Lessons from adversity: business and coming back from the brink
How three business owners handled existential threats in the past and what it taught them about dealing with the current threat.
The coronavirus pandemic and its associated impacts are undoubtedly ‘unprecedented’, but it’s not as though hospitality businesses have never had to deal with adversity before. Indeed, they seem to specialise in it.
We speak to three business owners who have dealt with major challenges in the past to see what strategies served them well and if there are lessons to be applied to the COVID-19 crisis.
Sam Crofskey – C1 Espresso, Christchurch, New Zealand
C1 Espresso was destroyed in the devastating 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people. “It wasn’t just a few buildings knocked down,” says owner Sam Crofskey. “It was the entire city bulldozed.”
Crofskey was insured to rebuild. “So we knew we would reopen,” he says, “but it wasn’t clear how and we didn’t know where to start.”
As Crofskey took stock, he saw many businesses rush to reinvent themselves. “Lots of people jumped straight into the next thing,” he says. “They set up takeaway coffee carts and pop-up restaurants in garages. That created some beautiful moments and great news-bites but they weren’t necessarily realistic ways of getting out of a mess.”
He sees a parallel in the way hospitality owners are jumping into food delivery now. “This is a time of reaching out and valuing community but leading with your heart doesn’t always lead to strong business decisions,” he says. “People might be excited that they sell 200 burgers a night but for what? You might have revenue, but the profit isn’t necessarily there.”
He counsels people to use lockdown as an opportunity to step back and assess with a cool head. “Now is the time to do the boring things that no hospitality owner ever wants to do,” he says. “Go through your whole business. Look at your numbers and make sure you’re super tight. Talk to your landlord. Think about new suppliers. Upskill your team. Focus on reopening well, whenever that may be. Restructure so you’re lean and able to weather a downturn.”
He is also looking forward to recovery, partly because he believes it will reaffirm how much people value hospitality. When C1 reopened, 18 months after the earthquake, it was the first permanent city business to do so. The cafe became a beacon of renewal.
“People saw us as a shining light,” he says. “It highlighted the role of hospitality in rebuilding. People were craving that sense of normality and human contact.” He’s sure it will be the same this time. “Yes, we will sell coffee and muffins but our main service will be to provide a space for the community,” he says. “That’s what true hospitality is all about.”
Leanne De Bortoli – De Bortoli Wines, Yarra Valley, Victoria
Winemaker Leanne De Bortoli says business owners need to use adversity as an opportunity to focus. On February 7, 2009, the day of Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires, she had 170 wedding guests on her Yarra Valley property.
“When everything went pear-shaped we had to keep everyone confined to the site,” she says. “The roads leading out were closed off.” As fire entered the property, she mobilised utes and tractors with tanks of water. They lost some vines, and the whole vintage to smoke taint, but De Bortoli still considers her family relatively lucky on a day when 173 people died and many properties were destroyed.
Community support was essential to regional recovery and also to rallying her own staff. “There was a terrible feeling of displacement which was very difficult for a lot of people,” she says. “We found it was important for people to be able to get together and talk through their experiences. It wasn’t that they were asking anyone to give them a solution, it was a way of processing it. For our staff, it was ensuring they knew they still had a job. It was about keeping the communication going.”
It’s the same now, despite the challenges of social distancing. “Human beings are very social creatures,” says De Bortoli. “It is very weird having Friday evening drinks via Zoom or Houseparty but at least it is something. You can still have that flow of information and care.”
In 2009, the De Bortolis used the loss of some vines as an opportunity to replant with new varieties such as gamay, which they now see as an important part of the Yarra Valley mix. “We asked ourselves what might grow better and where the market might be going,” says De Bortoli. “Whenever there’s any sort of crisis, you can moan and groan, but it’s happened, so where do we go, what do we do? You may as well think positively.”
Javier Codina – Moda restaurant, Brisbane, Queensland
Codina still gets goosebumps thinking about the Brisbane floods of mid-January 2011. “The sound of the Brisbane River… terrifying Mother Nature,” he says. “When you see a natural disaster on TV it’s one thing, but being in it, you listen, smell, you see the dirt, the debris, it was raining, raining, raining.”
Codina stripped his Moda restaurant of everything “from the biggest table to the smallest teaspoon”, but fortunately the floodwaters receded before they got to his building. Brisbane, though, was a traumatised ghost town.
The flood taught him fortitude and focus. In 2011, Moda was the first restaurant to reopen. “When there’s a problem, we act,” he says. “We keep in touch with the community. We are not going to sit in our house and take a holiday. No, we are fighters.”
He’s applying the same principles now. “We transformed the restaurant into a deli,” he says. “We do food-to-go. We do deliveries. We bring smiles and hope and something fantastic to put in our customers’ bellies.”
Codina recommends businesses proactively focus on their daily challenges and maintain faith there will be an end to the crisis. “I concentrate on the detail,” he says. “Last weekend, I looked in the freezer, found some scampi, decided to do seafood platters and sold them all.”
At the same time, he has an eye on the future. “We will be out the other side,” says Codina. “We don’t know when, but I want to be there for my family, my staff, my suppliers, my customers. We will celebrate with them when we are through this.”
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