"I can't believe it's only been seven months, it feels like seven years."
Back on March 23 – a day that will live in infamy in Australia – we launched our Postcards from the Edge series documenting the highs and lows, the innovative and inspiring, the heart-breaking and hopeful stories of the COVID-19 era in the local beer and hospitality industries.
We did so in the company of the crew at The Cherry Tree, the Cremorne pub whose staff were launching home deliveries in their repurposed Ute by taking to the streets – anthems blaring, flag-waving, bubonic plague mask-wearing – to hand out free toilet roll, sanitiser and tinnies to passers-by.
It was an early sign of the remarkable spirit of creativity and "Fuck you, we will not be defeated!" attitude that came to define the response of many in the Australian beer community. And it was a platform from which they only continued to build, adding takeaway, grocer's, school lunches, firewood delivery, American BBQ side hustle, streamed DJ sets and much more to their lockdown offering.
So, as Melbourne prepares to reopen for a second (and, touch wood, last) time, we headed back to the pub to see how the past seven months have been for some of those involved: venue manager Toby Kingsley (quoted above), part-time staffer and enrolled nurse Paris Harper-Balsamo, and local of eighteen years, Clare Thompson.
What's it been like riding out two lockdowns from either side of the bar, and to lose a central part of a community for so long? And how do they think things will be as life (touch wood again) returns to a form of normal?
"In a nutshell, we have survived," Toby says, "but by the skin of our teeth. From a purely financial perspective, it hasn't been a case of turning a profit, more a case of stemming the losses. But beyond the balance sheet side of things, it has been a rewarding experience – riding the maelstrom, serving the locals.
"We've had to stay pretty nimble to survive; we spend an inordinate amount of time plotting the next hair-brained scheme."
Not every business has been able to (I'll get it out the way early) pivot like The Cherry Tree, and there may not be another pub in the country that has embraced the unique challenges of COVID-19 with such extravagant gusto. Yet their approach has brought succour and support to both staff and customers at a time when it was needed as much as it has brought beer, food, bog roll and daily blasts of La Cucaracha from the horn they installed on the (in)famous Ute.
"It makes us smile when we hear the Cucaracha horn," Clare says. "Or seeing the Cherry Ute with the flag flying – it just makes us smile. It's been a bit of happiness in a shitty time."
Clare, an integration aid at the local school, has been part of the pub's story over the past few months too, and not just due to regular visits to the takeaway or the ordering of home deliveries, which included one of their Father's Day gift packs featuring beer, food, a face mask made by another of the pub's versatile staff members, and the ability to choose the song blasting from the Ute as it rocked up at your front door.
She was instrumental in adding "school lunch provider" to the pub's roles. Her school had fifteen kids of essential workers on site throughout term time, while she was one of many parents still in work whose kids were stuck at home studying online. As well as delivering school lunches to homes, The Cherry Tree took orders from parents with kids at school and delivered there; it's a practice that proved so popular the staff have continued to order for themselves every Thursday even now the pupils are back.
"Our kids were sitting all day in their bedrooms doing school online," Clare says. "[Collecting lunch from the pub] got them out and gave them something to look forward to – and there hasn't been much to look forward to – so it was a little something for them."
Not only did the pub stay open in some form throughout both lockdowns, but they managed to retain all their staff at a time when most of their peers shut up shop. It's a decision that brought benefits to their employees as well as bored teenagers craving a screen break or dads needing a lift on Father's Day.
"I have a few theories about this," Paris says. "For a lot of people that work here, it's their only form of social interaction. As much as we try to keep up with friends on Zoom, it doesn't compared to sitting around on a couple of couches, socially distanced, chatting shit; not even piss ups – just having that human contact.
"Whenever somebody comes to the [takeaway] window it's like, 'Ah, a new face!'."
This regular contact with people has helped them ride the roller-coaster.
"Of course, there's ebbs and flows in line with the general anxieties of the community," Paris says, something on which he's well placed to comment. As part of completing his studies as an enrolled nurse, he's been in and out of hospitals, sometimes delivering PPE, and has chatted to elderly COVID-19 survivors about their experiences.
"All of us were bad in that July period with all the cases and being forced to go back to stage four. Anxiety and tensions rose. For me, it's slightly easier because of my health background. But the people that work here are incredibly resilient."
Toby adds: "Hitting lockdown mark two was like a brutal handbrake turn. Overnight we were ready for running a delivery business again, as we had it all ready to go from the first lockdown, but there wasn't the thrill of the new to sink your teeth into.
"Personally, I found July and August to be my low point: managing cash flow was challenging – big ups to the breweries that were so patient with us – but the relative downtime did give us a lot of scope to scheme up new hustles."
While it might have been over in the blink of an eye, that period between lockdowns also gave staff and customers a rejuvenatory burst of semi-normality, even if it probably feels like a dream to many now.
"The first reopening was sublimely special," Toby recalls. "There was a contagious feeling of optimism and accomplishment from overcoming that first hurdle. Folks flooded in, there was many a glistening eye upon receiving their first tap beer in months. It was absolutely delightful.
"It really drove the home the importance of the simple pleasures in life."
"I still cherish the memory of going to The Park Hotel one fine day in June with colleagues Shane and Jim and lapping up [owner] Sammy's liquid hospitality," Toby says. "We'd reminisce through winter at work and say, 'How good was that day where we went to The Park?'
"You appreciate the little things throughout all this. Once upon a time, a day out at the pub was something you'd take for granted, like going to the supermarket."
Back at home base, however, the need to adjust to ever-changing goalposts meant even that window of freedom was hard work.
"It was a manic time; we were flat out adapting to the vagaries of full table service, the constant cleaning regime, the juggling act of balancing bookings and turning over tables. We were definitely hitting our straps just when the second lockdown hit.
"That was an epic last night. Folks kept referring to it in biblical terms, so be that as it may, it became known as the last supper..."
So how are they feeling as they look forward to serving their first customers in well over three months again tomorrow?
"Of course there's going to be fears," Paris says. "One thing that people downplay, I believe, is how vulnerable we are as frontline workers. If we have fifty outside, then you think about keeping yourself safe. Anxiety is going to be huge as it's a public health crisis, so it's about listening to staff."
Having experienced similar emotions when they reopened the school, Clare says: "It's on the customers to do the right thing and not put staff at risk. Most of the locals I know wouldn't want to because we know them all."
As for the wider hospitality industry, Toby describes the impact of the pandemic as "devastating" and fears we've seen the last of many operators.
"For the industry to bounce back, we need a long leash with the powers that be," he says. "We've asked City of Yarra for their blessing to extend our takeaway license until 1am for outdoor trading but they're not super keen. Removing excise tax on local craft beer would have been a fabulous initiative, but unfortunately I'm not the Federal Treasurer.
"Luckily, I'm sure folks will be out in their droves; the best remedy for pubs is thirsty patronage. That we can rely on.
"People gotta eat. Folks need a drink. I never thought I'd see the day where a pub was considered an 'essential service'."
That's certainly how it's been for Clare and her husband. They bought their house on the strength of The Cherry Tree being a great local, then celebrated their engagement there, as well as their eldest kid's first birthday in the back room a full fifteen years ago.
"It's been really nice to come here and get a takeaway can, then sitting in this little space, maybe with another friend, keeping it legal, and having a chat and a beer," she says. "They're a local bar that caters to locals and kept us sane in this shit."
As for the man in charge of steering the team through that shit, he's certain the pub will survive and come out the other side stronger. He's thankful for the excuse it's given him to get on the road each day, offers apologies to any school neighbours who've tired of La Cucaracha, admits he's still no good at baking sourdough, and is full of gratitude for his staff.
"The crew here could have bunkered down at home, but they've come in day in, day out throughout this and given it their all," Toby says. "It has been a case of all hands on deck, and they've been schlepping beers and meals on bikes in the rain, working out of the front window with howling winter southerlies blasting into an unheated pub. I love the bits out of all of them."
It's been easy in the past to take many things for granted: the ability to go out whenever you want with whomever you want; the ease with which you could jump on a plane to visit family and friends overseas; the staff keeping shelves stacked and cash tills open; a pint at the pub.
Many simple pleasures have revealed their true value in their absence this year, and we've a long way to go before we can even think about taking them for granted again – one look at almost any other country in the world offers a stark reminder of that. Among those simple pleasures, the value of a good pub – one that helps bind a community, that is there for people in their time of need – has arguably never been greater.
"The Cherry Tree is the heart of the village," Clare says. "It really is."
Best of luck to every venue in Melbourne reopening tomorrow and in the subsequent days. We'll have a follow up to this story on Wednesday, this time telling the story of pubs that decided to stay closed from March 23 until now.
For those heading back to their local tomorrow, enjoy, and remember there are new rules in place: we're lucky to be back out, and we need to behave to make sure we can keep having nice things.