A Love Letter to Australia's Venues in the Time of COVID-19
Published on 01.04.20
What a difference a virus makes. In the month of March we lost most of our shared spaces, our cultural and culinary institutions. On Thursday 12 March I attended the launch of the programme for the Sydney Writers’ Festival. “I hope tonight we’re launching a festival, and not a time capsule,” said Michaela McGuire, its brilliant artistic director.
By the next day the cloud of confusion was clearing and the reality of our new landscape was emerging. It wasn’t just April’s Sydney Writers’ Festival that we would lose. It was every event for the foreseeable future; it will be most of 2020. It’s devastating to think of the loss of the vital and enlivening work our friends in cultural institutions have created for us this year. We’re all losing things we were looking forward to: holidays, exhibitions, events, weddings. In the week that followed we lost almost the entirety of our hospitality scene - that process began in earnest on 13 March. (Friday 13 March. I for one will never look at a black cat the same way. I will bow down before it, scattering offerings if it crosses my path.)
In hospitality it happened in lurches. These changes have all been necessary, and vital to our survival. That’s not up for debate. It is, however, okay to take a moment and grieve our shared loss. Firstly, we were told that we couldn’t have more than 100 people in our venue. That reduced our capacity by a third. This meant we had to stand down our casual staff. I didn’t have any answers for them, how long this would last. For a manager, to not know what to say is a desperate feeling. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. I don’t have a solution.” Even reading those words makes me feel bereft.
The next stage was announced at 4pm on Friday 20 March. That singular fact is the perfect illustration of how much other people don’t understand about hospitality. For many in this industry a weekend is where we can take 80 per cent of the revenue of our business. It’s also where the costs are buried - the cost of goods to sell - and the wages of the staff to sell them. People in other jobs probably don’t know that chefs place their orders each night at midnight for a next-day delivery. Chefs base their ordering on their upcoming bookings and what’s left in the fridge that night. The chefs had ordered enough food for a weekend just 16 hours before. They’d gone to bed, probably around 1 or 2am, whenever their head stopped pumping with the adrenaline of the day. Many of them returned to work in the morning to start prepping, ready for their shift - which is often as long as 16 hours on a Friday. They cook all day.
A little later, bartenders start preparing garnishes, they start juicing. The orders for this fruit were placed at the same time as the chefs were ordering their produce, late at night while most were sleeping. The providore isn’t sleeping. They’re about to rise, ready to process their orders, hit the markets to bring the goods to your local venue, so they’re there in the morning, when hospitality gets to work.
Both of those expenses could have been saved if hospitality had been given as much notice as football clubs or churches; “you have this weekend” would have meant they could have paid the bills associated with those orders placed late on that Thursday night. By 4pm many venues already have lots of people in them, especially on a Friday. In hospitality we know just how many people skive off work early on a Friday. (It’s a lot.) For us, by 4pm we had around 50 people in our venue. By the time you count our staff, we were already at our new capacity. Our friends at Cantina OK! - not only one of the country’s best bars, but in my view one of the world’s best, operates out of a garage in the CBD. Its new capacity was two guests, if they kept both staff on, or three if they stood one down. Their announcement to close came shortly after the announcement by the PM.
Image credit: Dylan Walton
At Archie Rose we’re incredibly fortunate to have more than one aspect to our business. Our venue is our face, but behind it is its beating heart - the distillery. We make things. Usually we make fine spirits (sometimes Mitey fine spirits). We had already started our journey into hand sanitiser by the time venues were closed. But we didn’t begin in order to “pivot”. I’d never heard that term before last week when people started congratulating us for pivoting at this catastrophic time. It’s not a new concept, another way of describing this is “surviving”. Sometimes change is borne out of inspiration, other times it’s borne out of necessity.
We started making hand sanitiser because we needed some. We needed it for our venue staff to operate in what was fast becoming a fearful environment: working on the front line of customer service when anyone could be sick without showing symptoms. We needed it for all our essential workers onsite. Day by day as reports came in of businesses making the change to working from home, our team felt more uneasy, more exposed. We couldn’t find any sanitiser anywhere. So we made two litres. It smelled good! OG Batch 1 Archie Rose Hand Sanitiser never saw the commercial light of day, there was no label. Though it did grace the hands of all who walked through the doors of our bar in Rosebery in the week prior to its close. People started complimenting it and asking about purchasing it. Things moved so fast in that week, that by the time reports came through from the team that people were enquiring after it at the bar it was all you could hear in every direction. People often ask me whose idea it was - it was literally so many people at the same time it feels like collective consciousness.
All our teams moved with a speed so breakneck, and a precision so absolute, I’m immensely proud they’re my colleagues. I’ve often thought I work with geniuses, but this experience has cemented for me, the deep love I have for our company, especially the people that make it.
The week before close our master distiller, Dave Withers, had been formulating a recipe to WHO guidelines and securing the ingredients required. (It’s very Dave that our sanitiser happens to also smell delicious; please don’t drink it). Fleet of foot as ever, our founder Will Edwards applied lightning-quick thinking to the legal requirements (while completing our new distillery and a mere week or two before his as yet unborn child joins us on the Archie Rose team). Mark Champion (nickname: Spiky), our head of operations, put his head down to focus on all other aspects of logistics to make sure we could produce it. Amanda Jennings, our marketing product manager, worked night and day to make sure it looked beautiful, as well as securing all the items required to bottle it. She usually employs a hashtag “#notadesigner” to remind us all that she’s a logistics genius, not a designer. But I think we can all agree, she did a bang-up job. She might have to give up that hashtag now. And Victoria (Tori) Tulloch, our head of marketing, kept the wheels in motion, harbouring all the relevant information, of the disease and of the ever-changing landscape our company found itself in. And most importantly, as always, she held together our sanity.
By the time we had to stand down our first round of full-timers we were already prepared to tell them about plan B. Plan B unfortunately means that they won’t be teaching gin blending classes, or guiding tours, or making delicious cocktails, or using their wide range of skills to ensure people have a good time. I’m fairly sure none of my team dreamed of standing on a bottling line, filling bottles or applying labels. But the older members of the team remember that once upon a time at Archie Rose, every bottle was filled by the team (including bartenders) back when batch-numbers were handwritten. It’s the reality of a small company that produces products. Someone has to fill those bottles, put them in a box and put the box in the mail.
Our barteam are doing mundane work, but they’re doing it proudly. They know that they’re helping people by producing this. And they know that the other available option is where most of our friends are - they’re at Centrelink. The vast majority of my friends have lost their jobs and their businesses. We simply don’t yet know what the cost of that will be to our society. How many of those businesses manage to get to the other side depends on government support, rent relief, and the ongoing support of their regulars. Regulars for many people in hospitality end up becoming lifelong friends.
I recently went to the funeral of a regular of mine who I’d served between 2000 and 2004. We were definitely friends. I hope everyone takes a moment to think about the businesses they love, run by people they now consider friends. I hope everyone considers how to best support them, because right now, they need help.
If you aren’t in a position to support financially there are other ways to do so: sending a message on social media to let them know you care and you miss them costs nothing. A review online to say how great that venue is will bring a smile to their face and help their overall rating when they reopen.
But if you’re able to support venues financially then please try to do so. Find out who’s still trading in your neighbourhood. Are they open for takeaway? Have they joined a delivery service provider? If your favourite bar is closed for now, maybe buy a T-shirt or other merchandise online to show your support. I’m proudly wearing my Continental Deli T-shirt right now (note: they’re still trading for takeaway of the finest tinned goods: perfect for your luxury bunker).
We’re allowed to sell takeaway too. Our bar manager, Simon, has for now turned our beautiful venue into a very elaborate bottle shop, selling not only our products but also takeaway cocktails made by our bar team, and some of our very extensive international spirits collection. We stock a vast selection of Australia’s best spirit producers. As ever we proudly support and promote our mates in the bush, many of whom are still recovering from fire. We have a large selection of the best of international spirits, too. Can’t holiday in Japan this year? Maybe you should treat yourself to that bottle of Yamazaki 12 he’s been hanging onto, or buy it to give to a friend. If you live in Rosebery please pop by and visit him. Waves and smiles still retain most of their power to do good even at two metres’ distance.
To find out about businesses in your area we suggest you look at these regularly updated lists of who is still trading. And once you’ve bought a takeaway, why not post your purchase online? Tag your venue, share with your friends. If all we have is each other right now, I’d say we’re pretty rich.
See here for updates on who is trading for your local city, I recommend calling or contacting them on social media prior to embarking on a journey.
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