Local lunch spots win the limelight in lockdown

Hoagie sandwich from Saul's Sandwiches

Jessica Taylor Yates

Posted November 08, 2021

Having enjoyed a business boom with so many folks working from home, what will the future hold for the local lunchbox?

If there is one thing you can always count on with Australians, it’s that when crisis strikes – whether it be bushfire, flood, recession, or earthquake, our value of mateship and support for local communities shines through. The COVID-19 pandemic has been no different.

With less advanced tech infrastructure and smaller bank accounts, the COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns hit small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) the hardest. While SMEs represent 99 per cent of Australian businesses, they also employ two-thirds of the country’s workforce. Knowing this and the struggles they have had to endure, the people rallied to support their local.

Beginning with the hashtag #supportlocal after the 2020 bushfires, along with further backing from Visit Victoria in 2020, the community support for SMEs continued when Victorians were forced to work from home.

More people at home, more at the local

While CBD’s and town centres across Victoria have been hamstrung by the 97 per cent drop in international visitor spend through the 2020-2021 financial year (approximately $50 billion in revenue), some of the city’s suburban businesses have thrived, even during the state’s hardest lockdown periods.

Whilst going out for brunches and lunches was banned, getting a coffee or roll from your local bakery or café was not – and the people came in (socially distanced) droves.

Before the pandemic hit, the suburban lunch spot was usually relegated to stay-at-home parents or tradies on their lunch break during the working week, before hopefully picking up trade on the weekend.

In the latter stages of 2020, 46 per cent of Australians were newly working from home, compared to 12 per cent before the pandemic began, resulting in a major shift not only in the routines of people, but commerce.

With working from home ‘the new normal’, lines have been out the door at the local during lunchtime. In areas such as Melbourne’s Bayside and Maroondah regions, there has been a 40 per cent and 60 per cent respective increase in café spending since the pandemic began. 

A new beginning

One such bakery that received an influx of a new kind of customer over the pandemic has been The Continental Bakehouse in Melbourne’s Oakleigh South - a suburban bakery known by locals for their award-winning pies. Owners Sam and Stella have been able to tap into a previously non-existent market for the daily rush.

However, even with the influx of the new work-from-home clientele, their approach remains the same – to be the neighbourhood bakery that knows your name, how you like your coffee, and gives you a ribbing about your chosen football team.

That said, being in hospitality over the pandemic has hardly been rosy. Sam and Stella had the odds stacked against them, opening their business just as the pandemic took hold in March 2020.

They had travelled to Australia with qualifications in medicine and pharmacology respectfully, but due to the language barrier, were forced to look at alternative modes of employment once they came to Melbourne. Luckily, with family in the bakery business, Sam found he had a real knack and passion for baking, and realised he loved making new creations that kept both him and his customers happy.

When the impacts of the lockdown first took hold, they noticed a sharp decline in foot traffic from customers who would normally stop for a coffee on their morning commute, or from parents and families who would come by on weekends from the nearby netball courts. It was disheartening for the couple who were looking for a fresh start with their own business.

Sam and Stella from The Continental Bakehouse South Oakleigh

Sam and Stella from The Continental Bakehouse in Melbourne's South Oakleigh have won numerous awards for their pies despite ongoing lockdowns. Image: Supplied. 


Innovation and adaptation

It was a similar story for the founders of Saul’s Sandwiches, which has seen unprecedented growth during the pandemic. With a background in hospitality and two cafes under co-founders Saul Haimes and Elliot Koren’s belt, business was going well – until COVID-19 hit. With the pressures of COVID-19 mounting on in-store dining, they decided to streamline all their businesses under the same roof – and Saul’s Sandwiches was born.

With an innovating and engaging social media campaign partnering with other local businesses and creatives, the team used the lockdowns to build a following that they hope will continue once lockdowns are a distant memory. Recent research by Australia Post found that businesses have continued to build on the value of an online presence, with 20 per cent of businesses who didn’t have a digital presence pre-pandemic, now do.

Going online has been a business’ lifeline during the pandemic, not only allowing SMEs to continue trading during the lockdown, but also giving businesses more visibility. In fact, the research found online food sales almost doubled in the period from Dec 2019 to April 2021, noting the demand for the local eatery when stuck at home.


Sauls Diner East Bentleigh

Saul's Diner in Melbourne's Bentleigh East has taken the suburb by storm. Image: Supplied.


Opportunity in crisis

While business was quiet, business owners didn’t quit. Rather than being discouraged, the extra downtime gave Sam from The Continental Bakehouse time to perfect his recipes and entice new customers from the community.

Waking at 4 am, Sam would take heed of professional and anecdotal feedback to create what would become his award-winning pies. Sam went on to achieve success at the Official Great Aussie Pie Competition, as well as winning Gold with the Baking Association of Australia.

While this level of success would be enough for most, for Sam, this is only the beginning.

“With the competitions, I learn and take feedback from the judges, and keep creating to get better.”

Though times have undoubtedly been tough for small businesses, Sam says that the support from the locals who come especially for his recipes “makes me happy and when they tell their family and friends, it makes me want to try even more!”


The award winning beef pie from The Continental Bakehouse

The Continental Bakehouse's prize-winning plain beef pie. Image: Supplied.


An uncertain future

As vaccination numbers continue to grow and Victoria moves to a ‘lockout’ over ‘lockdown’, the future remains a mystery for small businesses as workers return to the city.

At Saul’s Sandwiches, Saul states that while they have been “extremely lucky” to have had a consistent business, they will continue to evolve as people return to work, whether that means more corporate catering and trade, opening more stores across Australia or even overseas, and keeping an open mindset as to “what the future brings.”

As online food sales made up over 5 per cent of total industry sales compared to 3.4 per cent the year prior, concentrating on online sales alongside welcoming the locals appears to be growing in popularity.

For The Continental Bakehouse, Sam and Stella acknowledge that while local traffic may go down as working professionals return to the office, their hope is that more customers come for their specialised goods on their morning commute. They are aware that businesses are now needing to pivot at rapid speed and are planning on establishing online orders to reach a broader community, outdoor seating, and an updated interior.

And of course, “more flavours for the pies!” assures Sam.