Some might call his decision crazy brave. Robert Cooke puts it down to his “grab it by both horns” philosophy of life.
In March, the seasoned businessman upped stakes from his life on the Gold Coast to purchase a restaurant in Melbourne’s CBD. He arrived in a city struggling to shake off the harshest lockdowns in the land.
Over the last couple of months he’s happy to report that business at Vapiano – a cosy inner-city pizza and pasta franchise popular with young families and tourists – has been buzzing.
Some nights the tables have been full, bookings at capacity and sales on the rise. The restaurant recently celebrated its most profitable night ever. Through March and April as Melburnians revelled in their freedom, turnover set new records each week.*
Emerging from an epic 10-month shutdown, Vapiano was beginning to look like its old self, Mr Cooke said. Many of the old staff were back. Even the olive tree in the centre of the restaurant, which had also been looking like it had a hard year, is showing signs of renewed vigour.
The wages of some of the returning workers – those who qualified for the payments because they met government requirements – were subsidised by JobKeeper for the year it lasted. This assistance has allowed Mr Cooke to hire new staff, and he’s now looking for another 30.
“In many ways, the stars aligned for us,” says Mr Cooke of his business. “[COVID] has been a chance to reset.”
But it has also been a rollercoaster. The erratic nature of the hospitality industry’s recovery becomes evident as The Citizen checks in with Mr Cooke over several weeks.
When the pace of trade wobbles, his tone becomes more apprehensive. With the virus still out there, he’s not taking anything for granted.
“We’re still quite far from being on track,” he says. Despite some bumper weeks, overall “we’re only at about 60 to 70 percent of where sales were pre-COVID. We need to get that to 100 percent, or even beyond”.
The end of the Federal Government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme in late March has left the business exposed to fluctuating circumstances. At the same time as payments stopped, the pandemic pause on expenses like rent, loan re-payments and liabilities ended.
“JobKeeper paid our workers. Even though it wasn’t technically the business’ money, it meant that we could maintain our employee base and keep the restaurant afloat at a time when nothing was coming in.
“It was Vapiano’s lifeline.”
And despite the return of local diners, the restaurant is still keenly missing big segments of its pre-COVID market.
In 2020, foot traffic in Melbourne’s CBD was down by approximately 90 percent. Although the tempo on the streets is rising as state borders re-open, with international visitors are still missing and returning office workers are dragging their feet, it is still not where it was two years ago. A big slice of Vapiano’s trade has historically come from city workers and the lunchtime crowd.
“We’re by no means out of the woods yet,” Mr Crooke says. “So where is the process to catch the fall of those last few industries that are still struggling to find their footing?”
The latest of the University of Melbourne’s ongoing Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) surveys reveals that industries forced to shut down during Victoria’s lockdown, particularly hospitality, have been hit hardest regardless of any fiscal stimulus.
Mr Cooke says the Federal Government should have provided an alternative support package targeted specifically towards hospitality and retail to replace JobKeeper, echoing an unsuccessful campaign by the Restaurant & Catering Industry Association of Australia for a ‘HospoKeeper’ wage subsidy scheme.
“Support for industry is all over. Hospitality is back to square-one.”
Unsurprisingly however, the man who decided to buy a business in the midst of a global pandemic is not ready to give up.
“If the olive tree can come back, then we can too.”
Editor’s note: Reporting for this story pre-dates the latest Victorian lockdown. We plan to update our Life After JobKeeper special reporting project in the next few days.
This special series was co-published with The Age.