This week SmartCompany is speaking to key members of the small business and startup communities to find out what they want to see in next week’s budget. This is the fifth instalment of the series, which will be published throughout the week.
Snug in Moss Vale in NSW’s southern highlands, Birch Restaurant is just one of hundreds of thousands of regional small businesses that has been tackling the challenges of COVID-19 and natural disasters over the past two years.
As budget time approaches, owner Renée Wallace would love to see ongoing support for businesses like hers. But more so, she wants some clarity on when that support is going to come, and some breathing room to start planning again.
What is the biggest challenge facing your business, and the hospitality industry?
After two years of lockdowns and natural disasters, Wallace says one of the biggest challenges facing the hospitality and tourism sectors is sheer exhaustion.
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And while the pandemic is no longer making front page news every day, that exhaustion is not abating.
Business support has been lacking in 2022, she says, and as small businesses look forward to the recovery period, there’s a lack of clarity around what they can expect over the next few months.
“There’s always a lot of talk and not a whole lot of action,” she adds.
“Now’s the time where we really expect that action”
Birch’s two biggest costs — staffing and supplies — are both increasing, Wallace notes.
At a time when it’s already difficult to find staff, businesses like hers are also grappling with staff absences due to COVID-19 isolation rules. Restaurants are also seeing more last-minute cancellations, for the same reason, sometimes losing up to 50% of the week’s bookings.
The recent flooding crisis on the east coast has affected Birch’s suppliers, who have been unable to recover as quickly as they would have hoped because of their own staffing shortages. There’s no one to replant crops, or to salvage damaged crops, for example.
“It’s another hurdle in two years of tremendous amount of hurdles, that I kind of feel has been really downplayed and unresolved,” she adds.
“How do we plan forward? There’s no confidence in the future.”
What keeps you up at night?
The team at Birch Restaurant are “a very creative bunch”, Wallace says.
During the pandemic, the business pivoted from offering only dine-in services to launching takeaway, a home chef service, a general store, events and even tours.
The thing keeping her up at night now is the amount of opportunities she can see to further diversify, recover and grow.
“At the moment, we don’t have the resources to capitalise on any of those,” she says.
“The last three months have probably been the most challenging of the entire past two years.”
What can the government do to help?
Wallace would like to see more assistance from the government for recovery. But more importantly, she wants something beyond promises and pledges. She wants a roadmap, timescales and some certainty.
“Stop talking about it and just start doing something,” she implores.
For example, the overhaul of the PAYG system that has already been announced is very welcome, she says. But it will require the current government to be re-elected and new legislation to be passed.
“There’s these plans, and they all sound great on paper,” she says, but when you consider the time they take to implement, “you’re probably going to be too late for a great deal of businesses”.
This is certainty the case for any policy changes that would allow businesses like Birch to plan for business development, or even large event bookings.
“At the moment, we’re still planning with that ‘if’, ‘but’, ‘maybe’ scenario which is exhausting, but also still gives you a really deep sense of uncertainty,” Wallace explains.
Will this budget sway the small business vote?
As for whether Wallace expects to get this clarity from the budget papers, her confidence levels are at a five out of 10.
However, she says “it’s going to have to be a pretty convincing budget” to sway the small business and hospitality vote.
“The track record over the past two years will be enough evidence to sway anyone’s decision,” she says.
Wallace feels this is almost a wasted budget; it’s a political budget if there ever was one. She feels the government will simply be announcing measures they think people want to hear, in order to get some leverage before voters head to the polls in May.
“I don’t feel that the decisions … are going to be driven by the right reasons, and it will have to be some pretty major statements and pretty major moves to convince me otherwise,” she says.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any magical solutions and no huge amounts of hope given to small businesses in a way that we could actually rely on it happening.”