How your fork (and Esky) can save Australia after the bushfires

Elise Mason, Eleanor Baillieu and Erin Boutros from Empty Esky.
Elise Mason, Eleanor Baillieu and Erin Boutros from Empty Esky. Photo: Simon Schluter

Three months into the Australian bushfire crisis, it's easy to feel equal parts horrified yet buoyed by the phenomenal response as communities unite. It's not just the scale of devastation, and the needs. It's the chaos of trying to work out how to help, and who needs it the most.

It will surprise no one that the hospitality community has responded in force. Chef Jacqui Challinor, of Sydney's Nomad, issued a war cry that rallied more than 100 businesses to Cook for the Bush, a fundraiser and auction surpassing their $100,000 target. In one night, Victoria's Brae sold out a raffle for a dine-and-stay package hauling $25,000. Melbourne Food and Wine Festival coordinated some top-tier private dinner parties with Australia's star chefs for those willing to drop $10k for the privilege and were hovering at $100,000 at time of print.

So many businesses launched initiatives that a team of volunteers had to create an online database just to help punters muddle through.

Farmers' markets help fire-affected communities.
Farmers' markets help fire-affected communities. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

And they're not done yet. If you want to eat on a strict diet of fundraising goodwill for the coming months, you can. Pick your hashtag. Melbourne's #FebFireFund, spearheaded by Cam Smith, Jesse Gerner and Scott Pickett, is inviting restaurants to pledge a portion of dish sales through the month to fence rebuilding charity BlazeAid. Adelaide's winemakers are uniting for a big pour that will funnel its proceeds directly back into the vineyards that were hurt.

For Good Food's part, we'd like to turn your attention to the plight of the food and tourism businesses on the fringe. Many towns that were spared the flames are now facing the secondary hell of having their business fall off a cliff. As maps became a collage of red, yellow and amber warnings, tourists left the danger zones, saving countless lives. But they kept going. And they never came back.

Now, in holiday towns that were never directly hit, or only partially hit, rooms are empty. Shelves sit full and untouched. Kegs untapped. Businesses are reporting a 70 to 95 per cent loss in the period that is supposed to see them through leaner months still to come. They were saved from the front line, but decimated on the bottom one.

Chef Jacqui Challinor of Nomad.
Chef Jacqui Challinor of Nomad. Photo: Petrina Tinslay

It is not a clear-cut case of blackened or all right. With no physical damage, there is no insurance. Conservative estimates are coming in from tourism bodies that losses are in the hundreds of millions. Thankfully the federal government has announced grants, interest-free loans and financial counselling will be available to small businesses affected by the fires.

Even so, last week, Merimbula, now safe, was hosting two families at its 6000-capacity tourist park. NSW South Coast oyster farmers have seen their roadside sales extinguished.

"It's a ghost town here," says Brendan Gamze of Milawa's Gamze Smokehouse, which has been hit on two fronts. His restaurant and provedore usually gets business from travellers heading to Bright, in Victoria's north-east. All the other businesses that take his artisan smoked goods have also lost their business. "I could sit in the middle of the empty road."

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Michael Ryan, owner-chef of two-hatted Provenance Restaurant in Beechworth, understands and respects the confusion between a "watch and act" alert and "don't come". Even so, he has lost an estimated $30,000 just in cancelled accommodation bookings for January. Cancellations have flowed through to the restaurant, so he has transformed the north-east Victorian fine diner into a more casual wine bar for the rest of the season, hoping to attract local trade.

How can you help?

If you've been looking for a way to be a bona fide hero in the laziest yet most impactful way possible, saddle up, friends. This is it. Pack your slippers. Grab your fork.

The message from food and tourism businesses is clear: come back. If it's not safe yet, commit now to a later booking (better still, pre-pay). No car? Get to your nearest farmers' market. When you shop, look for products from areas that have taken a hit to make sure your dollars pack a wallop.

Chef Michael Ryan of Provenance in Beechworth, Victoria.
Chef Michael Ryan of Provenance in Beechworth, Victoria. Photo: Supplied

Put your money where your mouth is

Spending directly with communities is one of the most powerful things you can do, not just this month, but in the coming years as Australia rebuilds.

But how? Social media campaigns Buy From The Bush and Spend With Them showcase goods from rural communities affected both by the recent bushfires and the crippling NSW drought, which already has those communities living on fumes.

Joining them are newly created campaigns such as Empty Esky. Melbourne friends Erin Boutros, Eleanor Baillieu and Elise Mason are asking people to grab an empty esky and (when it's safe) head out to affected towns and fill up with everything local. Not just wine, food and produce, but coffee and fuel, clothing, accessories. Eat at the restaurants. Drink at the pubs.

Empty Esky's Instagram page has already clocked 25,000 followers. Baillieu and Boutros have taken a month off to field the calls for help. Because it works. After posting a callout for cafes and restaurants to help a visitor-less berry farm in Beechworth that was throwing away stock, Baillieu says, "The next day, their whole carpark was full of customers and they were completely cleared out."

Other businesses have had to get creative. The Chicken Shop in Bright, which couldn't open for weeks on end, decided to bottle and sell their Alpine barbecue sauce online. The promotion broke their 100-bottle target with 500 sales overnight. They had been on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.

Pay it forward campaigns are also springing up. Tom and Joscelin​ McMillan of fledgling business Bega Valley Eggs were directly hit, with two separate bushfires engulfing both of their free-range pastures and claiming a number of hens via smoke. Recognising that their whole community will suffer business loss, they have started a two-part donation campaign. You pay for a carton of eggs that they will give, free of charge, to struggling cafes and shops, while your money is used to rebuild their egg grading centre.

In Melbourne, Fraser Chalmers' Albert Park cafe, Fed, has kicked off a targeted adoption campaign. If customers opt to buy a virtual coffee, the money, matched by Fed, goes direct to the Croajingolong Cafe in Mallacoota, with Fed paying the GST. "We could only think how these fires would affect business," says Chalmers, who is hoping others will follow suit and #adoptashop.

 Merimbula Wharf - Aquarium and Restaurant. Although the recent bushfires didn't reach Merimbula, holiday trade is near non existant due to cancellations and the Princess Highway to Victorian from Mallacoota remains closed. Photographed Thursday 15th January 2020. Photograph by James Brickwood. SMH NEWS 200116

Although the bushfires didn't reach Merimbula, its businesses, such as Merimbula Wharf Aquarium and Restaurant, have missed out on their regular summer holiday trade. Photo: James Brickwood

The long game

Coming weeks are crucial. The late January-early February period is where tourism typically slumps. Whole townships are hoping that this year, travellers will get on the road.

Book the January long weekend. Where? Destination NSW and Visit Melbourne are updating their respective channels with the regions where it's safe to go, and that need you the most. And they need you now.

In addition, Roadtrip for Good is a website founded by Zoe Manderson who has taken the platform of her site Alpaca travel, to allow businesses to register themselves on a roadtrip route. Look it up and plot your course. Follow the Instagram account @stayinthebush.

For holidaymakers who were caught near the action, it may well be too soon. Maybe you're rinsed after the silly season and buying charity snags. That's OK. One certainty is that this recovery is going to be both a sprint and a marathon. Just as important for regional areas will be seeing those bookings come in for later. For Easter, for winter and beyond.

This isn't just economics. With carbon footprint top of mind, trade Bali for the Bells Line of Road, and Sri Lanka for Ulladulla. Go out to the parched parts of Australia and see the resilient people who have been keeping it going 24/7 for all of us, in good times and bad. I promise it will cut your carbon-emissions guilt while making footprints where they count.

The ripple effect of disasters can take months or years to unfold. Towns that have been scarred by drought and charred by fires, shouldn't also be gripped by the fear that Australia will look away. These are the homes of our firefighters, of our rescue volunteers. They weren't defending buildings, but communities. They've done their bit. We're up.

Resources

National directory of fundraisers bit.ly/restaurantsforrelief

Travel directories roadtripforgood.org.au; destinationnsw.com.au; visitmelbourne.com

Direct-spend initiatives via Instagram and Facebook @emptyesky; @spendwiththem; @buyfromthebush; @stayinthebush

Safety emergency.vic.gov.au; rfs.nsw.gov.au., livetraffic.com/desktop.html

The Good Food pledge

Like everyone in Australia, the Good Food team has been deeply affected by the bushfire crisis.

And we're joining the community of those rolling up their sleeves to help. We believe in playing to our strengths: telling people about the incredible eating and drinking that fills this land.

We are launching a series of drinking and dining guides targeting the communities that most need visitors.

We are committing to publishing these regional guides every two weeks for three months, then one a month for the entire year.

Want to support the cafes, restaurants, bars and breweries of towns such as Beechworth and Merimbula but not sure where spend your money? We will help you by providing you with the ultimate "10 reasons to visit".

Find the first instalment in Good Food next Tuesday and at goodfood.com.au.

Ardyn Bernoth, National Good Food Editor