‘Far from normal’: CBD businesses cling to customers as office workers stay away

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Cafes and bars finally opened two weeks ago, but the city is still "miles away from normal" for small business owners, which are holding out hope for office workers to return to Melbourne's CBD before March, when the federal government pulls its JobKeeper wages subsidy.

For Thai boat noodles joint Soi 38, burrowed under a car park off Little Collins Street, March is also when its lease is up.

The owners of Soi 38 are trying to stay positive.Credit:Joe Armao

Part-owner Chavalit "Top" Piyaphanee wants Melbourne to be closer to normal before he feels comfortable renewing the lease, with the business trading at just 10 to 15 per cent.

"It's tough, but it's better than zero," he said. At least they are paying bills, maintaining the business and putting some staff in work.

Soi 38 pivoted to takeaway-only during the gruelling 15 weeks of lockdown and delivered meals all the way to Dandenong.

Now it is trying to expand into a neighbouring space in the car park to seat more diners, having this week welcomed customers all the way from Geelong after the "ring of steel" around Melbourne lifted.

Ian Curley, chef and co-owner at Kirk’s Wine Bar on Hardware Lane.Credit:Joe Armao

Kirk's Wine Bar on Hardware Lane was immediately busy after reopening, but renowned chef and co-owner Ian Curley said it was disconcerting waiting for its core customers to return to the city.

Premier Daniel Andrews has declared Melbourne is open, all the while asking office workers to stay home, which Mr Curley said was getting in the way of the city's new start.

"Our concern is that if they don't come back when we think they are, we're going to be left in the city with basically businesses that are not tradeable," he said.

The French Saloon, above Kirk's Wine Bar, has remained closed except for occasional events because about 80 per cent of its customers wander down from office buildings. Other businesses won't reopen at all.

Sally Fether at Metropolis Bookshop in Curtin House.Credit:Jason South

A few doors down Hardware Lane, on the corner of Little Bourke Street, Camera Lane has left the city after 35 years. Owner Alan Lane said it would never return after moving to Spotswood in the inner-west.

Sally Fether, who moved her Metropolis Bookshop to Curtin House on Swanston Street 16 years ago, has watched the pandemic short-circuit rapid growth in the CBD.

Loyal customers have been seeking out the destination store in the past two weeks and she is getting foot traffic as diners make their way up Curtin House to Rooftop Bar. But it's not the same as previous Novembers.

Mr Tulk cafe is seating diners again while its home in the State Library remains closed. Owner Michael Togias is missing those customers and the bubbling CBD.

Mr Tulk cafe, which is connected to the State Library, has been closed for months.Credit:Joe Armao

"The beauty of Melbourne is, you come down, you get something to eat, drink, you go do your retail therapy and it’s all intertwined. So many cities in the world want to replicate what we do here. And it’s hard, we’ve got to try and protect it," Mr Togias said.

"But I'm positive. Sometimes you've got to look at your business and say, OK, at the moment it's not about trying to grow your business or expand. It's about trying to survive … and then we can prosper later on."

Restaurateur Con Christopoulos, co-owner of the European Group, which counts Kirk's Wine Bar and City Wine Shop among its venues, said: "We're miles away from normal."

His businesses on Spring Street, on the edge of the city, have not suffered as much as those in the thick of the CBD. Still, none of his venues would be viable without JobKeeper.

"There's no light at the end of the tunnel for us. There is a cliff in March," Mr Christopoulos said.

Mr Tulk cafe reopened last week.Credit:Joe Armao

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