Business was booming for Tommy Collins catering at the beginning of March. With creative director Tommy McIntosh at the helm, the events company had more than 300 casuals on the books and lucrative contracts with clients such as Melbourne Fashion Festival.
When restrictions to non-essential gatherings were implemented to contain the spread of coronavirus, however, the catering industry came to a grinding halt.
"I have been in constant contact with other catering groups and the pandemic impact has not discriminated, from the big guys who look after the sporting stadiums to the smaller boutique arms," says McIntosh.
"Melbourne is built on hospitality, events and being social. But we totally understand the restrictions need to happen and our staff and client's safety will always come first."
According to market research company IBISWorld, there were 4000 catering businesses in Australia in 2019 with an industry revenue of almost $8 billion. (Restaurant industry revenue was $19 billion.) Like restaurants, many catering companies are now focusing on home delivered meals in an effort to keep operating during the coronavirus pandemic.
"We know traditional canapes and group catering is on a hiatus, so we're evolving into home pack general merchant-style catering," says McIntosh. "This can't be rushed, though. It needs to be well considered to make the offering as viable and safe as it can be for home delivery."
Meanwhile, catering and events company One Hundred Hospitality reported a 25 per cent surge in sales of its "Pop Up Picnic" hampers over the past week. Delivered in a bespoke box which folds into a picnic table, the antipasto-filled hampers have long been popular at corporate outdoor events. Now individuals in Melbourne and Sydney are buying the picnic packs for home use.
"People who may not be able to leave the house are ordering the hampers for backyard picnics with the kids, or maybe date night on the balcony," says One Hundred Hospitality's NSW manager Ryan Fox. "A 25 per cent increase in uptake might not sound like a lot, but it's highly significant given business was down by 95 per cent last week."
Susie Robinson is the director of Our Boys & Girls, a Melbourne-based event staffing and promotions agency with more than 200 casual employees around Australia. When all events were cancelled or postponed two weeks ago, Robinson's business and staff where left with no income "literally overnight" she says. As a result, Our Boys & Girls has pivoted to become a delivery provider.
"We thought 'what do people actually need right now?' and they need help," Robinson says. "They need people to deliver things to them if they're an individual, or for them if they're a business."
Robinson's staff can be booked for a minimum one-hour shift to run everyday errands such as grocery shopping or collecting items from the chemist. The service is also available for cafes, restaurants and food stores requiring quick home delivery of goods.
"Think of it as Uber Eats but we don't take a percentage from the restaurant for each delivery," says Robinson. "Normally we would book our staff for a minimum of four hours, but at the moment they're keen to jump on board with anything that helps the community and puts money in their pocket."
Sandwich caterer and wholesaler Fergus McPeake is also hoping to retain staff and help the community with his Lunchbag Co. initiative which launched this week. McPeake's Sandwich Group lunch bags are designed with frontline workers fighting the pandemic in mind, and each pack contains three items such as a savoury sandwich, wrap or salad, a sweet muffin and a piece of fruit.
"None of us know what the full impact of the virus is going to be on our health services, but we can look to Europe and see the immense stress it puts on medical staff, police and frontline workers," says McPeake. "They're going to need to eat, and we think this could be a healthy option.
"Everyone is trying to do their bit, but home delivery wasn't going to quite fit with us, especially with so many great businesses already providing the service. We do know sandwiches, however, and my staff can turn them around quickly. The bag is also a safe way to provide food as no one is handling anything directly."