Hoping to survive

By Rhonda Dredge

The CBD’s prime hipster hang-outs could be up for a shake-out as cafes begin the slow process of wooing back their customers. 

Degraves St has been dead for two months, Centre Place on a drip feed and Flinders Lane empty.

Journal, once a popular meeting place for the city’s literati, is offering a daily toastie.

RMB Cafe on the city’s grooviest corner, has coffees and that’s all. They’re grateful for the support of workers from the Telstra building next door.

“You can’t do hospo from home,” Uma Jahan, a barista at Journal, said. The café closed for a month but is now getting by with a few regulars.

One customer with an office in Degraves St worked from home to protect his immuno-supressed mother. Since the relaxing of restrictions last week he has returned to his city office.

Another customer, Mark Phelan, has a practice in the nearby Nicholas Building and he’s coped with the eerie emptiness of the CBD.

“Winter is a great time of the year,” he said. “The sun shines down Centre Place at 1.15pm. You get about 30 minutes.”

Gone are the days when a barista had a line of orders to fill and speed was of the essence. Now customers are staying to talk while waiting for their coffees. 

“You can be social without being physically close,” Jarrod Cross said, who was on duty with Uma. He used to be too busy to chat but now he likes to see a spring in customers’ steps. 

“You might never see someone again but you get a smile out of them,” he said.

Good, old-fashioned sociability might save some businesses but others cannot survive on a trickle of customers. 

Laneway Greens across the street from Journal has done a complete redesign of its business during the lockdown.

“We were lucky,” CEO Richard Docherty said. “We reacted quickly. We shut down the restaurants. We had a product available in a week. We were one of the first to the market. We got a bit of traction.”

Their new product, lunch boxes with pre-cooked grain, curries and vegies for steaming or roasting, was well-received, he said. “There was mass hysteria at the beginning.” 

Docherty said his retail outlets (two in the CBD and one in Richmond) had access to about 50,000 customers. Now the business is delivering healthy meals throughout Victoria. 

“It (the lockdown) made us think differently. No one was coming to us so we had to go to them,” he said. The company launched a new website on Monday and reduced the number of meals from seven to five, three Melbourne boxes and two plant boxes.

At the local level, however, they might have to give up their Flinders Lane store.

“I feel that the next 12 months to 18 months will be challenging,” Docherty said. “We’re paying rent. Bringing staff into the CBD may not be a viable option. I’ve got no idea how many people will return but our business will survive.” •

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