Asia Pacific

Covid-19 country focus: Australia

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Australia’s foodservice sector has been battered by drought, fire and flood – and now Covid-19. Could the way forward embrace more sustainable goals?

There’s an old curse, allegedly Chinese, that states: “May you live in interesting times.” The world is living through “interesting” times at the moment with pandemic and measures to combat it seemingly the only thing anyone talks about. It may be said that Australia’s interesting times began before the rest of the world, with widespread drought followed by uncontrollable, large scale bush fires visible from space at the close of 2019.

Thankfully the rain fell and extinguished the fires, but then it carried on falling causing floods. Just as these were being mopped up and Australian’s were being encouraged to get back out to the tourist hotspots Covid-19 sent everyone home.

“The areas affected by the bushfires over summer were initially closed off to allow local authorities to reopen roads, restore utilities and prevent looting and spectators,” says Andrew Brain FCSI, director of Melbourne-based Foodservice Consultants Australia.

“However, once the roads were opened we were all encouraged to go in and patronise the pubs, hotels, cafes and restaurants of the towns directly effected as a push to get them back on their feet. This was working, but it lasted less than two months before the state Victoria declared a State of Emergency due to Covid-19 and we were all forced into lockdown.”

Help for business

The lockdown measures seem to have worked. At its peak on 28 March 2020 the disease caused 460 deaths. A month on this was down to 15. At time of writing the various states are talking about relaxing restrictions in a couple of weeks. However, the reopening of Sydney’s beaches was stopped due to mass flouting of social distancing guidelines.

This is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for beleaguered businesses and rural communities, which are bearing the brunt of the county’s woes. It doesn’t help that the market for a majority of Australia’s food exports is China – although the lifting of restrictions there is another hopeful sign.

The government recently increased the debt threshold before creditors can apply for bankruptcy notice from AUS$5,00 to AUS$21,000, as a lifeline for struggling businesses. It also increased the time a debtor has, in which to respond to the bankruptcy notice, from 21 days to six months.

Hopes for the future

And how can FCSI consultants help businesses pick up when restrictions are lifted? Will things be done differently? “There is no cookie cutter solution as our clients operate in different areas of foodservice,” says Mario Sequeira FCSI chair of the Asia Pacific Division. “Management consultants will have to assist clients with more focused procurement processes, staff personal hygiene and food safety training.”

Sequeira also states that building flexibility into the business model to adapt to known and unknown changes will be high on everyone’s list of things to do after the impact of Covid-19 on hospitality businesses.

“I’ve been speaking to our FCSI colleagues over the past few months and common thread has been the noticeable reduction in costs associated with travel and meetings,” says Brain. “Online conferencing has become the order of the day.”

Although the appeal of reducing costs may drive a change in behaviour if it also means a reduction in carbon emissions from car and plane journeys it is all good. Many believe that climate change may have had a hand in the challenges that Australia faced before Covid-19.

Foodservice consultants will have a part to play in building a more resilient and sustainable foodservice industry, not only in Australia, but around the world for as long as these ‘interesting times’ remain with us. “I know it’s a cold hard truth and economically hard to swallow, but having removed the ‘want’ from our selfish buying habits and focused on the ‘need’, our environment is breathing a sigh of fresh air,” says Brain.

“We place a higher value on the product and the purchase. This translates to a higher value and respect towards the staffer selling the product. I’m hoping this is respect will be shown to the hospitality staff when we finally get to sit down in a café or restaurant again.”

Jacquetta Picton