restrictions are rolled back they’ve maintained a connection with their customers,” says David.
“It also keeps a connection with staff. Some are keeping key staff involved in other jobs so that once the restrictions come down, they will still have their best staff.
“Although it may not have been a profitable enterprise to keep operating, it’s a positive stop that helps them to keep a dialogue going with their core customers.”