By Rhonda Dredge
It has been an emotional road back for businesses as they rebrand themselves for a different CBD in the interval between the old regime and the new.
Some have taken advantage of the quieter streets to strengthen their connections with locals.
In the old high turnover days, Corner & Bench in Hardware Lane had 30 tables out the front.
By mid-June there were only six tables and customers were assured of getting one in the sun without having to wait in a queue for ages or compete with tourists.
“Customers don’t have to line up,” Helena Huynh said, as she cleared away the dishes. “We’re happy to have some [customers] and people are happy to be at work.”
Businesses are taking it day by day as numbers in the street fluctuate. Only a few cafes are open for lunch to take advantage of the sunny winter.
Helena estimated there were 24 sit-down customers over the lunch break in two sittings.
On the day the café was first allowed to serve sit-down customers, they put just one table out, displaying their takeaway products, such as freshly baked meat pies.
The café had stayed open during the lockdown and like many similar businesses in the CBD believed they had developed new loyalty in their customers. “If we didn’t stay open, we were just a food shop,” Helena said.
But the decision meant that they had to change the way they did business, putting packaged catering products ahead of traditional service and cultivating the few locals around.
“It was a big learning curve. We did deliveries to homes. We were so supported. We got 10 orders from one person. We started selling wholesale. We put the stuff up the front,” Helena said.
Becco on Crossley St is another business that has been forced to reassess. The café reverted to a produce store during the shutdown and even though it has re-opened, owner Simon Hartley is keeping the produce going.
“We want them to work together,” he said. “Through the store we had different customers and they came to the restaurant.”
He said that bookings were aggressive in the first week Becco re-opened, regular customers insistent to return. “This week was quieter. We had more walk-ins.”
There is more time for conversation and customers are made to feel welcome in what Bill Morton at the Paperback Bookshop in Bourke St is calling the “interregnum”.
“It’s great to be able to engage with people about books,” Bill said, on the first day the shop opened its doors to the public.
He and staff were on the premises during the lockdown doing online orders, but these weren’t as satisfying as actually dealing with readers and their views, even if they did disagree about books.
Personality counts for more in this period of uncertainty and members of Melbourne’s nearby legal establishment were chatting freely on Hardware Lane when CBD News visited on Thursday, June 18.
“Thursday is the new Friday,” Helena said. “People work from home on Friday to make a long weekend.”
Hopefully the new space for conversation will help create goodwill. “Today I’m happy but if you saw me yesterday, I was crying,” she said. •