Whittlesea Bowls Club had three functions cancelled last weekend due to lockdown, while staff pivoted to takeaway with seven hours notice.

By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

As Victoria was catapulted into its fifth COVID-19 lockdown on Thursday, hospitality businesses had just seven hours of notice before it came into effect.

Like all affected businesses, hospitality business owners had to cut shifts, rethink menus and many were forced to throw out food.

“We had three functions over the weekend that we had to reschedule, so it’s tough,” Whittlesea Bowls Club general manager Nick McIntyre said.

“We’re probably lucky that we got the rumours early so the chefs didn’t prep the food.”

The club opened for takeaway on Friday and Saturday nights and was able to sell some of the food it had already ordered for the weekend, but Mr McIntyre said food waste of perishable items was inevitable any time a lockdown was announced.

In Seymour, the Brewer’s Table moved to takeaway after it was left with a high volume of perishable food that had just been delivered for the weekend.

“It was quite devastating,” owner Carmen Fifield said.

“Had we have known earlier we would have cancelled a lot of orders .. so we were left with a lot of stock.”

The cafe and restaurant has remained open for takeaway every day, but has had to cut its staff back from 10 each day to three.

“Our takings are nowhere near what they would’ve been,” Ms Fifield said.

Romsey restaurant Soltan Pepper owner Mel Soltan said they could not afford not to open because their weekend food prep had already been finished.

“For us this time we had learned, so we didn’t do our orders until after the announcement was made,” she said.

“But we’ve got all this prep from [Wednesday] … we have to move the food that we have in our fridges.”

The short notice caused problems when the venue was slammed with last-minute diners on Thursday night ahead of an empty weekend.

“We had 25 people booked for dinner [on Thursday] and ended up with 80,” Ms Soltan said.

“We only had four people rostered on … we couldn’t get anyone else it was such short notice.

“The phone just rings off the hook, people can’t get in. Each time they do this lockdown, everyone crams and goes, ‘this is the last supper we gotta get in’. It’s like feast or famine.”

She said people were calling to ask them what was happening before Premier Daniel Andrews’ press conference, assuming business owners had been informed in advance.

“Just giving the businesses a short text saying this is what we’re [the State Government] planning, just so we can plan would be really helpful,” she said.

Ms Soltan also had to make the difficult decision to cut staff’s shifts, which she said for those with families to support was ‘heartbreaking’.

“We had to change [the roster] immediately. Half a dozen of them lost shifts,” she said.

“Some have children and for them to lose those casual shifts, it’s heartbreaking.”

Whittlesea Bowls Club was in a similar bind, and Mr McIntyre said the decision to pivot to takeaway was partly motivated by keeping at least some staff in work.

“When you’re talking about a busy venue like ours, we’ve gone from 15, 16 staff members a day down to about six. That’s tough making those calls,” he said.

“But it’s also important that our staff stay employed so our staff aren’t having to waste annual leave, or casual staff who are single mums and have bills to pay, they don’t lose shifts.”

Despite the challenges, businesses across Victoria are expressing deep gratitude to their communities for support.

“Every lockdown, people love the fact that we’re still here [and] we’re so grateful. We get messages from support and it’s really heartwarming,” Ms Soltan said.

Soltan Pepper offered its perishable and prepped food to its regulars for free over the weekend, while the Brewer’s Table hasn’t yet thrown any food away, putting it all into meals for those in need.

“Over the last three lockdowns we’ve done about 150 meals so it’s not going in the bin,” Ms Fifield said.

“There’s a lot of people in our community who are really struggling so it’s nice to know they’re having a nutritional meal.

“Our community has supported us and they do continually each time.”