Business balancing act as Covid causes havoc

Kiara Dent and Michael Cichocki at the reopened Tumut River Brewing Co.

Local businesses continue to negotiate the fast-changing Covid landscape. One business hard-hit since the new year started has been Tumut River Brewing Co.

The brewery reopened on Tuesday, after a period of closure due to restrictions and staff testing positive.

“On Friday the 24th of December the government implemented more Covid restrictions, we knew this would affect our Boxing Day trade and decided it would not be viable to open that day,” Brewery proprietor Tim Martin said.

“We normally only close on Christmas Day and the two days of our staff party – this has been the way since we opened the business so any day we have to close is a big deal to us. 

“During the period between Christmas and New Year’s two of our staff (on leave, not present) tested Covid positive limiting our available staff.

Two others were close contacts and had to isolate while waiting for results. 

“They were due to work New Year’s Eve and this meant we didn’t have the staff to trade the whole day. We elected to close over lunch so we could still have our New Year’s Eve gig. We posted on social media to advise that one of our team had been a close contact. We notified all those booked in for our New Year’s Eve event to let them know that there had been a contact in our team and the risk of one of our team contracting the virus had increased.”

Two large bookings cancelled on New Year’s Eve as a result of this. 

On New Year’s Day a staff member who had worked over the Christmas break had shown symptoms and when given a rapid test was positive. The Brewery closed Saturday and Sunday (January 1 and 2) to test all staff and clean.

The staff member in question then got a PCR test for confirmation on Monday, and all other staff tested negative via rapid test. The Brewery started trading again on January 3.

“Staff started complaining about Covid symptoms early Tuesday morning (January 4),” Mr Martin said. 

“We tested the affected staff and found another positive case. At this point it was enough of a concern that we chose to have all staff have a PCR test and isolate for seven days or until they received a negative result. At this stage we are all still waiting our results. But seven days has well and truly passed so those who feel well and have no symptoms have returned to work as per current guidelines.”

The timing, smack bang in the middle of the Christmas-New Year period, could hardly have been worse.

“Last year January was our busiest month, even bigger than December and the bulk of January’s trade comes in the first week or two,” Mr Martin said.

“This year sales are already in the toilet thanks to Covid and January has no hope of improving on December, let alone last year. It is therefore the worst time of the year for this to have happened given it is usually our busiest.”

He said the viability of the business is coming into question.

Hospitality in the form we operate is borderline infeasible at this point,” he said. 

“Live performers, events, large groups. What’s the point in trying to continue with these services when you plan, promote, pay deposits and then have to cancel at the last minute? How many times can you tell customers today were open at these times but tomorrow it’s…”

The Brewery is planning to move to a larger premises on Adelong Road, but this crisis has at the very least delayed this, despite hundreds and thousands of dollars having been invested in it already.

“Can you imagine what it’s like to one day be building something that you think is going to make a real difference and the next to not know if it’ll be here in a year?” Mr Martin said.

“Then there is the mental and physical strain on myself and our staff who are working through a period of uncertainty, losing wages, morale.”

He said that while most customers have been very understanding, there are always some who are not. 

“I believe that consistency is the key in most small businesses and this constant opening and closing, changing of hours and menus etc, understanding or not does not make clients more inclined to visit,” he said.

However, the Brewery team aren’t ready to give up and pack up.

“We will not quit but as usual we have had to pivot, again,” Mr Martin said.

“We are still moving but not as soon as we had hoped. The whole thing has had to slow down and be prioritised. And let’s be real, what good is a venue for 400 people and big performances if we can’t fill the place? When or if things go back to normal, we’ll start the move push again but until then we are going to focus on what we can do from here.

Mr Martin said the brewery had increased its distribution and is focused on building the brand further across NSW/ACT and Victoria.

“We have re-invested in more efficient high-volume equipment for our kitchen so we can produce more food faster for our growing home delivery and takeaway business and we are investing in more testing and quality control equipment for our brewery meaning we should have a better yield per tank in the brewery,” he said.

“It’s not all sunshine and lollipops but it’s not all doom and gloom either. We’re just working with the hands we’re dealt and trying to stay positive. Overall, the level of local support and positive feedback about what we do from people further abroad has been amazing.”