COVID-19 Diaries: Maybe Mae, Adelaide
Maybe Mae is a 70-seater cocktail bar in the heart of Adelaide's west end. Behind locked doors, it will turn six in July this year. These are extraordinary times for all, and whilst hospitality means everything to me, I am fully aware of its non-essential nature in the broader scheme of things. I employ about 250 people across seven restaurants and bars.
These people are now unemployed, and I feel especially sad for that. My three managers have a combined tenure of over 10 years. The thought of losing our team in such circumstances breaks my heart. Beneath is a little insight into my last six weeks.
Friday 13th March: Maybe Mae launches its new menu, more than 12 months in the works. The follow up to Australian Bartender's 2019 Best Cocktail Menu. COVID-19 was headline news, though Adelaide hadn't really seen any direct impact yet – It was the closing weekend of the annual Fringe Festival, and there were people everywhere.
The weekend was busy, the new menu received amazingly well. Spirits were high despite the government announcing the restrictions of group gatherings to no more than 500 people (lol).
Monday 16th March: Things were starting to get real. Heading into the city to do my usual Monday admin, something felt off.
Numbers during the week were scary. At least 50% down day on day that week.
Friday 20th March: 1 person per 4sqm was now the directive. The penny dropped, and within two hours of Friday service, all of hospitality had been thrown into a crippling situation.
It is not just the fact that Maybe Mae's capacity had gone from 85 to 30 (as it stood that week, I would be happy with 30 people in the room) – it was the moral dilemma put to me, the business operator, to adjudicate. Should I even be opening the doors to an underground bar with national restrictions clearly ramping up? I felt a certain civic duty to not trade, but what is the alternative? I still need to pay staff, rent, utilities, suppliers etc. The government had applied a slow bleed to our industry. There was no support. Friday was a tough night, I think I drank a lot.
Saturday 21st March: A friend and fellow operator/neighbour Sali Sasi (Leigh Street Wine Room) had been flying the flag for our little community and lobbying a response from the higher powers. At 4pm, I sat down with 20 odd other representatives of our industry and spoke with South Australian Premier Stephen Marshall – we were begging for the government to force closure. Admittedly I went in with great optimism. After an hour of Q&A with Mr Marshall I left with a much more realistic picture as to what we were facing. It was grim. There was no "shut us down for 2 weeks and then let us get back on with it." The narrative was a firm 6 months, whatever measure. You need to start thinking "outside the box," "pivot your business" – yeah, thanks.
In the 48hrs leading up to that meeting, my business partners and I had let go 150 casuals across our venues.
When I asked our Premier, "What can I tell these people I consider family? There are no jobs in their industry available for 6 months? You will be unemployed for at least 6 months?." The response was grim "With a decrease in backpackers, there will jobs available in other sectors, such as fruit picking." He fluffed it out, but you get the gist, there was no real answer.
Sunday 22nd March: I sent a message to all my Maybe Mae staff announcing that Sunday would be our last evening of trade until further notice. I cried. At around 7pm, someone flashed me a news update "forced closure of non-essential business, effective as of Monday."
Monday 23rd March: I joined the last of my 70 odd full time staff at the Centrelink office. Ripping hangover and a feeling of freefall that was extremely uncomfortable.
That bit in the movie when the bomb goes off. Your ears are ringing, not quite sure what has happened but you know it is bad. Eye of the storm kind of stuff.
Crisis meetings ensue all week. We are scrambling to establish equilibrium and calculate damage. We estimate initial fixed costs at around $200k per week across the group – shit. Everything is divided up for individual managing partners to work out what opportunities lie in each venue for minimising overheads and potentially creating revenue streams. Other overarching conversations are carried out with landlords, banks, government bodies – help, please.
Collectively we manage to get our overheads right down, and we feel optimistic around waiting out the likely six month closure. A tough pill to swallow in any situation.
This was a particularly challenging time. The world was experiencing monumental societal shifts by the hour. The prospect of modifying our business model seemed overwhelming to think about. Necessary, however, it was. The obvious go-to was bottled cocktails for delivery. After all, we don't do anything else. The concept is great, but I had reservations:
- The rules applied to the functionality of my business had changed half a dozen times in as many days. It seemed remaining as fluid as possible was paramount at this stage – establishing a new business framework was not congruent to this thinking.
- Maybe Mae as a product had grown and specified organically by dictation of our customer base – it had not led us down the path of batched/bottled cocktails to be enjoyed offsite. This process has taken us five years to hone, rushing through what would be the complete and sole representation of our brand in six days didn't sit well.
- No real incentive had been implemented to keep employees employed. My forecast of weekly takeaway revenue (which would no doubt decline over time, as more people lose their jobs) would not have even covered wages. We are at square one yet again.
- The country was poised for a potential mass outbreak. Is it irresponsible for me to ask a handful of people to congregate and handle produce to be consumed by people in a potentially unsafe social environment? I thought so.
- It would only take one person to get it and the whole thing would need to be shutdown, with messages sent to every customer that had supported our business pivot. All investment (marketing, packaging, design) lost, as well as the bad publicity that would have followed.
We decided to sit and wait. No use throwing good money at bad.
Monday 20th April: I walked through the CBD without bumping into a soul. We are now two consecutive days without a new case, and it is time to focus on tackling the rebuild.
A government incentive has been applied that subsidises wages for all full timers and casuals with at least 12 month tenure. All of a sudden, I have six people on the books and the no new cases in the state for three days. Most of my apprehensions around the bottled cocktails still remain, the incentive to create work for the bar team is now very strong. What to do...
It has been a great opportunity to audit the efficiencies (of lack thereof) within the venue. When you trade 362 days per year, it is easy to slowly take your eye off the ball. Our aim at the moment is to utilise the hive mind we have retained in order to dial in as much of our product as possible. Training manuals, precise ingredient costing, SOP's... all the things you never have time for. Sure, we are not realising any revenue, but I think the potential efficiency of the business if/when we return to trade will be far more fiscally positive than any pivoted business model in the current climate.
For me, fire sale-ing the last of our stock and ingredients by way of batched cocktails or bottle sales only makes sense if we don't intend to reopen. I don't want takeaway to exist for us when the venue resumes – I don't think it allows for us to have anywhere near the impact on the guest experience as in house. Whilst I think we make great drinks, I am not convinced that our drinks are anything but complimentary to why our patrons visit. Additionally, I feel we will have a long and arduous rebuild to get back to where we were financially, and this will extend long after any government stimulus dries up. I'd like to have as much already paid for stock on hand as possible as a buffer.
This period has been incredibly emotional and humbling; never have I been so aware of the greater forces governing this world. Looking forward though, the real silver lining is starting to manifest. The light at the end of the tunnel is apparent, albeit in the far distance. I have never felt so in touch with my business; the mechanics, staff, suppliers and investors as I do now.
We had a really good look in the mirror and we feel as though when we reopen, the product will be stronger. It will be a long battle back to normality (an augmented one, no doubt), but the same familiar faces will be waiting behind the stick to throw one hell of a socially-responsible party when we get the green light.
If you are a bar owner and would like to contribute to Bar Entrepreneur Frontline please email me at Simon@DiffordsGuide.com. Thanks to support from Havana Club all published contributions will be paid for, with a matching amount donated to The Drinks Trust charity (formerly The Benevolent), or a local hospitality charity of your choice.