One Melbourne small business has taken it on itself to support some of the city’s casual workers, offering free meals to anyone who has found themselves with no income and no support for two weeks. And the local community has jumped on board with a gusto.
The Bearded Jaffle in Ascot Vale — the toastie business owned by AFL star Max Gawn and his brother Todd Gawn — is shouting lunches for casual workers, hospitality staff and contractors, or anyone else who has found themselves without any income at all during Melbourne’s fourth COVID-19 lockdown.
On Monday, Todd Gawn posted on the Ascot Vale Good Karma Network, inviting anyone with a 5km radius who’s struggling financially to order a free meal online, up to the value of $25.
Initially, Gawn had said the offer was limited to ten meals per day. This is a hospitality business, after all.
However, the community rallied, with members of the Facebook group offering to purchase additional meals to be paid forward.
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“I think we’re lucky that we’re in Ascot Vale, it’s a bloody good group of people around here,” Gawn says.
“People have really gone out of their way to try to support everyone.”
One woman donated $250, enough to pay for at least ten more meals.
And, as of close-of-business on Wednesday, the business has expanded the offer and dished out some 160 free lunches. That’s expected to double again within 24 hours.
“What else are they going to do?”
For Gawn, this initiative comes as a response to an “incredibly disturbing” situation in Victoria.
“I actually can’t comprehend that there are half a million casuals in Victoria that have just basically been told to starve,” Gawn explains.
“They live week-to-week as it is,” he adds.
“What else are they going to do?”
As of Wednesday, the lockdown in Greater Melbourne has been extended again, for another seven days.
Gawn knows how hard it is to be a casual worker in hospitality. Until just a few years ago he was one himself.
If he’d found himself out of work even for a week back then, he wouldn’t have known what to do. Now, he feels a kind of responsibility to look after his own.
“People need something now.
“We’re not able to do much, but if it’s one less meal someone has to worry about, that’s something.”
Even some of the food delivery apps have “come to the party”, Gawn says.
Doordash is delivering meals for hospitality workers for free, for example, meaning people don’t have to deal with any perceived shame in accepting a free meal.
“If it was me, I would feel awkward coming in,” he says
“People don’t have to face that.”
Going through changes
The COVID-19 crisis has led to some big changes for The Bearded Jaffle. Initially, what is now the cafe was intended to be a prep kitchen for the food truck, Gawn explains.
But, in March last year, the truck became “a glorified cupboard”, and the team pivoted to offer takeaway and delivery services from the stationary shop.
The truck has now been sold, and the store is complemented by an array of rustic furniture outside, and even a kitchen garden, which is also open to the public.
“People can just come and get whatever they need whenever they want it. We certainly won’t use it all.”
The business has kept itself afloat, he notes. But it hasn’t been an easy ride.
The Bearded Jaffle was among the more than 12,000 businesses that missed out on grant funding from the Victorian government, because of a ‘flawed’ application process.
It was just a few weeks ago that Gawn was invited to reapply.
Needless to say, he’s exasperated with the state government, and the continuing lockdown situation.
“It shouldn’t be up to us”
When asked whether he would like to see a JobKeeper-style support package to support businesses like his, he notes that these snap lockdowns seem to happen in Victoria more often than anywhere else.
“It’s a bit rich for Victoria to be demanding a handout,” he says.
But, he says some kind of government support is necessary, and fast. What business owners need is some certainty over what’s available to them and whether they’re eligible.
And the “blame game” is not helping anyone.
“The squabbling needs to stop between them and they just need to sort it out.”
Ultimately, it’s businesses like The Bearded Jaffle — that are struggling themselves — and members of the public that are coming together to support vulnerable workers.
“It shouldn’t be up to us … to do what the government should be doing,” Gawn says.
“The anger in Victoria is a lot more palpable than it’s ever been, and I don’t know how long the public is going to keep siding with them.”