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May 28, 2020
Commerce

A look back at Brick+Mortar

Norwood café, coworking space, small-maker retail space and artist hub Brick+Mortar has closed due to the economic fallout of COVID-19. We spoke with founder Elizabeth Donaldson about the legacy she hopes her business will leave.

  • Interview: Johnny von Einem
  • Main image: Sam Dickinson

SPECIAL REPORT: COVID-19 ADELAIDE

As Adelaide slowly re-emerges from its COVID-19 shutdown, a lot of attention is being paid to where again we might be able to go for a coffee, meal or a beer – all of the businesses we love to socialise in that have survived this stage of the pandemic.

Sadly, Norwood’s Brick+Mortar will not be re-opening.

Elizabeth Donaldson’s peerless retail and hospitality concept, which she co-founded with Brigid Dighton in 2014, rolled up the maker movement – pioneered here in South Australia by the likes of JamFactory and Bowerbird Design Market – and re-imagined it as a miniature moment taken from a fashionable, European department store and inserted into a subterraneous bunker beneath Norwood Town Hall.

Not only was the business pioneering in its adoption of all manner of sustainable, environmental practices that flowed from the obvious like eliminating plastic, through to the less visible – but arguably more important – supporting local manufacturers and artists, but Brick+Mortar moved more CityMags than any other location in Adelaide!

So it’s important then that we take this moment and our privilege as journalists to speak with Elizabeth and to learn what happened and what’s next.

 


CM: What was the idea behind Brick + Mortar and why did  you feel like it needed to exist?
Elizabeth Donaldson: The origins of B+M as an idea are actually from way back when I was working as a diplomat in Tokyo (my earlier career). I fell in love with the energy and friendliness of that city and the exceptional way they did concept retail in small co-located spaces. When I moved to Adelaide in 2011 I was excited about the wealth of creative activity here, and felt that Adelaide’s human scale would support a new concept that brought the full circle of creative enterprise into one space and, by doing so, amplify it.

So Brick+Mortar was designed as a space for artists to make and sell their work, get to know each other and build a community, for people to come for coffee and to buy local, for freelancers and small businesses to work from, and for everyone to be involved in our workshops and events. It was meant to be fun, and evolve, and be a space to try new ideas, and all the while grow sustainably on its merits, no grants, no investors, just step by step building and improving as cashflow allowed.

What was it about Norwood and the space itself that stood out to you?
I was keen on Norwood because of its walkability, easy distance to the CBD, and as an established retail culture. We made it our home because the local council was so supportive of the concept and so helpful in securing us a space.

We eventually settled in the old Senior Citizens’ Centre, which took a fair bit of work to transform it to what it is now, but had the luxury of space to house the full B+M concept (it’s 400sqm over two levels) in a good location.

Was it difficult to become established?
The first 12 months was an exercise in resilience. There were quite a few hurdles in starting up – I was originally going to outsource the café but that fell through just 6 weeks before we were due to open so it was a huge scramble to set that all up from scratch and it sucked up a lot of the oxygen in terms of my focus for a long time.

People weren’t used to venturing down side streets in Norwood back then, and the building had been closed for so long beforehand that it wasn’t on people’s radar to venture inside.

We used to stand up on the corner giving away free coffees for those first months so that people knew where we were! I said yes to everything, just to get the word out – speaking engagements, events, markets, interviews.

In a personal sense I was moving from having worked in policy development and project management in a team environment to a solo enterprise running a store, a café, a coworking space, events, workshops and exhibitions, doing the marketing, social media, community building, fit out, and all the small business admin that comes with it. I also had two small children and, well, it was an exponential learning curve and a pretty exhausting time at the start there.

Thankfully, people appreciated the concept straight up, and I’ll always be grateful for those who could see what we were trying to do back at the start, and came back and kept supporting us as we grew and improved.

What indicated to you that the concept was really catching on?
I’d often overhear people introducing friends to the space as they walked in the door – and I realised it meant a lot of different things to different people.

Some would share how much they loved our store for its local makers, some were all about the coffee, freelancers met clients in our free coworking space and others booked into our weekend workshops. It was pretty special seeing people’s faces light up and be excited about all the different ways they could be a part of B+M.

How soon did you feel like you were connecting with and serving the people you’d hoped to serve?
I came from a career background that had no overlap at all with the arts, hospitality, retail or coworking (10 years with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and seven as a senior policy adviser with the Department of Premier and Cabinet in SA). So it was very much getting out there and finding people, telling them about the project and persisting and incredibly artists came on board and customers dropped in for coffee, then people started moving into the coworking studios, and slowly, slowly it grew through word of mouth.

The maker community connected in the space straight away, the benefits of having time to get to know each other and share experience was a great way to give the community a solid foundation, and it really grew from there.

This photo: Meaghan Coles

 

When did that turn into a feeling of success?
There were lots of lovely moments that made me feel we were doing something right – like when Snøhetta signed up as our first long-term coworking tenancy in our first year, when artists would meet and collaborate in the space, when we’d discover we’d been featured in international magazines as a ‘must visit’ destination in Adelaide, when we won the Winnovation award as most innovative arts-focused SA business, and then were awarded ‘best coffee Eastside’.

We were [also] recently awarded first completely Plastic Free venue in SA, which was something I was pretty proud of.

And, of course, as turnover increased I was able to invest back into the business and give back to the local community.

How did the business evolve over its lifetime?
I adapted the model relentlessly. One of the upsides of running a business on your own is you don’t have to run ideas past anyone, so you learn to trust your instincts, get comfortable with risk, and enjoy the freedom of experimenting.

What drove the changes was threefold, always wanting to grow profitability, tweak the model to suit the way people wanted to engage with it, and continually bring in new elements to keep it interesting.

In the early days for example we had artists in the space making from studios and selling from small individual stores, which was fantastic in terms of creating a tight community from scratch, but we found sales increased when we expanded the scope of the retail store and were able to stock a greater range. By the end we represented over 80 local makers at any one time and had more than 1000 products in store.

I also flipped the layout in that first year to focus on the cafe and retail downstairs, and coworking, workshops and events upstairs. It was an easier way for people to navigate and engage and use the space the way they wanted.

We did everything from holding creative and professional development workshops, product launches, private parties, Fringe shows, even a wedding!

When did you know COVID-19 would be different to other challenges the business had faced?
From the very start, as soon as we saw Covid-19 start to spread internationally, I knew this was going to fundamentally change everything. During the SARS outbreak in the early 2000’s I’d been working in Tokyo and travelling to Hong Kong and I have to say I was pretty concerned by the ad hoc way our federal government was responding in those early months while chaos was unravelling in Europe, our case numbers were rising rapidly and the PM was saying he still wanted to go to the footy.

How did the effects of COVID-19 hit the business?
We were impacted early in March, as were most cafes and retail stores. That whole month we were hyper vigilant and as the crisis unfolded I had an intense focus and energy, continually assessing risk and data and trying to look after my team and customers and find business models that might work.

We certainly did our best to respond early and with leadership to the challenges of this crisis as it unfolded. In mid-March we were the only cafe in Adelaide to voluntarily close for a week to ensure the safety of our staff and customers, ensure we weren’t an unwitting transmission point.

We used that week to take stock, reopening in a fresh-air contactless takeaway format before government announced the measure. We sold groceries and daily essentials as well, but it was essentially costing us to stay open.

Then in late March, when people completely disappeared from the streets to (rightly) stay at home, we closed our doors and built an online store for our retail stock and a makers directory on our website to support our makers and drive sales directly to them.

In early April, after we’d tried takeaway and then closed our doors, I looked at what kind of place we aimed to be, and I looked at what our space entailed in a COVID-environment, with a 400sqm floorplan with cafe seating for 70 and a retail space with 1000 products and constant flow in and out of our coworking and event space, and I knew it would be a serious challenge making that a truly COVID-safe space that could operate viably with the restrictions on trade and distancing at that time.

I was also looking at the broader economic reality ahead of us – the massive global economic downturn that is unfolding, and the flow on effect that will have on domestic discretionary spending. A V-shaped economic ‘snapback’ was not going to happen.

And that was the point at which I thought, we won’t be able to go back to being a large multifunctional space where everyone can meet up and enjoy everything the space has to offer, and we won’t be able to operate at the scale we want to and thrive for a very long time.

I decided it was best to make the call and close a chapter well on what we were rather than continue to pivot ‘til we were unrecognisably far away from what we wanted to be.

I also think there’s been an interesting political and media focus on business ‘survival at all costs’ as Covid-19 unfolds, in a fairly one-dimensional way (from some media anyway).

When you’ve been running a successful business for a number of years you know your margins, the volume you need to turnover to do everything from pay your staff and suppliers fairly, pay all your overheads, yourself, and invest back into the business and the community. It’s not about how to ‘survive’ indefinitely, it is about whether you’re going to be able to be viable within a certain timeframe. It doesn’t sound very romantic, but the reality is it’s your livelihood and the livelihood of your team, so you need to be able to forecast with some certainty.

Now that we find ourselves in much a safer situation in South Australia and restrictions are easing, it’s easy to forget that there was so much uncertainty in those early days when things were ramping up very quickly, in terms of health risk, and had completely bottomed out in terms of income for hospitality and retail.

It’s been almost a full financial quarter that businesses have had to sit it out with negligible income and continuing overheads to wait and see.

It would have been a lot better for businesses if we’d taken the New Zealand approach with a clearly messaged and staged approach to restrictions, clear lockdown timeframes and a percentage-based wage subsidy for employees confirmed in advance.

Instead we’ve had a rolling set of restrictions that have asked businesses to trade in unviable ways for an open-ended timeframe while telling everyone (rightly) to stay at home.

The JobKeeper program was delivered in a complicated way for employers and was fairly ineffective for many employees in hospitality, retail and the creative industries.

What was it like to tell your employees you would close the doors for good?
That was actually incredibly hard. I had an exceptional team of 17 and it was an absolute privilege to go through this with them. We kept each other up to date with health and economic data as it unfolded and made sure we were all in the same headspace so we could all see what was coming.

But I’m so proud of the way we did this – we looked after each other, stayed calm and safe, gave it our best shot, and we did the right thing by everyone.

This image: Sam Dickinson

 

How do you think you’ll look back at Brick + Mortar?
With enormous pride and warmth and gratitude. I can honestly say it’s been the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done, and equally has taken the most effort and determination and energy of anything I’ve delivered professionally.

How do you hope the community you built around the business will look back at it?
I hope the community will feel the same way, that Brick+Mortar was something new, that hadn’t been done before in Adelaide, that welcomed and fostered creativity and had a lot of fun doing it.

I’m so grateful for the enormous amount of enthusiasm and talent and generosity that came through our doors from the very start, the success of B+M was always going to be a reflection of all the good things that connected through our space.

Remarks

Brick+Mortar’s closing down sale happened on 30 May.

What now for this final weekend sale?
We have a very limited amount of stock remaining (which is available to purchase online) but what we have will be on sale at 40% off at our closing down sale Sat/Sun 30-31 May 10am-4pm, and I expect to sell out. Almost all our furniture and equipment has already been sold.

Where will your attention turn after this?
Brick+Mortar will be signing out online at the end of June. The thing I’m most focused on ‘til then is finding ways to support our local makers who are also facing difficult times, with no markets ‘til later in the year and slow sales across the board in retail stores, it’s pretty much online for them now.

We’ve created a directory on our website for people to connect directly with their favourite makers and stay in touch after we close, and ‘til the end of June we’ll be sharing on social media ways to support them.

As for me personally, it’s time for a pause. COVID-19 has made it an unexpected pause but it’s also a rare opportunity to reflect and to adapt, and think about what might be next in a reshaped world.

I think that will take time to unfold. For now, I think you have to look for the positives in everything. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to bring a new concept to life in Adelaide, and for the community that grew around Brick+Mortar, which will continue after us.

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