Melbourne trade recovering at different rates


Sweet Lulus in Keilor in Melbourne’s northwest is one of many suburban cafes that have seen an increase in business. Photo: supplied

Bagel pioneer Five and Dime is the latest victim of the pandemic-induced loss of trade in Melbourne’s CBD, shutting its doors last Friday – but in the suburbs, it’s a different story.

Melbourne was deemed the most liveable city in the world – in fact it was ranked first in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Global Liveability Index for seven years in a row because of its art and culture, thriving businesses and an exciting night life with limitless activities.

But two years on from the age of coronavirus, parts of the city continue to suffer from the financial crisis resulting from the pandemic and restrictions subsequently imposed on Melbourne and Victoria.

In fact, the City of Melbourne reported that “this COVID-led recession is comparable to the impacts from the concurrence of WWI and the Spanish Flu pandemic.”

In the context of the way Melbourne dealt with the pandemic it’s crazy to think many small businesses weathered the storm and remained open.

But there were more – like Five and Dime – that sadly had to close their doors.

Unfortunately accompanying these closures is the termination of people’s livelihoods.

“Victoria lost 128,000 jobs in April 2020, the largest job month reduction before this was back in March 1991 with 38,000 losing their jobs,” the City of Melbourne found in its Economic Impacts of Covid-19 On the City of Melbourne report.

Needless to say, the last two years have been a very testing time for business owners with the almost impossible challenge of staying open.

But what about the businesses that did survive the pandemic? What challenges did they have to face and what kind of support did they have from the state government?

Paul Blackmore, the owner of Sweet Lulu’s Cafe located in Keilor Village was one of many Victorian small business owners who faced months on end of uncertainty and fears over whether or not they would have to close permanently.

“When we were shut down, we were trying to go into uncharted waters ourselves to try and see where it would take us and that was to keep our own sanity, then to just sit around and twiddle our thumbs looking at how bad it was,” he says.

The constant lockdowns, changing of rules and financial burdens restricted business owners such as Paul in many ways not felt or seen before.

“It was just painful because we didn’t know how else to make any money,” he says.

What’s most upsetting about the conditions that these small businesses and their owners were put under was that they were forced to adapt to immense and frequent changes placed on them by the Victorian government.

Such changes were not seen on the same scale for big businesses, such as supermarkets, with capacity limits on customers, social distancing requirements and mask mandates being required at one time or another.

For a café or a restaurant such restrictions were far harder to manage,  causing business owners to wonder why they were forced to close or change their model in order to survive (compared to larger companies such as Coles, Woolworths and Aldi who were allowed to remain open with fewer changes or restrictions).

Obviously, cafes or restaurants and supermarkets serve different purposes with the latter providing necessities of everyday life.

But from the perspective of many small businesses it was still hard to understand why thousands of people could enter a store all at once yet going out for breakfast, lunch or dinner with friends posed a health risk.

The argument could be made that within a café or restaurant setting, it is far easier to control foot traffic from customers and social distancing.

Outside support payments was enough done by the government to help struggling businesses?

Professor of Economics at Melbourne University Chris Edmund believes the financial support from the state government was almost at the right level.

“I’m very pleasantly surprised in how much support for businesses and workers was forthcoming,” he says.

He thought more could have been done with regard to the timing of the assistance.

“In particular those gaps in job keeper and there were other gaps as well, so I don’t think it was perfect,” he says.

“I would’ve liked to have seen more support available in the second half of 2021 when we had the delta and omicron wave when job keeper was already over, and we didn’t see the same kind of systematic support that we had earlier.”

But while cafes and restaurants outside the CBD suffered and many even sadly closed their doors, the ones that did survive can breathe easy knowing that with the easing of restrictions people are flocking to them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Collins St, 5p.m. by John Brack (1955)

Sadly, the same cannot be said for businesses within the CBD with office buildings being closed throughout the lockdowns and many people choosing to continue to work from home, which has left the city bare.

Streets are far less busy; the hustle and bustle city lifestyle of Melbourne is certainly fading, and this is having a major effect on businesses.

In an article written by The Age one business owner proclaimed, “Look around, the city’s dead. It’s a really sad thing.”

The biggest struggle these businesses will face is not attracting customers but finding customers, as the last two years have seen people gotten used to living a different lifestyle that has seen them work from home and save money on public transport and petrol.

One solution that the state government and city council have come up with is incentive discounts, which allow people to get discounts on food if they spend over a certain amount during certain times in the CBD, or claim some money back after they’ve paid for their meal.

Though they have been successful in upping the number of customers across the city, these incentives won’t last forever and on their own won’t be enough to help businesses survive.

Not everyone enjoys working from home, but it will take some time before the CBD sees that same level of traffic in pre-covid times that inspired artwork such as John Brack’s  iconic ‘Collins St, 5p.m.’.

Let’s hope life in lockdown and reliance on restrictions become a distant memory as Melbourne builds itself back up as the most liveable city in the world.