One Cafe Owner’s Struggle Through Restrictions

Steph, a young hard-working mum in her thirties is like many Australians with dreams, aspirations, and goals. Back at the beginning of 2020, which can seem like a lifetime ago, she and her husband were both working parents. Steph always had a passion for healthy food, and after years of the daily grind in a job she had little passion for, she decided to make the leap, follow her long-held dreams, and go into business for herself. She, along with her mum opened Bowl Me Over in Brighton and went to work. Little did they know what a year 2020 would turn out to be.

Like most young families, Steph and her husband had to juggle their roles as parents of young children and new cafe owners. They hired a nanny to mind the children while Steph was working long hours at the café with her mum and, her husband was at his day job. They had invested family money into setting up the shop with all the inventory, fittings and fixtures, and Bowl Me Over was off to a promising start serving delicious healthy vegan food to an eager clientele. Then the COVID19 restrictions hit.

This is a family business by people who hold to the type of solid values that Australia was built on of a solid work ethic and an independent entrepreneurial spirit. These are the type of values that motivated generations of regular Australians to take the punt, and open small businesses of their own, thereby making this country thrive. However, for Steph, and thousands of others like her, the draconian government restrictions have made them feel like the forgotten Australians.

“I understand that there were some good reasons for some safety precautions and, we were more than willing to abide by them, “ Steph explained, “but the government never understood our plight, they would never work with us, even if we went to extremes to make sure everything was COVID safe, it still was not good enough, and so instead we were forced to keep closing down.”

The time, effort and expense that opening a new small business can entail is taxing in the best of times, and at least half of new small businesses do not survive past the first five years. The small business owner can often be the least supported and most underappreciated people in society. All their issues and challenges rest on their shoulders, as they must be accountable to their creditors, their customers, and their employees. The owner is usually working many more hours than their employees and faces their challenges without support from the government or the people around them. Often, at least in the first few years, these businesses do not turn a profit, and many business owners deny themselves a salary in order to pay their employees while they go without. These are exactly the kind of people that the Australian government should be valuing, showing support to, and holding up as good examples for future generations to follow. Instead, they are treated by the government with the utmost cavalier disregard, their problems and interests totally ignored, leaving them to sink or swim, and many are drowning.

As Steph held back some tears, she described the effects lockdowns had on her business and her family. “ During lockdowns we went to doing only take away but, it was never the same amount of revenue because people spend more when they sit down to eat in the café. It was very difficult with the revenue reduction, as we had recently opened and had spent a lot on the fittings, but with taking away at least we could stay afloat. A lot of other businesses are worse off, like the gym nearby, they are just about done by now.’’

The COVID19 restrictions made it extremely difficult for Steph and her mum to keep and find employees. Many workers in the hospitality industry are sourced from international travellers, and there weren’t any of them around. Others left the hospitality sector altogether after the COVID19 restrictions hit, as they either found work in different sectors or were happy to stay home on Jobkeeper. This meant Steph and her mum were now forced to work sixteen hours a day seven days a week.

Steph explained that what many people do not realise is that a two-week lockdown not only affects the business for those two weeks but, for many weeks to come even after the restrictions are lifted. People don’t just come back right away after the lockdown is over, it takes a while, so business slows down considerably for many weeks.

For Steph, last Mother’s Day stands out as a particularly upsetting time. She and her mum had ordered extra food in anticipation of the long Mother’s Day weekend when the Andrews government made a last-minute decision to lockdown. “We had no choice but to throw the food out. That was a really low point for me. I was pretty devastated.”

The law of unintended consequences means that an action or a policy that is put in place to have the desired effect, will undoubtedly have an undesired effect on something else that was unforeseen. Government bureaucrats and politicians rarely, if ever, consider the domino effect their policies may have. This family was now having to survive on only one income, so they had to let their nanny go. Someone had to stay home and mind the children, so Steph’s husband was forced to quit his job and stay home. Furthermore, Steph’s husband was suffering from a medical condition that now lacked the attention it needed.

“My husband has to get blood tests regularly, this is crucial for his health. Before COVID19 hit he would get his test results back within a few days, After the restrictions, it would take weeks for the results to get back, and this was extremely stressful for us because he needed the results much sooner.”

On the bright side, Steph and her family have found community support, especially through Reignite Democracy Australia. “We placed a low-cost listing in the RDA Business Directory and then we had lots of wonderfully supportive new customers come in from that,” she said.

Steph, now expecting her third child, is looking to the future with gritty determination, but she admits there are days when she wonders if Bowl Me Over can continue. It is important for all of us to not allow small business owners like Steph to be the forgotten Australians, as without them this country is all the poorer.

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