Adelaide is working from home and reticent to spend leisure time in the city, which means hospitality traders in the East End are struggling to fill their much-reduced venue capacities. They’re calling on the State Government to spread the message that it’s ok to leave the house.
COVID temperature check: The East End
Frank Hannon-Tan speaks with CityMag over the phone at 11am on Wednesday while standing outside on Rundle Street. What he sees around him reminds him of the East End of a former era.
CityMag is taking the temperature of the city in January to see how the CBD is faring amid Omicron restrictions.
Read our West End check up here.
“Once upon a time you’d close at Christmas and the whole of January would be dead,” says Frank, who is a co-owner in Amalfi, Mother Vine and Mum Cha. “You’d have a few tourists around, nobody would be around, and then the second week of Feb, people would start coming back, really around Fringe time.”
In more recent (non-COVID) years, the East End in January was a much more bustling place.
“The Tour Down Under… brought so many people into the city, and that brought local people around, tourists would be around, people would be around… so we’d really be busy if we were open,” Frank says.
“But this year, it feels like 15 years ago, you know? It’s really quiet. It’s really dead.
“It is the Premier’s message of work from home. It’s an artificial lockdown, you know? People are really scared.”
Frank’s on-street reportage is indicative of what several traders in Adelaide’s east have told CityMag over the last week.
Many reported to us a downturn in trade from the moment Omicron cases started to rise in South Australia at the end of last year. This was exacerbated as restrictions were ratcheted up and people were encouraged by the State Government to work from home.
Data compiled by the City of Adelaide through device trackers in the CBD confirm the reduction in activity in the city, showing a 25 per cent dip in the number of people travelling through the East End in the week of 3 January.
This week, Frank and his business partners announced the closure of Mum Cha, which launched in November 2019.
After a strong start to life during the 2020 Fringe season, Frank expected to take their gains and invest into the business. Instead, two years of lockdowns and impeded trading meant the money went to the business’s survival.
After two years of these trading conditions, Frank decided the business did not have a future.
“We love the concept, we love the brand and the food, and the staff were fantastic, but at the end of the day, as a group of business partners, we see many people go out of business, and we knew we wanted to control that and not be in a position where we let people down – staff, creditors, landlord,” Frank says.
“The opportunity came up to sell the lease and we took it.”
Mum Cha announced its closure via social media on Tuesday night. A hearing for the transfer of the site’s liquor licence to its new owners is set for early February.
While the decision to close Mum Cha and sell the lease was not due to the appearance of the Omicron variant or Boxing Day restrictions, these events were “just validation,” Frank says.
Oliver Brown, a co-founder of The Big Easy Group, which runs The Stag Public House, Yiasou George and NOLA in the East End, as well as suburban sites Anchovy Bandit, Bottega Bandito and Bowden Brewing, says his group was “fortunate” to be able to hold many of the Christmas functions it had scheduled at the end of 2020.
However, Yiasou George and The Stag were forced to close for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve due to staff registering as close contacts of COVID-positive people.
The summer period accounts for “almost a quarter of the year’s revenue”, Oliver says, so any impediments to trade during this time means not being able to build a surplus to weather the quieter months.
“By having a slow period when it should be one of your busiest just means every day that’s not busy is one slow day in winter that can’t be accounted for,” Oliver says.
With venues in both the city and the suburbs, Oliver can see the downturn is much more pronounced in the CBD. While his suburban venues are only restricted by the amount of people they can legally host at one time, Oliver’s CBD venues – particularly The Stag – are struggling to get enough people through the door even to meet its current 25 per cent density cap.
“Hitting capacity for the pub is not currently an issue – the issue is the narrative around people not coming to the city. That’s the real problem,” he says.
The Stag received $22,000 in the recent round of support grants, which Oliver is thankful for, but the sum accounts for not even a single week’s payroll for the venue.
And while he tells CityMag he would be similarly thankful for any additional financial support the State Government might extend to businesses like his, what he really wants to see is a change in messaging.
“The messaging really does need to change and be in support of people going out, not staying at home,” he says.
“Hospitality has really been blamed or made to feel like an unsafe environment, and I think the public messaging needs to change.
“We can sit here and tell people to come into the pub, but our messaging is not going to outweigh that of the government or health officials. So until that public messaging is changed, I think there needs to be stimulus to assist.”
LOC Bottle Bar has been operating for 15 months, and founder Olivia Moore says her business is currently “half as busy as last year”. She similarly puts this down to public messaging and the perceived (and real) risks of leaving the house.
“Pre-Christmas, they were scared of not being able to hang out with their families, and post-[Christmas] everyone was just a bit shaken by the whole thing, and the uncertainty,” she says.
“[It’s] just conflicting for you as a business, because it’s like, do you try and promote? Do you do an event? Is that irresponsible? I’ve had a lot of conversation about that, because you kind of want to be silent and do nothing but hope that you make money.”
We’re speaking with Olivia out the front of Exchange, joined by Hamish Tregeagle, founder of the Smokelovers bar on Rundle Street.
Hamish opened Smokelovers on 23 December, three days before the Omicron restrictions came in. We asked if he considered closing up and trying his launch again at a later date once the situation had settled.
“A lot of suppliers right now are accommodating, but those 30 days to pay those bills, they’ve got to be paid,” is his response.
This was a constant refrain from the businesses we spoke to — closing was never an option.
The safety net of JobKeeper was removed a long time ago and so businesses need to trade as often as they can afford to, to make money and to retain staff.
“Opting to close I just don’t think is the right call,” says Tom Roden of Exchange.
“Because the question would be, if you did close, when would you reopen? And when you reopen, would anything actually be different? Probably not. I don’t think closing the doors solves anything.
“We have to stay open and build it the best we can, really. That means wading through a whole lot of uncertainty, but we don’t have another option.”
Exchange’s Christmas and New Year period was only slightly quieter than a year ago, but Tom noticed a sharp drop-off in customers last Monday, 10 January, when, he assumes, a significant portion of Adelaide went back to work, and opted to work from home.
“It’s very reminiscent now of the experience we had in July during that small lockdown, when everyone was encouraged to work from home, and that led to really a very quiet winter,” Tom says.
“This week feels very reminiscent of that, which is a shame. It’s like the switch has been turned off and no one’s around anymore.
“To give you an idea, [that] Monday’s takings would have been 50 per cent less than what we took the previous Monday.”
Tom is thankful for the grant money his business has received (though it “barely touched the sides”), but he would like to see more communication from the State Government on what to expect going forward.
“It feels like there’s been very little clarity and communication about what is going on and what is planned. Like, how are we actually going to get out of this situation that we find ourselves in, what the next steps are, what we can possibly expect?”
The hospitality industry specifically has been asking for more clarity around decisions that impact their industry since the very beginning of this pandemic. Given this, and given the introduction of the coronavirus into the state, by way of relaxed borders, was planned, Tom feels the State Government should have been more prepared.
“I think it’s not unreasonable to assume that you open the borders just before Christmas, everyone starts travelling, and whether it’s Omicron or Delta, you’re going to get some sort of outbreak,” he says.
“I think the decision that they took at the time of year that they took it, for them to have not expected something like this is totally ludicrous. If they can make those sorts of decisions, which are clearly politically motivated, then I’m sure they can make some decisions and give greater clarity to businesses knowing that they’re going to be put in very uncomfortable positions.”
The difficulties are not constrained to the hospitality industry. At Nowa, a fashion store located on James Place, the business has been adapting its opening hours on an almost daily basis according to how many staff are currently isolating awaiting COVID test results.
“As we have quite a small team, when one of us does get a message or gets tested or anything, it does shift around a few pieces in the business,” says Nowa fashion designer Stuart Knowles.
“We’ve kind of just had to play most of our store opening by ear in this stage. It’s been a little bit difficult. Luckily customers have actually been quite understanding with it, they’re asking us when we’re opening and we can let them know on the day.”
A couple of East End retailers opted not to speak to CityMag and Rob Scammell of Yudu reported slightly above average trade so far in January. But Stuart noticed a shift in the way Nowa’s clientele interacted with the store from the moment restrictions were announced.
“Obviously, you know Boxing Day is a crazy time. It was good but there was a little bit of a weird aura going around,” he says.
“People weren’t sure if they could come into the store, people were a bit careful about what they could try on, all of that kind of stuff. Some people were completely unaware, which is normal, but there was definitely a shift in our regular customer mood on that day.”
To make the staffing issues easier to deal with, Frank Hannon-Tan would like to see “free access to RAT tests”, so members of his team can quickly confirm their COVID status and know whether it’s safe to return to work.
But many of the business owners we spoke to in Adelaide’s East End were most concerned with the fear among the community of being out in public. This is where they want help from the State Government.
“People are scared. Lots of people just don’t want to go out right now,” Olivia says.
“It doesn’t feel very good to be encouraging something that the government has told you not to do. But because there’s no back-up plan for hospitality really, other than what they’ve already offered, you have to — or close your doors.”