How #emptyesky gave hope during Victoria’s darkest hour

Girls on a picnic rug

Wendy Hargreaves

Posted March 17, 2020

At the height of the Victorian bushfires, the #emptyesky campaign became more than just a social movement.

From the city to the bush and our regional towns, Victorian communities are doing it tough – perhaps tougher than ever before. After months of catastrophic fires, storms and now the coronavirus menace, usually vibrant towns and businesses are struggling. Even those hundreds of kilometres away from physical harm have been hit as fear kept visitors at home over the peak summer months.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such devastation; what can any of us do to help? That’s a question many RACV members have been asking and one we will try to address in print and online in coming months in a series of articles designed to help Victoria get back on its feet.

It’s also the question two young Melbourne friends, Erin Boutros and Eleanor Baillieu, asked themselves in the immediate aftermath of the January fires. Wanting to do something more than just donating money, the two began contacting struggling regional businesses to ask what they needed. The answer was almost always the same: they simply needed people to visit.

And so the Empty Esky movement was born on Instagram. Inviting people to make a pledge to visit a country town in 2020 and fill an empty Esky with local produce, the campaign quickly gained momentum as the girls posted stories of struggling regional producers along with luscious images of their wares. Within 24 hours #emptyesky had 10,000 followers. Small businesses facing closure were suddenly able to pay their bills. And Australians had found a way to help.

Girl opening esky

Photo: Matt Harvey

At last count more than 50,000 people, including the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, had made the Empty Esky pledge. There’s also a website with an interactive map showing businesses in need.

“I get goosebumps seeing how happy it makes people when visitors come back to their towns,” says Eleanor, 25. “I’ve been on social media for quite a while but this is the first time I’ve seen how it can make a real impact on people’s lives.”

Erin says she knew they were onto something when they put up an Instagram post about struggling Beechworth berry farmers faced with throwing out their fruit due to a lack of customers. “The next day, the berry farm’s car park was full of customers and their stock was cleared out,” she says.

Then there was the Chicken Shop in Bright, forced to shut for weeks while the town was closed off. “They started bottling and selling their Alpine barbecue sauce online. After a post on Empty Esky, they broke their 100-bottle target with 500 sales overnight. Now they’ve sold more than 2000 bottles and have secured ongoing stockists. These were people who were on the verge of bankruptcy, now they’re looking at focusing on sauce rather than chicken.”

“Empty Esky is a simple idea, but a powerful one,” she says. “People are being referred to us by MPs and tourist information centres. It’s almost overwhelming to hear so many tragic stories. I feel so humble to be part of this experience.”

In February the two were invited to Parliament House to speak about the Empty Esky campaign. Next up is a partnership with AAT Kings to offer fundraising bus trips into affected towns. A television show may also be in the wings. Stay tuned.

Picnic food on plates

Photo: Matt Harvey

Cause celeb

Some of Australia’s most popular names have taken the pledge to fill an empty Esky in regional Australia in 2020.

Sunrise presenter Edwina Bartholomew was one of the first to join the campaign, promising to buy from small businesses impacted by fire on NSW’s south coast.

Reflecting on her 2018 honeymoon in Narooma, Eden and Bega, the new mum pledged to book a road trip later this year once the region was safe.

She was soon followed by Logie-winning actor Kate Ritchie, author Zoe Foster Blake, singer Meg Mac, model Rachael Finch, ex-Bachelorette Georgia Love, TV presenter Osher Gunsberg, singer Rob Mills and model Steph Clare Smith, among many others.

Much-loved TV cook Maggie Beer has also made the pledge, which would make a TV show in its own right.

And not to be outdone, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, opposition leader Anthony Albanese and South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham will fill their eskies as well.

Road trip tips

Before you take off with your empty Esky, here are five tips to ensure a smooth road trip.

  • Check with local authorities that the area you’re visiting is safe. The Vic Emergency website has a live interactive map showing emergencies across the state, from fire and flood to shark sightings and trees over roads.
  • Don’t forget your Esky, and make sure you whack in some ice packs to keep your haul cool. Or invest in a car refrigerator that plugs into your car’s 12-volt outlet.
  • Back up your device with audio books, podcasts and music for the road.
  • Plan your route and take time visiting towns along the way.
  • Check your tyre pressure and tread before you take off (or if you have time, get a tyre rotation), and check that you have a safe spare.