An unlikely bond has developed between a gourmet barbecue sauce business in regional Victoria and a maternity store in Geelong, as Australia’s small businesses pull together to support business owners affected by the bushfires.
The owners of Geelong’s Aqua Maternity were driven to buy products from Bright’s Alpine Sauce Co, thanks to the social media campaign #EmptyEsky, which is showcasing regional businesses in bushfire-affected areas, at the same time as other campaigns #SpendWithThem and #BuyFromTheBush continue to gain traction.
Alpine Sauce Co is owned by restaurateurs Susan and Kevin Plath, who lost their peak-season customers and suppliers in one fell swoop when the bushfires hit Bright over the festive season.
The Plaths also run The Chicken Shop in the popular holiday town, but when it became obvious they couldn’t reopen the business or even stock their empty fridges, they decided to set up a Facebook page for Alpine Sauce Co and tagged #EmptyEsky.
The official #EmptyEsky account reposted the photo of the sauce bottle with a challenge to its followers to buy 100 units.
“That happened in under two hours,” Susan Plath tells SmartCompany.
“By the end of the day, it went to 500.
“Now I think it’s at well over 2,000 bottles and over 1,000 orders.”
The post resulted in an unprecedented number of sales, media coverage, and a wider network connecting the co-founders with more opportunities.
According to Plath, the #EmptyEsky campaign also serves as a gateway for communities to support small business owners in the surrounding area, who may be less inclined to speak out about their struggles and more likely to bottle their stress.
On the other hand, Susan Plath tells SmartCompany that even with this unexpected level of orders coming into her business, she doesn’t expect this windfall to last or even to get the restaurant back on its feet, considering the small margin of each sauce bottle and the restaurant’s lost resources.
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WE NEED YOU TO BE IN THIS FOR THE LONG HAUL!!! Watch this space for all the amazing local businesses you can support by visiting and filling up your #emptyesky. Go on a road trip, visit the local businesses devastated by the fires, hear their stories and purchase their incredible products! Spread the word and invite your friends to do an #emptyesky trip too. Let’s invest into getting our neighbours back on their feet ❤️ #bushfiresaustralia #australia #emptyesky #weareone #smallbusiness #gowithemptyeskies
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Empowering fellow entrepreneurs
Aqua Maternity co-owner Erin McGowan was one of the many #EmptyEsky followers who bought a bottle of Alpine Sauce Co’s barbecue sauce.
McGowan runs the retail store with her sister Ainsley Kirk, and the pair decided to go one step further and share a photo of the sauce via Aqua Maternity’s Instagram Story, even though McGowan felt it was a bit of a risk, she tells SmartCompany.
“Aqua Maternity is a pregnancy and baby store, which has nothing to do with barbecue sauce,” she says.
“But what we do know is that running a small business is tough.
“In this climate, it’s increasingly important that we all support each other.”
Although Geelong ranks as Victoria’s second-largest city, McGowan feels a small community mentality allows the locals to better empathise with country towns.
“It’s devastating to hear,” she says.
“You feel a bit isolated and useless, particularly when your own community is not directly affected.”
In light of the recent bushfire crisis, McGowan found she wasn’t the only one feeling this way, as local businesses came together for a fundraising event Gather for Good, which was organised by local make-up brand owner Hilary Holmes, who tells SmartCompany it raised $85,000 in a week.
The event galvanised McGowan: “It really demonstrated to me the power and value of small businesses within local communities.”
McGowan says it’s understandable that small business owners often feel unsure of how to support the bushfire relief effort, considering they rarely have excess funds that aren’t tied to their business.
However, she encourages small business owners to contribute their social media reach, and consider themselves as consumers with buying power.
“Ultimately, even though we’re business owners, we’re also consumers,” she says.
“I think you’ll find that a lot of small business owners do share the mentality that the more we promote each other, the more success we can all achieve.”
Beyond the immediate
Between bottling and packaging, Susan Plath is working to keep the story alive.
Although she was surprised by — and grateful for — the immediate response to being featured on the #EmptyEsky campaign, she also says she and her husband are anticipating a downturn in sales when they fall out of the news cycle.
Hopefully, she says, this will coincide with when tourists return to Bright, which she expects will be in March when people feel the area is completely safe from bushfires.
For now, the slim margins are keeping food on the table and a roof over the family’s head, while they apply for grants and insurance claims to repay their suppliers for the lost inventory.
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This is William – our beloved fridge in our restaurant. William should be full of chicken right now but instead he’s empty. Everything in him had to be thrown out. His friend, Mr Chill, our cold room, is 8 times bigger, and all of his contents thrown out too. To all the social media accounts being run by savvy marketing and content experts – who are creating really pretty posts of businesses with pretty pictures – this is what you should be posting. The reality. Take note and make some changes to your content. It’s not about you and your account. Not everyone has pretty pictures to share and they all need your help! I therefore encourage business owners out there to post a pic to show people how this impacted us (and we totally appreciated we are not as unfortunate as others right now!) @buyfromthebush @spendwiththem @emptyesky #bushfiresaustralia
Until then, Plath says they cannot ask their employees to come back to work or reopen the restaurant.
“There wouldn’t have been any point because there was nobody here,” she adds.
According to Plath, the timing hit particularly hard because “in small business and in farming, it’s harvest season to see through the quieter months”.
In the meantime, as the orders continue to roll in from the social media campaign, Plath says she’s relying on volunteers to help with the bottling and the manual work of shipping the bottles out. Friends drive up from Melbourne and after one fundraising market, she met a group of NAB employees who offered to use their two-day volunteering leave to help her.
Through the campaign, she was also connected to Melbourne specialist butcher Meatsmith, which has started to stock the sauce in store.
Having come from the city, Plath says she is more willing to share her story, acting as an unofficial ambassador for the region’s businesses online.
“I think everybody is optimistic and positive that people will come back, but I think they put on a brave face,” she says.
“They don’t really talk about the impact on their business financially and what it means for their families.
“There’s a lot of emotional side effects on your mental health in terms of the worry,” she adds.
“We can’t be the only ones feeling that.”