Alex Dowd on Learning From a 2nd Lockdown

Words by Alex Dowd

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With the majority of Australia's hospitality in some kind of lockdown these past few months there is a lot of heads down, just trying to get through the weeks. There is also a lot going unsaid this time around. We asked Alex Dowd from Sydney's Cantina OK! to share some of his thoughts as a business owner on what this second pause button has meant.

We got a lot wrong the first time. We were scared. We wanted the businesses to survive and to protect our families. We were selfish. We didn’t communicate well. We weren’t transparent enough. We lost good people and had the perfect excuse for it; the world (as we knew it) was ending.

The situation was so unreal, so sci-fi, so jarring that it acted as a circuit breaker for life as we knew it. Not just for society, but for ourselves. Planes gathered dust on the tarmac, the pubs were closed, even the beach was a no-go zone (unless you were pretending to do Pilates).

For the first time in 10 years, we totally stopped. The highs of awards or nights filled with happy, satisfied guests and the crushing lows of facing bankruptcy or burying a friend and colleague seemed like a distant memory. The Ferris Wheel had come to a sudden, creaking, shuddering stop and we were way up top swinging precariously in the car. Even with the frenzy of projecting and modelling the future, predicting cash burn rates and frantically applying for grants, life was eerily quiet.

I struggled to adjust.

Really, there was nothing left to do in this silence but reflect; about what was important, why we did things and, ultimately, how we could be better.

We were lucky in so many ways. Relatively low rates of the virus, low deaths and our geographic isolation gave us insulation that many others of the world weren’t afforded. Personally, we also had surplus in the bank and nobody banging down our door for money - we’d been trading well and could afford to close our doors with relatively little stress. For that I am truly grateful.

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As COVID made us financially poorer, we realised that we were getting richer in luxuries we forgot existed. Time, self-reflection, simplicity.
As business owners, we’re taught that the pursuit of profit and expansion is the rising tide that lifts all ships.

We were focused on the future, the bottom line, the numbers. But did we need to be?

Our people mattered. But, if I’m truly honest, I was never truly mature enough to realise how to express that.

We are fanatical about our guests and their experience in venue. With our guests gone, we didn’t know where we should direct that fanaticism and dedication. In that moment, we realised that people were the reason we got into this business in the first place - the guests we served were important, but ultimately the teams we served them with form my most cherished memories. For years, we’d overlooked true and unconditional investment in the people closest to us - our own people.

Investment comes in many forms, but what we realised through the Cantina OK! experience was that the biggest and most meaningful gift we could give was the gift of our own attention. Like the withered indoor plant you’ve ignored in your share house bathroom for months, a lack of attention leads to a slow death; in this case of motivation and connection. We realised our business needed a radical shift - so we turned that philosophy inward, as well as outward.

Deep in our second lockdown, our perspective has changed radically. Instead of focusing on ‘how can I survive?’, the question is now ‘how can we survive?’; as a business and as a team. We’ve realised that survival and care isn’t about money or gifts or what’s in a business book, it’s about attention. Sure, using money to help is important but it’s not enough by itself. You can’t buy consideration. It’s about getting the best information to people, it’s about checking in. It’s about providing resources to help keep people educated or entertained. It’s about giving them the empowerment and the endorsement to call if they’re having a hard time. It’s about keeping the communities that are our life force alive and well.

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We never took our role as employers seriously enough. People rely on us. And not just to pay their wages. They rely on us to give them meaning, direction, purpose, security. COVID taught us the importance of that. It took the world to stop spinning to realise what really mattered. I didn’t see it before. I was moving too fast, the balance of my energy too outward.

The uncertain, painful and short labour of COVID gave birth to many parts of our business that I’m now extremely proud of. Truthfully, I feel ashamed for not being enough in the past. But that’s the way it goes - I wish people were taught that more. Or talked about it. I wish I knew it earlier.

If I can give future business owners any advice from the perspective of our post-COVID world, it would be to make sure there’s a balance of your focus. In hospitality businesses, so much of our focus is on our guests that we sometimes forget the people behind the scenes of the pantomime that is eating and drinking. It’s not about crossing off a few things on your corporate woo-woo checklist, it’s about buying fully into the ethos.

With the pace of the world changing, COVID taught us the importance of injecting more humanity in our day to day. It started with actually savouring the conversations at the dog park or learning the value of learning to run more than once around your local oval. It was in the food care packs, supporting local businesses, the generosity and selflessness that we have been showing one another over the past year. It became about keeping people employed, rather than working your net profit percentage up to 20%. It became a reset of what was important.

It has brought a more positive future into sharper focus. Maybe not a future filled with higher profits, but I’d rather be sitting in a boat full of people I love at low tide than floating alone in an ever rising one.

What’s the point of that?

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