Six Actions To Ensure Melbourne’s Bar Scene Survives

Words by Jane Ryan, Michael Bascetta, Tash Conte and Zara Madrusan

Photography by Supplied

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Wondering how one of the country’s most independent and creative bar scenes can recover from lockdown? With a little help from the government – that’s how.

Let’s get straight down to details. We’re living in a country whose leaders have made clear and decisive measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. This is a both good thing, and a point on which no one needs lecturing from a drinks website. Those measures have had a very real impact on Melbourne’s bar industry and unless some counter-measures are put in place very soon the people behind the city’s fantastic bar and cocktail scene will no longer be able to fight for their jobs or their businesses.

Michael Bascetta (Worksmith, Bar Liberty, Capitano), Tash Conte (Black Pearl) and Zara Madrusan (Made In The Shade hospitality group) have a clear idea of what they most need from the government right now. Here’s that list of actions that could save jobs and businesses immediately so that when ‘back-to-normal’ becomes a reality, there’s a normality to return to.

1. Job Keeper Restructure for Hospitality

A three month extension at minimum. Allowance for new staff.

Michael: "The hospitality industry has been hit harder than most in Australia (and the world over). To lump our industry in with many others that can more easily convert their operations to online, gives us a disadvantage to rebuild our businesses coming out of COVID. JobKeeper needs to be lengthened by a minimum of 3 months to supplement businesses to rebuild and rehire their workforce."

Tash: "Many staff have had to move on from their jobs because the JobKeeper payments alone, without a top up from the employer, is not enough to survive and pay bills. Currently if you have staff on JobKeeper and you need to replace an employee, the new employee’s wages comes directly out of your severely strained cash flow.

“So we are now left in the even more precarious situation of balancing a pivoted version of our business (if you are able to do so) and maintain employees for the possibility of reopening, all at the expense of the proprietor, because JobKeeper has now been cut. It’s simple to me. If you lose an employee on JobKeeper, let that position be filled by either a stood down employee, a visa holder or an entirely new employee. We need to keep people working.”

2. A Structured Re-Opening Plan

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Let's get ready with a clear plan of what space will be utilised, what permits are needed and how venues can be made Covid-safe.

Zara: "In regards to the transition towards reopen, we need understanding and support from local government and councils in order to begin trading ASAP. If the focus is on outdoor trading initially, businesses with no outdoor footprint need to be granted access to alternative spaces big enough to make adjusting our business model to cater financially beneficial. We need funding for infrastructure, and leniency given towards accessing permits and licenses, fast.

"Ultimately, we need support in making indoor hospitality spaces Covid-safe for 50 pax at least, ASAP, and an understanding that if this drags on much longer, many businesses simply won’t survive it."

Michael: "More needs to be done around contact tracing capabilities and services available to businesses to implement in venues,” says Michael. “For instance, in the UK the NHS has provided a check in system so all the data lives in one place. In Australia, there have been dozens of providers creating these systems on the fly. These need to be standardised for all venues to use to speed up the process of contacting people that have come into contact with a known source."

3. Support for Visa Holders

Financial support for visa holders has never happened despite many jobs disappearing for them over six months ago.

Zara: "The lack of support for visa holders, many of whom have been determined skilled workers by the government and subsequently sponsored by these businesses, and who pay their taxes like the rest of us, needs to change."

4. Rent Relief Over Deferral

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Businesses can not survive if they owe, weekly, more than they are making.

Tash: "If there is no mortgage or loan against the building, then rents / loans should be put on hold if the business is not trading due to a forced closure. Accrued rent is setting up businesses with large amounts of debt for the future with no guarantee that when the doors open we will all be insanely busy enough to pay them off and survive let alone make a profit. We will be returning to trading in a diminished capacity with a maximum debt."

5. Grants With Less Hoops

Eligibility criteria on many grants is often too restrictive to be helpful.

Tash: “There are many grants being announced, but carry too many stipulations that make many of our businesses ineligible to apply for them."

6. A Key Point of Contact

This final point is less an action for the government, and more for the industry to gather and use a collective voice to ask for the support needed.

Michael: “The industry needs a united voice to be the mouthpiece for the industry. There is no one point of contact for our industry which spans so many sub-industries. Our fragmented industry doesn't have enough power to be heard at a national level, however a united voice would give us the platform to ensure we can rebuild our industry whilst consulting the government on best practice."

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