Politics

The ‘Omicron wave’ was the catastrophic dumper that closed our Sunshine Coast restaurant forever | Teresa Russell

As owners of Ocean Ended, a beautiful restaurant located right on the water at Maroochydore on Queensland’s spectacular Sunshine Coast, we know quite a lot about riding waves.

We’ve ridden the cash flow ups and downs that all small businesses do. We’ve adjusted our stroke as tourists flood in and flood back out again. We dived under the first pandemic wave in 2020, emerging stronger and more resilient after 11 weeks of lockdown, thanks to the federal government’s cash boost and jobkeeper programs, and higher spending by optimistic guests.

And now our prime minister has told us to ride the Omicron wave, a catastrophic dumper created by state and federal governments that can’t be ridden by small business. We’ve closed our restaurant. Forever.

My business partner, Paul Holmes, who opened the restaurant more than six years ago, is a restaurateur with 40 years’ experience. He has turned around countless floundering restaurants for others, traded through recessions and run his own successful restaurants. But he couldn’t save this business. No one could have.

Our regulars came back in droves after the first lockdown. They supported local businesses, including ours. We had our best winter trading since we opened. But the closure of the “Pineapple Curtain” (the Queensland border), although popular with the state’s voters, has had the longer-term disastrous effect of vaccine hesitancy within the cloistered population.

Post-jobkeeper lockdowns during the pandemic exposed the already high-level career insecurity in the hospitality industry, and then supercharged it. Our small business lost qualified and experienced chefs to mining, manufacturing, warehousing management and the food service industry – not to other restaurants. They wanted to be able to pay their mortgages and keep their jobs through lockdowns.

When our head chef left for personal reasons on 12 September last year, we had to close our restaurant and let all our other staff go as we hadn’t been able to find a suitably experienced chef to replace him. By then, we’d already been looking for three months.

We took another three months to find a fantastic head chef and a second chef who were pivotal in the rebuilding of our team. We nervously reopened on 10 December.

During this search for a chef, there was an online pile-on by anti-vaxxers when we replied “It is the law” to an enquiry asking if the chef had to be vaccinated. We also had a surprising number of applications from people who had “done some cooking at a cafe for 12 months” and an unsurprising number of applications from chefs living abroad – outside our closed national borders.

We’d used a welcome Queensland government grant to fund the increased wages necessary to secure these key staff members and to partially restock the restaurant. Paul had worked with the chef to create a smaller menu to help manage costs. He felt that we’d have to absorb the increase in the price of fresh produce, especially meat and fish, over the last 12 months.

Spending per head had dropped noticeably on our return and although locals were pleased the border had opened, they were now nervous about catching Covid.

You have to have a certain amount of good luck when running a small business. Some people say you make your own luck. They might be right. But the timing of the bad luck we had on the night we reopened was the beginning of the end.

The kitchen’s exhaust fan motor seized that first night, making the temperature in our kitchen about 50C. We’d already limited guest bookings by half to just 25 people to allow our new kitchen team to cope with working together with a new menu in a new environment.

In a Christmas miracle, we located a great air-conditioning mechanic who could diagnose the problem and replace the unit or repair the motor. Replacement would take until February due to international shipping delays (Covid) or he could retrofit a different unit by Christmas. We chose the latter.

Unfortunately, the unit got caught up in trucking delays from Melbourne (Covid) and the new motor seized eight minutes after it was installed in late December, due to damage acquired from poor packing prior to transport (possibly not Covid).

Our chefs worked for three weeks in great discomfort.

The final nail in our coffin was hammered in on 7 January when the premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, urged people to work from home if they were able and avoid socialising for the next six weeks. Cancellations went through the roof and bookings through the floor. You can’t run a restaurant in a ghost town.

When one of our staff was declared a close contact of someone with Covid last Friday, we decided to decline the offer of the federal government to allow us to trade insolvent and have closed our once-$1m-turnover business.

Thankfully, we’re walking away with no debt.

Our landlord deserves special mention. He rang us before the first lockdown in 2020 and offered us a two-month rent holiday before any government had offered small business any support. And he has worked with us on making our rent affordable during the whole pandemic. He has been compassionate and generous throughout.

The poor planning and poll-driven decisions by governments has defeated us. An economy – the real one that you’ll find in main streets, shopping centres and in tourist towns – collapses when citizens are too afraid to leave their homes and when small businesses all over the country close.

  • Teresa Russell is a Sydney-based freelance writer and silent(ish) partner in Ocean Ended, a Sunshine Coast restaurant, now closed. Forever.

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