City News

‘I believe in this city’: Sydney businesses keep up hope during COVID recovery

Hospitality businesses across the city, including Cafe Freda's, have been devastated by COVID-19. Photo: Facebook.

By PATRICK MCKENZIE

As Sydney cautiously leaves behind more than two years of intermittent COVID-induced lockdowns and restrictions, the hospitality industry has continued to suffer.

The closure of local performance venues and independent hospitality businesses has become a common sight in the beleaguered city, with several iconic venues shutting their doors in the last few months alone.

Meanwhile, others have struggled to keep their head above water, continuing to pay fixed costs while staying closed and losing many months of revenue.

For David Abram, founder and owner of Cafe Freda’s on Oxford Street’s Taylor Square, the feeling is all too familiar.

“Sydney didn’t need COVID to ruin its nightlife, it did a pretty good job of managing that itself … I think we’re all aware that the lockout laws were disastrous for the nighttime economy,” Abram says.

Having spent a decade running his current venue’s predecessor, the similarly named, live music venue ‘Freda’s’ in Chippendale, Abram is no stranger to the tribulations of running a successful nightlife-oriented business.

“My previous business suffered immensely, I lost millions of dollars of revenue due to the politics at that time,” he says.

“We’ve been in an environment where the pendulum swung towards ‘no nightlife’ from something that was manageable in terms of the issues that existed in the city prior to the lockout laws being introduced which would have allowed nightlife to continue to thrive.”

Abram opened Cafe Freda’s at the end of the Chippendale site’s 10-year lease, both in light of the pandemic and the desire to take on a more exposed location.

Building on the stellar reputation established over years of hosting live acts and, since 2017, showcasing the works of local artists, the current venue opened on New Year’s Eve 2020.

While business was strong at the outset, given that the cafe occupied a corner of Taylor Square that had laid dormant for several years, challenges emerged.

Varying COVID restrictions and eventually the longer 2021 lockdown brought the industry to an all too familiar standstill. Many places have struggled to recover.

“I’m from Sydney, I believe in this city. I’ve had a lot of peers who want to engage with an active, cultured and exciting nightlife, and I don’t think that should be something that isn’t achievable in a modern city,” Abram says.

Due to COVID restrictions, Cafe Freda’s applied for the NSW government’s alfresco restart initiative in October. The scheme is an extension of a 2020 trial that was designed to “streamline the approval process for licensed venues applying for outdoor dining”. 

While the scheme allowed the cafe’s boundaries to be increased, it also walked back their outdoor opening hours from midnight to 10pm from Sundays to Thursdays – a heavy blow to a business model built on offering a vibrant, late night location.

Abram recently launched an appeal, via Instagram, for community support on a City of Sydney development application that seeks to reinstate the pre-existing permits.

“Something which had been designed to help small businesses in the toughest of situations was instead hindering ours,” the post reads.

Abram says that being able to regain the approvals isn’t only important for his business, but for showing council and the government that it’s what people in this community want.

“When you put in DAs, you only get people who are against what you do, not people who support what you do … publicising it in the way that I did was about me saying ‘I know that the public support is there for us’,” he says.

“You’re just up against it because of what Sydney has become since the lockout laws were introduced.”

City of Sydney commit to $4 million precinct activation program

Apart from recent reports and summits affirming cross-government support for a revitalised small business and hospitality industry, the City of Sydney has also announced funding programs in the short term.

Earlier this year, the City announced a $4 million precinct activation program for businesses and creatives to drive collaborative partnerships.

“The CBD has remained quiet as people continue to work from home and hospitality and travel remains restricted. The lockdowns cost the city’s economy an estimated $250 million a week and 40,000 jobs were lost,” lord mayor Clover Moore said.

“Our new precinct activation grants program has been designed to encourage businesses, creatives and communities to collaborate in renewing and transforming the city centre.”

The program requires applicants to list a minimum of five nearby project collaborators and is intended to create “new hotspots” that will draw people into the city following a string of successful al fresco events such as the summer streets program.

The City recently endorsed the precinct activation grant guidelines and will have them on exhibition until March 22, after which they will be presented for final adoption in April.

In June 2021, the City ran the successful YCK (York, Clarence, Kent streets) Laneway collaboration, a CBD activation grant program dedicated to fostering new relationships between ten late-night small bars.

“There were many positive outcomes to the project, first and foremost being the increased patronage, with all participating venues experiencing an uptick in trade throughout the activation,” said Karl Schlothauer, the owner of Stitch Bar, President of the Independent Bar Association and a YCK participant. 

‘Political, bureaucratic system’ impacting the hospitality community 

Abram is passionate about building a community in his business and the hospitality industry at large.

“It can be a very isolating thing running a small hospitality business, particularly one which is in the space of trying to drive some culture and community into its space,” he says.

“People come up to me and say how much they appreciate what we do. But [it’s hard] when you’re operating in this political, bureaucratic system which has a huge impact on limiting what you can and can’t do.

“Small businesses should be able to grow or expand or be versatile, which is exactly what the government and council have been saying all through this time. However there isn’t always a practical nor manageable solution to this,” he says.

Fortunately, Abram’s appeal for support was a success. His application received over eighty positive submissions and the permits have been reinstated for six months.

“To appeal to the community and people who do appreciate what we do and get what was honestly overwhelming in terms of the positivity we received back makes a massive difference,” Abram says.

“You scratch your head sometimes and think, ‘what do I do this all for?’, and that’s what it’s for, to actually have a positive impact on people.” 

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