Barista and butcher meat in the sandwich

Coronavirus has created a boom-or-bust environment for small business owners in the Hunter with hundreds forced to shut down while others are run off their feet.

Owner of the Happy Wombat restaurant/bar on Hunter Street, Newcastle, Luke Tilse, says the federal government’s forced closure of cafes, pubs, clubs and restaurants on 22 March was an “enormous relief”. Mr Tilse had been desperately trying to adhere to strict social distancing and hygiene measures while barely staying afloat financially.

“We were caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “We needed to get people through the door to prevent bankruptcy, but that meant doing a bad job by the community in regard to the virus.”

While the pressure of running a business in impossible circumstances has been lifted, Mr Tilse now faces the ongoing pressure to survive economically.

“I got approved for one of the new government loans very quickly. I didn’t want to take on more debt but it’s how I’ll pay my outstanding invoices with no income.” Mr Tilse was saddened to force his 21 staff members into unemployment but said the decision ensured they were now eligible for income assistance.

“The staff can now all get the $550 government support a week,” he said. “I’m doing my best to guide them and set them up, but I’m restricted by my lack of cash flow.” 

The Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott said the Morrison government had provided an appropriate support package for these extraordinary times. “We applaud the government’s measures to double income assistance, making it more flexible,” she said. “Waiving the rules and waiting periods for payments means people who need assistance now can access payments quickly.”

Mr Tilse said he was happy with the speed at which his business loan was approved but described the government’s performance as “poor at times”, in particular the lack of detail for businesses forced to change their trading model overnight.

“Fortunately my landlord is an absolutely amazing bloke who has offered to put my lease on hold. Not having to still pay rent is a massive thing and I’d ask that all landlords be as kind as they possibly can while businesses are in this position.”

Mr Tilse will trial a takeaway coffee cart as well as home delivery in the coming weeks and says he’s prepared to “live like a pauper” for the next six to 12 months to give himself the best chance of reopening his business when the crisis passes.

On the other end of the spectrum, Lewis Dunn of Dunn’s Butchers New Lambton, is working 14-hour days as his business struggles to keep up with a massive increase in demand from worried customers.

“We’ve been completely flat out, it’s been very hectic,” Mr Dunn said. “People are stockpiling, so we placed a purchase limit of only a kilo of mince and a kilo of sausages at a time to give everyone a go.” Mr Dunn says there are stock shortages down the line and wholesale prices have risen.

“Things may have to be rationed out a little more if this continues,” he said. “Although it’s good from a business point of view there’s basically too much work for the three of us here at the moment.”

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