Everyday connection part of café life
THROUGH February and early March, Jane Miller was watching global news with interest, but great concern.
As the owner of Eclectic Tastes Café & Pantry, she knew it wouldn’t be long before Australia felt the monumental impact of COVID-19, and her business would have to cease operations.
“I think people forget, there was quite a bit of fear in the community around that time. I genuinely thought that we would go to stage four within a couple of weeks,” she said.
“I had staff that were getting very scared to serve people… Scared to handle money. We get a lot of ambulance workers and nurses coming in, so people were fearful.”
When her venue shut on Monday, 23 March, Mrs Miller decided not to continue trading with a takeaway menu, considering this anxiety and her core business, which lay elsewhere.
Now almost 10 weeks on, the Eclectic Tastes team have used this down time productively, completing repair and maintenance works they may not have been able to attend to so quickly if open as normal.
With restrictions also easing, following the stage three peak, the café is looking ahead to potentially reopening mid-June.
“We’re waiting to see how many people we can have. It depends on the square meterage of your building,” Mrs Miller said.
“But we’re fortunate. We’ve got five separate dining rooms, so we can have one table in each so people aren’t near each other in that space.”
She’s missed the day-to-day action, familiar faces, and connection to community that comes with running a café.
“People make a café part of their day. It’s a place where people connect outside of the home.
“People are always catching up, whether it’s every day at the same time, or every week with the same group. We’ve got people who’ll run or walk around the lake and be in having coffee seven days a week,” Mrs Miller said.
“We’ve got a very loyal, regular customer base, and I’d usually chat to the regulars and see how they’re going. I’ve had a few text me during this time, and it’s been lovely to stay in contact.”
It’s been saddening for her to see employees without their usual opportunity to shine, whether front of house, or out the back.
“The fact that we’ve got a staff skillset here that hasn’t been able to be utilised; it’s sad. In particular, for chefs.
“What can they do during this time when they’re not working, when their skillset is based in a kitchen? It’s difficult. There’s only so many egg and bacon rolls people can make for takeaway,” she said.
There might be a taste of normality and trade on the way, but Mrs Miller doesn’t envision the hospitality industry quickly returning to anything like its pre-pandemic self.
“I don’t think we will be 100 per cent back to how we used to be for a very long time. There are practices that we have to implement that we probably should have always implemented, like hand sanitiser. They’ll always be with us now.
“It’ll be nice for people to know they’ve seen the worst, and this is not the best, but it’s better than nothing.”
Mrs Miller expects there will be a greater drive to support local producers and businesses in Ballarat, as residents stop and reassess “what’s important for them.”
“The community will see the need to support what’s around them, more so than what they can get outside of the town. People will think twice about swinging to Melbourne for something.
“The way hospitality venues have successfully pivoted and become something they probably didn’t think was possible, it’s amazing. It gives Ballarat people the choice when everything’s back to normal,” she said.