Hospitality owners staying optimistic following Omicron wave

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Brendan Rees

After the Omicron surge sparked an unprecedented disruption to business, hospitality owners in the city’s north-west say they are hoping the worst is behind them.

It comes after restaurants, cafes, and eateries were forced to either reduce their opening hours or close temporarily over summer as they grappled with staff shortages and a fall in foot traffic after lockdown-like conditions kept consumers at home.

“The first three weeks [of the year] were new challenges because of staff, a lot of them were close contacts,” Tushar Bhatnagar, co-owner of The Premises café in Kensington, said.

“At very short notice we had a lot of staff cancelling their shift.”

But Mr Bhatnagar said things were now “looking better” with bookings also increasing and customers embracing the cafe’s newly extended dining space.  

 

Things have changed in the past five weeks, it’s looking better. Things are still unpredictable, sometimes as things change in the news, they change for us very quickly as well. We’re taking every week as it comes now.

 

Calvin Shi, owner of the Thyme Square Café in North Melbourne, also said business was looking “good at the moment.”

“We’re gradually getting busier every day,” he said. “We’re quite lucky compared to a lot of businesses in the CBD. We got a lot of support from the locals.”

Georgia Noble, a manager at Auction Rooms in North Melbourne, said they had been hit by staff shortages in January, but things were “pretty much back to normal now.”

“We had to close for a week because a third of our staff was infected,” she said. “The kitchen closed all together, and we just did takeaway coffee for about a week-and-a-half.”

Ms Noble said customers appeared to still be hesitant in visiting public places but their business in Errol St was getting back to “some kind of normality.”

“January’s normally a quiet month for us anyway but there’s definitely not as many people about. The weekends have still been quite solid but Monday to Friday, we’ve definitely seen a drop.”

However, for Sia Kaveh, owner of Hotham Juice and Gelati, also in Errol St, he said he was working “much harder just to survive.”

“It’s worse than lockdown,” he said, adding he owed $20,000 in rent and a further $9000 in electricity bills.

“I’m sick of it, I want to close the shop and go.”

“But how can you close the gelato shop? I’ve got lots of kids around here from school, they love this gelato. There’s lots of families … they have been supporting us for two years. How can I close the shop on those people?”

“I spent at least $300,000, $400,000 on this shop; I can’t just walk away.”

Tristian Mitchell, owner of Willo&Co café in West Melbourne, said while he had been fortunate enough not to have suffered a shortage in staff, the Omicron variant had kept away many workers who would otherwise be back in the office.

“Unfortunately, all the offices around here have gone to 25 per cent capacity so that’s hurting us,” he said, but added, “We’re getting a lot more locals and tradies, that’s one positive out of all of this.”

Ash Benson, owner of the Local Folk café in Kensington, said business was slowly building back up after having to temporarily close the Kensington Food Hall café which had “suffered bad.”

“We’ll just keep an eye on one and make sure that does well and that sort of pays the rent for the other for the time being,” he said.

“At the moment we’re at a pretty good level, and it will slowly build up in time.”

At the February 1 Future Melbourne Committee meeting, councillors voted to call on the government to provide support for traders and provide a range of incentives including a third round of the Melbourne Money scheme after the Omicron wave triggered a drop in business confidence.

They also called for a review into the government’s work from home advice, which is not expected to change before March.

However, while the motion was passed, Cr Roshena Campbell spoke against an amendment which sought both levels of government to engage with workers’ representatives to facilitate a return to work “as soon as it is safe to do so,” saying “given the reluctance of public servants to return it is inconceivable that the involvement of unions is going to positively facilitate their speedy return while our city is on its knees”.

Cr Campbell said it “would make yet another delay in getting workers back” and one trader’s “cannot afford” after referencing that 53 per cent of businesses had told a council survey that they weren’t confident of lasting “three more months”.   

But her viewpoint was roundly rejected by councillors who said supporting the engagement of workers’ representatives would “expedite the process” of bringing workers back •

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