High stakes: Melbourne’s CBD eateries are ‘starting from scratch’ as office workers return to the city

Bluebag Melbourne

The Bluebag outlet in Madame Brussels Lane in Melbourne CBD. Source: Facebook.

Cafes and eateries in the heart of the Melbourne CBD are eagerly awaiting the return of more office workers to the city, and with it, the promise of much-needed sales and stability. 

When asked if his business is looking forward to more office workers coming back into the city on a daily basis, Earl Canteen director Simon O’Regan says “that’s putting it mildly”. 

Earl Canteen was established 11 years ago and sells its gourmet sandwiches, salads and coffee from six locations across Melbourne’s business district. 

“We play pretty strongly in the corporate space, and that has been super consistent for the past 11 years; from Monday to Friday, it would be a very level sort of week. Obviously, that’s all changed since March [last year],” he tells SmartCompany

On Thursday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced more office workers will be able to commute to the city once again, as the state resumes its staged return to office-based working that was put on hold earlier this month. 

Private-sector employers will be able to have 50% of their employees back working from their offices from Monday, January 18, while the Victorian public services will operate with 25% of employees on site. 

The capacity limits for Victorian office workspaces are expected to be increased again in late-February, but this will depend on public health advice.

Mandatory mask-wearing rules will also be relaxed across the state, with most office workers not required to wear face masks from Monday. 

After a “hiatus” during the 2020 lockdowns, five of the six Earl Canteen locations are now back open, and O’Regan says the business is trading at 10% of its pre-COVID-19 sales.

If that number can grow to between 30-45% in the coming weeks, that would be a “really good outcome”, he says. 

It is difficult to predict exactly how many workers will return to their city work locations straight away, and O’Regan says even within the CBD, the level of activity varies. This is an important consideration for venues like his that are located within office buildings and shopping centres. 

While things are picking up at the Spring Street end of town, the legal precinct around William Street is taking longer, he says. 

“We are at the mercy of each different building, and every part of the city is different,” he adds. 

The emptiness of office buildings and apartment towers has also been felt by Bluebag, which ordinarily sells its fresh salads and coffee from eight locations across the CBD. The business has been operating since 1998. 

While Bluebag director Son Mohan says yesterday’s announcement by the Premier is “the best thing that’s happened since last March”, there’s also a degree of anxiety about whether people will come back to the city, and what the city will look like if they don’t. 

Only three of the business’ once-busy venues are currently open, and Mohan tells SmartCompany her team will see how the next few weeks go before deciding to open more sites. If things go to plan, more outlets will be open by February 1.


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Starting over

For these once-buzzing eateries, there’s a sense that they are now starting from scratch.

Indeed, Mohan says she’s told the Bluebag team that it’s essentially their “first day in business” and anyone and everyone is “up for grabs” as a potential customer. 

“We are all learning new ways to do things,” she says. 

This includes recruiting for new staff. 

Before Melbourne’s strict lockdowns last year, Bluebag employed about 90 people. The business currently has 15 employees but is in the process of advertising for new positions.

However, it’s a challenging situation, says the business owner. It’s both difficult to find staff at the moment, and impossible to predict if there will in fact be enough work for these new employees once they come on board. 

Earl Canteen is in a similar position. As we spoke on Friday morning, O’Regan was finalising a new job ad. 

Pre-COVID-19, the business had more than 70 employees, and that number is now at 35. While JobKeeper allowed the business to keep a core staff together throughout 2020, O’Regan says the absence of both the student population and working holidaymakers is making recruiting difficult.

“Everyone is really crying out for good people at the moment,” he says. 

An estimated 1 million people travelled to the CBD each day before COVID-19 hit, and half of those did so for work. The once-bustling city streets and trams are now empty, says Mohan, and it’s “heartbreaking” to see. 

Both she and O’Regan believe the local and state government have important roles to play in encouraging people back to the CBD.

“At some point, the government has to push people to come back to work,” she says. 

“It won’t be an easy transition … but I don’t think Victoria can handle a shift like this, with people working from home from a long-term perspective.”


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