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March 26, 2020
Commerce

Blow after blow after blow: Josh Baker recounts the 10 days that all but erased 10 years of hard work

One small business owner’s diary of demise in the face of COVID-19 and the eventual peace we all must make with ourselves in the face of a global pandemic.

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  • Pictures and words: Josh Fanning

SPECIAL REPORT: COVID-19 ADELAIDE

What follows is the verbal diary of Adelaide hospitality entrepreneur Josh Baker, as recounted to CityMag on the morning of Monday, 23 March 2020, over the last coffee he served before he closed Part Time Lover for only Scott Morrison knows how long.

Our words are written in italics to help you navigate the dialogue.

 

CityMag: When did all this get real?
Josh Baker: This got real…

Josh pauses for a second, puts his hand on his thigh and pushes on his jeans to slide the iPhone up, out of his pocket.

 

Friday 13 March

Friday the 13th – I had a big argument with my business partner. I got in here to Part Time Lover around 6:30am and my business partner called me urgently about Funtopia. Another franchisee in the business had been in touch with him and had concerns. At that stage, I wasn’t taking it [COVID-19] too seriously. Then John started saying to me that I had a bad attitude, he said, ‘Your attitude stinks at the moment.’ And I really didn’t want to hear that.

All of a sudden he says, ‘You don’t understand the trouble we’re in. You’ve got no idea the trouble we’re in.’

I couldn’t control my tears.

‘We’re going to have to shut down man,’ he says over the phone to me.

I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I’m in Part Time Lover and the place is full. We had a cracking Thursday and Thursday night. Funtopia had a cracking week. Whistle & Flute had a cracking day,’ I said to him.

All seven businesses had achieved incredible numbers that week. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I told him.

‘TRUST ME – we need an urgent meeting,’ was his response. Friday 13th was that real day, the first day I realised this could be serious.

 

Saturday 14 March

Saturday we had an urgent meeting about Funtopia. We got there at 8 o’clock in Party Room One and we spoke about the possibility of this thing [COVID-19] taking control over our life. We had nine parties booked for that day. And we did amazing numbers on Saturday.

Saturday night we all went back to Funtopia to have a meeting afterwards.

And I was like, ‘Whistle and Flute had a cracking brunch today. Bookings for Saturday night at Part Time Lover looked good.’ I felt it was all good.

 

Sunday 15 March

Sunday morning I wake up to the news. All it did was highlight to me how bad this thing was. That’s when a bit more of my panic set in.

Sunday. And Sunday trading at Funtopia started really late.

Instead of 9:00am like usual, we didn’t get busy until quarter-to-12.

But then the numbers for Pink Moon Saloon and Clever Little Tailor were really solid; Whistle and Flute, all normal.

Back at Funtopia for a meeting again. Numbers were down 20 per cent on a normal Sunday. Sunday afternoon we had a strategy meeting, Lee Kelly – my best mate and accountant from Pangea Partners – myself and other key stakeholders.

Sunday night we were running the numbers on closing each business. This is before any package had come out from the State or Federal Government, when we had no clear message on the bigger picture. We were just thinking about our staff and our liabilities.

We ran one set of numbers to stay open and trade and one set to close for three months. Those numbers determined what we maybe had to close, and what we absolutely had to close.

Sunday night it became pretty real, that we were coming to some sort of point where we needed to start acting and acting quickly. We were gearing up for it. That’s when Lee stopped sleeping. He was crunching numbers for all his clients, because more and more businesses were starting to wake up to the situation for our economy.

We also started looking at our positions with our full time staff and worrying how they get paid if the worst possible scenario came. Entitlements they’ve got and how long that will last them. But we weren’t near survival mode then, we were still trading on Sunday, 15th of March.

 

Monday 16 March

I open up Part Time Lover – got here at 6:30 and when 7:30 hit and I had one customer, my panic set in.

It was gut-wrenching panic.

I left the bistro and took off for King William Street. The Traffic was odd. I was watching the busses,  people weren’t getting off as usual. People’s attitude and behaviour through the morning was weird. People were scared. They didn’t know what was going on.

Trying to stay positive I began separating the seven businesses in my head around which I thought was most liable to disruption. I thought Whistle and Flute and Part Time Lover were the most liable, but Clever Little Tailor and Pink Moon Saloon were gonna be fine. People like to drink in downtimes – I remember how things were during the GFC.

All our stakeholders decided to have a meeting in the AM and PM, every day, to stay on top of the situation.

By Monday arvo two of our businesses were down about 35 per cent on a usual Monday. Again, it’s building… compounding.

That’s when the media started to get really heavy on the Monday, too. Monday night was scary.

We’d looked at the numbers for Funtopia. That Monday we were down 85%. There was no one in the business all day and seeing that number – that’s when our hearts dropped and all the while we’re getting this mixed message – the government wasn’t telling us what to do – while the numbers were absolutely clear.

I remember speaking to the Premier on Monday and saying, ‘We are going to have to close.’

“Why close?” was his response.

He began trying to give me options for how to stay open. “Think laterally,” were his words.

That’s all well and good but we need customers to do that.

Monday evening we were scared for our business Funtopia.

‘The first industry to go down is Kids Entertainment’ is what my business partner was saying. We had scoped the world’s reactions so far to the virus and Kids Entertainment was the most vulnerable. It was kicking in hard. That’s when the tears started.

How can we have this asset we’ve created end like this? Just as everything was tracking well and we had the formula on track. How are we in this position that our biggest project to date is going to have to close.

 

Tuesday 17 March

Then Tuesday morning set in and I was at Whistle and Flute and I thought the vibe there would be different because we were in the suburbs. There were more people around than in the city. I was a little comforted by that and my thought pattern still was that we weren’t going to have to close there. Plus the Port numbers were fine – no coronavirus in Port Adelaide was the message from Port Admiral Hotel.

We ran another set of numbers that made us think, ‘Let’s close Part Time Lover and keep the others open.’

Tuesday night numbers came in and Funtopia was down 90%.

Everything was down, down, down.

 

Thursday 19 March

Wednesday and Thursday were pretty much the same. Thursday was emotional for me and it was a sadness now that came in.

I was realising 10 years of hard work – to get where I am – was staring me in the face and it was going to collapse. We were getting ready to close our businesses.

We had started out planning to close for 30 days. That 30 days quickly went to three months. We announced to our team on Thursday afternoon we were no longer going to trade and we were no longer going to trade for six months.

We laid off 40 people, it was within the three months [probation period] and that rolled into an incredibly sad Thursday night.

Then we hit Friday morning

 

Friday 20 March

Friday morning I came here at 6:30 and I put a song on and then I just burst out into tears.

This is actually it. It felt terminal.

But strangely there was simultaneously a real sense of community and support around. People knew they shouldn’t be going into venues but they wanted to, to support us.

 

Josh stops telling us his story to serve a customer. He hands him his takeaway cup, smiles and says, ‘See you on the other side, brother’. The customer nods his head and winces a smile – clearly upset at the situation.

‘I didn’t want to say in front of him,’ starts Josh as the customer walks out of Part Time Lover.

That customer [Josh used his name, but we’ll keep it private] went to pay his bill last Friday morning and he grabbed the eftpos machine and he put his own amount in, tapped his card, and walked out the door.

He put $200 into our bank as a sense of support. We wanted to cry – again,’ says Josh, now turning to his business partner in Part Time Lover Luke Turton. They both look on the verge of tearing up again as they nod at the memory.

Sad and also pissed off.

There was still no direction. Do we have support? Do we have– are our landlords going to give us rent free? Are the loans going to be frozen? Are we going to be able to freeze our businesses – press the pause button?

There was frustration and anger as well as sadness because we are potentially losing everything.

Because Friday afternoon we gave everyone at Funtopia a week’s notice.

 

Saturday 21 March

Whistle and Flute was pumping, but we were trying to space everything and everyone out and keep to the 1.5m rule and obviously the capacity rules.

There was fear among our staff.

I caught the tail end of an argument between two staff. One staff member was trying to cram everyone in and get the money through the door to keep us going financially and I had another staff member angry at them because the due diligence the Federal Government was lumping on us.

That fight scared me.

That day we made the decision we would close indefinitely. We put the post up on Instagram that we were not going to trade Sunday and not going to trade for six months.

About 11:15am and I was a whistle, my phone rang and it was George Ginos to check in with me and see how I was.

That phone call was brilliant because he was the one that told me there was going to be a meeting on Leigh street that day at 4pm with the Premier and that it was Sali [Sasi] from Leigh Street Wine Room putting the whole thing together!

I asked if he could send her number through and he did straight away. After I got off the phone with George I texted Sali asking where and when this meeting was – I had never met or spoken to her before – and within second she called me.  She explained why she had reached out to Steven [Marshall] and explained why she would like us all there.

That day at 4pm – after closing Whistle and Flute for the foreseeable future I joined 30 other hospo heads at Leigh Street Wine Room to meet the Premier and put our situation squarely in his mind.

Everyone in that room wanted to close their business but needed guidance on what we can we do, what we might be able to hope for in way of support from our government.

We wanted to make sure he recognised that what was happening was happening fast and quick and that every single one of us was baffled by the 1-in-4 [square meters] rule.

We wanted him to recognise it was important to us that the government shut us down officially, because the 1-in-4 rule meant that in a matter of days it would be done anyway.

The Prime Minister actually called him during our meeting.

We all joked he should Facetime and we could tell the Prime Minister what we wanted directly.

At this stage the message was still confused – he told us there was a federal package being announced. He said he couldn’t say too much to us, but there was going to be an announcement.

Sunday ended with uncertainty, but it was great to be all together. It was the heaviest hitters in SA, together in Leigh Street Wine Room.

 

Sunday 22 March

Sunday morning I woke and basically paced around the place, waiting for the federal package and what it meant for us.

Sunday was a little better than I thought. Because I have a great accountant in Lee and we were onto this – in some cases four or five days ahead of others – we had done enough number crunching and phone calling to know that the core of our business was there, it was going to stay in tact and we had our creditor’s support.

Sunday afternoon we decided to close Part Time Lover indefinitely to get over this storm. Then we made the decision to close Pink Moon Saloon and Port Admiral.

At that stage Clever Little Tailor was going to trade through with a capacity of 23 people. That decision was later voided by the announcement from the Federal Government that shuttered all licensed venues.

 

Monday 23 March

I’m so emotionally spent from worrying about this for so long. We have an outcome now and it’s done. The outcome we wanted, we got given yesterday – and that was the government closing us all down.

I’m over being angry and I’m over being sad.

This thing is ruthless. I’m still coming to terms with the idea that the last 10 years of my life – everything I’ve worked so hard for – was going to be put in the bin in just 10 days and I had absolutely no control over the situation.

This is real what we’re experiencing, but it doesn’t feel like reality you know?

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