For many drinks producers in Australia right now, the gradual lifting of restrictions means positive things for their businesses, as the industry starts down a long road to recovery after the pandemic.
However this is not the case for producers in Victoria, where the ongoing lockdowns have seen their businesses be impacted in a range of ways. Although a roadmap to reopening has been released by the Victorian Government, uncertainty abounds in the state, and smaller producers especially need help to get through these unprecedented tough times.
National Liquor News spoke to some producers to get insight into how the pandemic continues to affect them. Through their stories, it becomes clear that these experiences aren’t isolated, and the Victorian industry needs those of us in other areas to help out wherever possible.
Josh Walker, Owner and Distiller at The Timboon Railway Shed Distillery, said with their restaurant closed and the improbability of tourism for a while, the effects are harsh in their regional location.
“Lockdown has had a huge impact on our business, revenue is down by around 95 per cent,” Walker said.
It’s a similar story closer to Melbourne for another spirits producer, Imbue Distillery. Director and Distiller Melanie Sheard said it’s been hard for them, especially considering the on-premise shut down and money being tied up in postponed or cancelled events.
“The continued lockdown has impacted us substantially: we don’t have a cellar door yet so rely on markets and events to promote and sell products,” Sheard said.
In the wine sector, things are not much easier. At Rob Dolan Wines in the Yarra Valley, Marketing and Communications Manager Melanie Gilchrist, said the second lockdown has been worse than the first.
“We’ve definitely seen the effects of this lockdown. A big part of our business is restaurants who serve our wines, and their closure has been difficult,” Gilchrist said.
“From a direct to consumer perspective, closing the cellar door for consumption has been quite a loss. In the first lockdown, we saw a lot of these sales transfer to online and we were doing plenty of takeaway wine and cheese packs. However round two has had a different air to it as people can’t travel as far. We still have incredible locals who come in to support us, but have seen a decline.”
Meanwhile at Two Bays Brewing Co on the Mornington Peninsula, CEO Richard Jeffares said things are tough, but the company is also lucky in some ways.
“We’re lucky in that we do quite a lot of our business interstate as well… but obviously the tap room’s completely shut and our hospitality customers are not buying, so we’re looking forward to what the business might look like when everybody’s back on board,” Jeffares said.
“We’re still fairly new and growing, so it’s very hard for us to tell what our business would have been like, if everything had stayed open.”
While each of these producers are different in their offering and their location in the state, what they have in common is how their businesses have been impacted by the pandemic, and their message to the rest of the country. By and large, that message revolves around buying their product, but extends to the general ideal to support local, small and independent businesses which are doing it incredibly tough right now.
This movement revolves around making informed decisions, both when you have your retailer hat on to stock your store, but also when you step into the role of consumer yourself. And as Walker said, a holistic approach is key.
“I’d really encourage people to buy from small businesses where possible in any industry. People choosing to buy lunch from the local milk bar instead of Maccas, someone buying a case of Prickly Moses beer over VB helps keep family businesses running,” Walker said.
Sheard too said now is the time to do your research and support the smallest guys, where your dollars will go the furthest right now. For Victorian producers, this could mean all the difference to them surviving the pandemic.
“Don’t just buy small brands… buy from companies and distributors that support local and independent, as a higher margin will go back to the actual producer that way,” Sheard explained.
“We’re not suggesting to boycott the big box stores entirely but for everyone of them, there are dozens of small family businesses you could support instead where your purchases actually make a difference to people’s lives.”
It’s not just about buying direct from small producers, but also supporting the raft of small and independent businesses in the industry that surround the producers – for example, the distributor of Timboon and Imbue distilleries, Nip of Courage.
But there is also a case for buying direct, and as Jeffares says, this is another opportunity for retailers, rather than a threat to business or customer numbers.
“Certainly a lot of breweries have gone online, and we were already there – I think it’s a huge opportunity for the locals because yes, they might potentially lose out on that immediate sale, but what it means is that the customer gets access to a wider range of beers from the brewery and taking that back to their local bottle shop because they still want to be able to buy locally and go pick up a four-pack instead of ordering a carton a month in advance,” Jeffares explained.
“I think both channels are really important, and the benefit goes back into the bottle shop for the second purchase and third purchase. When we do surveys, we find a lot of our customers when we ask ‘you bought from us once, are you now buying locally?’ they said yes absolutely.
“So we hope that bottle shops don’t see that as a competitor but a complementary channel.”
As Jeffares points out, supporting smaller Victorian producers doesn’t necessarily require huge investments from retailers. In many cases it’s about positioning products in a way that customers will be encouraged to make their own informed purchasing decisions to support these businesses.
Gilchrist said: “People in other states feel helpless watching Victoria struggle, but you can be here for us in a really tangible way.
“When you continue to buy our wines, you’re keeping our business going and staff in a job. That’s really the most important message. For those willing to go the extra mile, there are ways to make sure your purchase gets the best return for struggling wineries.”
Some of the things that Gilchrist suggested includes doing a quick google search before purchasing to see where the winery is based – those with Victorian Cellar Doors are likely struggling and will see real benefit from each purchase. If you’re in-store or dining out and notice there isn’t many or any Victorian products on the menu, suggest it to the sommelier, for example, as they might not be aware. Then of course, there is the value of recommendations – when you like a local product, tell people you know or customers in-store.
“We’re calling now on our interstate friends to help give us the boost we need to stay in the game and ensure there’s an alive and thriving region when the time comes for your next domestic holiday. We’ll be here with open arms,” Gilchrist added.
In-store, Jeffares also recommended calling out the local and small producers with displays or in fridges, so that customers can easily know how they can help.
“Bottle shops are so critical for us, and for the whole industry really,” Jeffares said.
“I think [local fridges] are a great way of calling out a product, letting people know what the bottle shops are about, and it resonates really well with the customer… and I think it works very well for the retailer as well, improving that part of their business and being seen as part of the community.”
The final point to consider is, while local products are often not the cheapest option on the shelf, changing consumer habits means that element isn’t as core to many purchases as it once was. Quality and brand values are driving customer behaviour more than ever, and the shop local movement is well positioned in this regard.
As Sheard said: “We all know supporting small producers is not always the cheapest option. Maybe the lesson 2020 will teach us is the value of quality over quantity and help us to make more ethical choices that allow us to support our own economy and industry.”