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February 8, 2022

COVID temperature check: The business strip

Speaking to clothing, coffee and food proprietors in the white-collar precinct of Waymouth and Pirie streets, CityMag hears the State Government's directive to refill city offices to 25 per cent has had little effect.

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  • Words and pictures: Angela Skujins

At the beginning of the week, Premier Steven Marshall told a room of reporters at East End bar NOLA he was aware CBD traders had been doing it “extremely tough” in recent times, due to only having a quarter of all office workers return to the city.

But – “it is now safe to come back into the CBD”.

Adelaide City Council Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor made an appearance at this press event, saying January had been a “very, very quiet [month] in the city”, but last week “you could feel the foot traffic” due to a small portion of office workers migrating back into the city. This difference was “palpable” she says.

The media conference was also an opportunity for the government to spruik its latest round of grant funding available for local businesses affected by the coronavirus, as well as a stimulus to “create demand” for hospitality and entertainment – the $30 Great State vouchers.

As part of a CityMag series, we’ve interviewed business owners located in Adelaide’s west and east ends about how they’re faring under the weight of crushing trading restrictions and plummeting foot traffic.

This week, we’ve turned our attention to Pirie and Waymouth streets, a strip lined with white-collar offices, to understand whether the Government’s call for the return of 25 per cent of office workers to the city has made a dent in the city’s slumping visitation.

In our interviewees’ telling, it hasn’t.



Mistress Mabel at King William Street


Instead of letting go of staff as his businesses takings dipped, Jacob Booth fired himself. “I’m looking for another job at the moment,” the owner of café Mistress Mabel tells CityMag. “I’ve tentatively lined up a few jobs up in the Hills picking grapes for harvest.”

During peak trade – prior to the coronavirus – the owner of King William Street business sold 500 coffees a day. The hole-in-the-wall eatery is a stone’s throw from Adelaide Town Hall, and is on the doorstep of the city’s major bus and tram stops. Located on a main arterial road in the CBD, it’s a convenient place to grab a coffee on the go.

Now, Mistress Mabel is averaging 150 coffees per day. Jacob believes the downturn in trade started in December last year when South Australia’s Omicron cases climbed and consumer confidence sunk.

Jacob says needing to seek alternative income has left him feeling demoralised, considering that up until quite recently he ran a successful business catering to a constant stream of loyal clientele, most of whom were office workers.

“The whole reason I opened a café in the middle of the city was to maximise my potential in terms of office workers and foot traffic,” he says.

Although trade last week was “slightly better” due to recent government messaging, it’s still not enough to keep the business afloat.

“Twenty-five per cent doesn’t really cut it for me. I need at least at least 50 to 75 per cent office workers back in the city and consumer confidence back,” he says.

“I’d say at least 90 per cent of my regular clientele are office workers.”

Premier Steven Marshall last week announced plans to ease restrictions on the hospitality industry incrementally over two-week periods.

Jacob isn’t confident this move is going to have a meaningful impact on his business. Capacities are not his issue, he says – “I need office workers.”



Osteria Oggi at Waymouth Street


It’s usually impossible to land a reservation at chic eatery Osteria Oggi, located at 76 Pirie Street. According to the restaurant’s owner, Simon Kardachi, there are currently plenty of bookings available.

“The initial direction that everyone needed to work from home made the CBD a ghost town and confidence hasn’t returned with the latest direction, even for corporates,” Simon tells CityMag.

Oggi is open for lunch and dinner services, but Simon says its day trade is “virtually non-existent” compared to pre-COVID times.

The business owner estimates he’s suffered up to a 50 per cent decline in lunch trade, estimating 80 per cent of his clientele is made up of workers from nearby offices.

Simon echoes Jacob’s appraisal of the Premier’s call for a 25 per cent return to the office.

“There has been absolutely zero impact,” he says.

Oggi’s night trade has not seen as marked a drop in trade, which Simon credits to the venue’s reputation pulling people into the city. However, the business has seen a 25 per cent drop.

“Fortunately, Oggi is one of the strongest branded restaurants in the city, so people are coming in at nighttime for it,” says Simon, who also owns CBD restaurants Bread & Bone, Shobosho, Shomen, Melt and Fugazzi. “Lunches rely on corporate diners, unlike dinner, which is more destination dining.”

Trading in the city has been difficult for some time, particularly for hospitality businesses. Simon says due to the rules changing constantly, it’s hard for him to pinpoint the moment things started to go downhill for Oggi.

Of particular note, though, were the close contact isolation requirements brought in to defend against the rising Omicron wave. He says this was a “hammer blow” to his businesses.

“We couldn’t staff most restaurants for the Christmas period,” he says.



Vinnies at Waymouth Street


Kelli Whiley is the city zone manager for op-shop Vinnies. She tells CityMag business at the 108 Waymouth Street retail outlet has been “slow”.

“We know the government made the announcement for 25 per cent of workers two weeks ago, but last week we had a really bad week,” Kelli says.

“Most of our customers are the office workers in the nearby buildings. They come on their lunch breaks. We’re quite busy [from 11am to 2pm]. But because they’re all working from home, it’s not the same.”

Kelli estimates office workers make up roughly 80 per cent of her frequent customers, and those that come in now aren’t regulars or spenders. She refers to them as “wanderers” who look but don’t buy.

The Waymouth Vinnie’s has suffered a 50 per cent dip in trade since December, Kelli says. She also manages Vinnie’s stores in Parkside and Norwood, and she says they’re also experiencing a lull in sales but an uptick in donations.

“We’ve been overloaded on that, which is good. But yeah – it’s very quiet,” she says.

Something Kellie believes could help the bricks-and-mortar shop, and other neighbouring businesses, is free parking from the Adelaide City Council.

“This has always been the dead of town,” she says, adding it’s far away from train and tram stops. She says if hourly parking was subsidised by local government, it could encourage people back into the city. “For customers, if they just want to run in for an hour and pay $10, $12 just for that hour, [it’s a cost].”

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