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November 18, 2021


A first-person account of what it’s like to run a hospitality business in the age of Covid.

Words: Kieran Yewdall, as told to Besha Rodell

In the later part of Melbourne’s endless lockdown, Fitzroy’s Catfish was dealt another blow. After struggling along doing takeaway the venue was declared a tier one exposure site after an employee tested positive for Covid-19. Owner Kieran Yewdall tells us how he navigated the complex situation that so many restaurant and pub owners inadvertently found themselves in, and explains how the pandemic hangover is still affecting the industry even as we move out of lockdown.

By Kieran Yewdall (as told to Besha Rodell)

We've always tried to do the right thing, and unfortunately we got hit. The guy in the kitchen who got sick, he’s so careful. He was always like, "I'll stay down one end of the kitchen, you guys stay down the other." He's always wearing a mask, always uses hand sanitiser. But he lives in St Kilda, and his girlfriend got sick in that big outbreak down there, so he got sick.

We found out on the Saturday. I went on Sunday morning and got a test at the hospital, and then went in and put a sign up saying, "Sorry, we're closed." And then seven or eight of us had to go into isolation for 14 days.

The cleaners came in at 11:00 p.m. that Sunday night, and they were done by 3:00 a.m. By Monday morning at 10:00 a.m. they had sent through all the clean-up reports.

But when you shut down, you just don't know how long you're going to be shut for. The cleaning is expensive. It's an extra cost that now, even though you’re going to get some money back from the government for the clean, you've got to come up with that money initially. And that's very expensive.

We're not Coles or Woolies, we don’t just have that cash that we can throw around quickly, and that's the hard thing. We’re not part of a large chain able to spread our expenses, nor do we have the poker machine revenues that other venues would have to be able to kind of cover that kind of thing.

We were lucky – we had staff members who could start work on Wednesday. So we were only closed for three days. I've been telling a lot of other industry people, "Just make sure you've got a couple of staff whose shifts don't overlap." But it’s difficult to do that, especially this year without JobKeeper. We just couldn’t afford to keep a lot of our casuals on this year. Even last year, I had to take out a loan to pay my staff for two months before that money came back into my account.

And as much as JobKeeper would have helped us keep workers employed – and had us better set up for this situation – not having it affected our revenue as well. This year, without JobKeeper, by the second week of lockdown people were thinking, "I've got no money coming in, I don't know what I'm going to do." And the longer that went on, the less people had the confidence to go out there and just spend that extra $20 on a bottle of wine, or $20 to go down and get themselves some flowers from the florist to cheer themselves up. Small businesses suffered because of that.

"Nothing is back to normal. The capacity limits are hard. The vaccine policing is hard."

There was absolutely some nervousness on our part about what it would do to the business to be publicly named as an exposure site. It's a public shame thing, but to be fair, that wasn’t the case. Most customers were really supportive and asked if everyone was OK. I think at the end of the day it's not so much about the shame, it's about the issue with cashflow.

Now that we’ve reopened and the lockdown is over, we’re still dealing with so many obstacles. Nothing is back to normal. The capacity limits are hard. The vaccine policing is hard.

I want to be able to have vaccines passports, I want to be able to know that my staff and my customers are safe, but I understand why people don’t trust them or want to use them. It’s not because they think the government is up to something evil, but more because they're incompetent.

"Everyone flies up in arms about, "You got to pay your staff properly," but these are the same people who are complaining they can't get a $5 parma anymore."

I don't like the idea of having to stand there and say, "No, you can't come into here because of this or this." None of us get into hospitality to enforce people, we got into it to help humans have fun. The venue gets blamed if someone can’t handle their booze and punches a stranger in the back of the head. And now it's potentially the venue’s fault that someone comes in when they didn't have their vaccination. Obviously I want to have a safe venue in every way, but the language that the government is using puts us into a bad position. And it's back on us, it's never back on the actual individuals.

The policy of mandating vaccines for venue entrance has taken a lot of the pressure off us, which is a relief. Because, unfortunately, we’re the ones at the front line getting abused. I end up saying to people, "Do you think I like being your mum?” Or “I like being a school teacher?” No.

My venue is designed to hold 200 people and right now I'm allowed to have 50. That automatically makes it harder because we've got to have higher staffing levels, because venues have to do more work now, for less customers. I think a lot of people don't understand the volume of basic costs; I mean, everyone flies up in arms about, "You got to pay your staff properly," and we proudly always have, but these are the same people who are complaining they can't get a $5 parma or pint anymore.

The everyday cost of running your hospitality business is just skyrocketing, and things like the cleaning, the shutting down for a couple of days, having to chuck on casual workers. It's these ups and downs, and it's the inconsistency of the cash flow. The only thing that's consistent is the bills.

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