By Kirra Grimes

WITH many businesses struggling to keep cash flowing and workers employed during the COVID-19 lockdown, a local hospitality group has acted swiftly to adapt and survive.
Forced to close the doors to dine-in customers at their popular Meeniyan restaurant Trulli Woodfire Pizzeria, due to social distancing restrictions, husband and wife team Francesco Laera and Rhia Nix have spent the past several weeks reinventing their business to continue to operate safely and effectively.
The keystone has been their mobile pizza oven, which they’ve used to “take the restaurant to the people,” setting up ‘pop up’ takeaway locations throughout South Gippsland and Bass Coast, advertised via social media.
They’ve also temporarily converted their Wonthaggi gelateria Gusto into a full-scale bakery selling traditional Italian bread and pastries, to cater to increased consumer demand for staple grocery items.
A smartphone app has been introduced to make ordering takeaway food from Trulli’s Meeniyan HQ and pop up sites easier – an idea that’s been in the pipeline for some time but has now become a necessity.
And for those who can’t leave the house to pick up their bread or other bakery items from Gusto, such as those in higher-risk categories for COVID-19, a zero-contact delivery service is now available.
The community has responded well, Francesco said, praising the solidarity and support shown in these new endeavours.
“The locals have been fantastic,” he said. “They’re telling us ‘we want to see you on the other side of this; we want to come back to your restaurant’.
“That shows that they respect us and want us. And that the people who still have jobs want to spend some of that money to support local businesses.”
But it hasn’t been an easy ride, with the process likened to “starting all over again”.
“The amount of work and hours we’ve put in, it has felt like that,” Francesco said. “But the difference is we’re starting with customers ready – usually it doesn’t happen that way.”

Trulli staff Antonino Schipilliti, Claudio Laera, Renee Alexander, and Chelsey Alexander on site at one of their new ‘pop up’ takeaway locations.

It’s been emotional and at times frustrating, but it’s all been done for the sake of survival, he said.
“If it allows us to get to the other side, and keep all these people on [staff], it’s worth it.
“It’s not about pleasure. We’re trying to make a dollar not to keep the dollar but to keep the business. And the business is the people, not the buildings.”
The majority of Trulli’s staff are ineligible for government support such as Jobkeeper payments due to their temporary visa status, and Francesco feels a responsibility to see them through the crisis.
“We’ve had to import some of our staff from Italy because the skill set was missing in this area,” he explained.
“Now they’re here, trying to make Australia their permanent home, but it doesn’t feel like it at the moment because they can’t apply for any government help, even though they pay taxes.
“They still have rent and bills to pay and that’s all on us at the moment.
“But they’re people we’ve trusted, and they’ve trusted in us.”
Going forward, Francesco sees the team’s outside the box thinking and quick decision making standing them in better stead than some other businesses, but there are still a lot of unknowns.
For now, they’re taking things day by day and looking forward to the easing of restrictions to allow customers back for a sit-down meal.
“I’m not fighting the restrictions because they’re there for a reason,” Francesco said.
“I understand exactly why they’ve done it because I come from a country [Italy] where the [COVID-19] deaths are not in the hundreds, they’re in the thousands.”

Businesses expect ongoing financial impacts

The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently reported that almost three-quarters of Australian businesses expect adverse impacts over the next couple of months due to reduced cash flow during the COVID-19 crisis.
The latest ‘Business Impacts of COVID-19’ survey found that two in five businesses expect a reduced ability to pay operating expenses due to reduced demand for goods and services, and that three in five businesses had registered or intended to register for the JobKeeper payment scheme.