Slammed with back-to-back blows, this year has proven to be one of the most challenging for small businesses in Braidwood, a small village nestled between Canberra and the NSW south coast.
“Immediately after the government announced that there would be coronavirus lockdown restrictions, business stopped dead in the water,” owner of local store Len Mutton and Co, Fiona Mutton, said.
“We went from one of our busiest times of the year, to being lucky if we saw one or two customers per day.”
Len Mutton and Co is a general store specialising in fashion, homewares and gifts, established by Ms Mutton’s great grandparents in 1913 – she took over the reins 21 years ago.
During the business’ 107 years, Ms Mutton says it has experienced nothing like the “devastating impact” of COVID-19.
“Even through the worst of the droughts, there’s been some pretty lean times, but never anything like this,” she said.
“It is unimaginable that we’ve found ourselves in this situation.”
Braidwood relies on business from passing traffic to remain viable, the local population of only 1,600 just simply isn’t enough.
“We were down, about 85 per cent, over the two-month period beginning in March,” owner of the Braidwood Bakery, John Woodman, said.
“The Easter period was thrown in there, which is such a massive drawcard for us, that’s what plummeted the percentages.”
The bakery is known as a focal point in the Braidwood community, many Canberrans stop on their way to and from the coast.
Mr Woodman describes his bakery as “a bustling hive of activity.”
“When that’s taken away, it’s quite demoralising, and not just for me as the business owner, but for the staff as well,” he said.
“Now, the Braidwood main street feels like you were on a movie set because there is no one there. There was no one in the bakery, no one in the street – it’s almost eerie.”
Most retail and hospitality workers had their hours trimmed, if not cut completely, business owners simply with no work for them.
“I felt that we were going to be in this coronavirus cycle for a while and I needed to remain viable for as long as possible, that meant cutting everyone’s hours by a few hours a week to try and bolster up what little funds I had,” Ms Mutton said.
“It’s always in the forefront of my mind that they rely on me and if they don’t have jobs, they can’t spend money in town, which means they can’t support other local businesses.
“We are really fortunate that I always put money away for a rainy day – if I didn’t have that money, we probably wouldn’t have survived.”
Bushfires another blow for business
Locals say that the community was a “ghost town” after the North Black Range fire to the west of Braidwood first posed a threat in November last year.
Then followed the terrifying Currowan fire, described as a “300,000-hectare inferno” which cut access to the Kings Highway, Braidwood’s main artery to Canberra and the south coast.
“It was nearly seven weeks that Braidwood was closed, all roads in and out were no-goes,” Ms Mutton said.
“I could stand out in the middle of the main street, and I couldn’t have got run over if I tried.
“There was no passing traffic and everyone else that was local, was out fighting fires, so there was absolutely no business.”
Mr Woodman said bakery sales were down 90 percent over the Christmas period.
“When the fires were on, the only money we were making were from locals – and that wasn’t much,” he said.
Let’s get back to ‘normal’
“It’s been dramatically different since COVID-19 and the bushfires and I’m really looking forward to getting that buzz back into town,” Ms Mutton said.
Ahead of regional travel restrictions easing on Monday, workers are beginning to refill the shelves and return to normal shifts, as a gradual increase in customers is expected.
“The staff members that haven’t been getting as many hours during the week – I am going to need extra people, so I’ve got them ready to go,” Mr Woodman said.
“Our production has been slowly lifting over the past couple of weeks, today we are doing a really big production run on pies, tomorrow the same thing with sausage rolls.”
The one thing regional business owners really need is for travellers to pass through.
“Let’s just get back to normality. Let’s do what we used to do. Stop in at Braidwood, get a cake and a coffee and that is normality.”