“There’s nothing sadder for me than a shut pub.”
The Rainbow Fitzroy is a place where live music, excellent food, craft beer, a lively beer garden, and an always welcoming atmosphere coalesce to make for one of the top spots to enjoy a beer in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. The pub has sat on a corner of two Fitzroy backstreets since 1869 (taking on the Rainbow name a few years later in 1872), making it a boozer that’s witnessed practically all of Melbourne’s history since the city was founded.
It rose soon after the boom of the gold rush transformed the British outpost into the wealthiest city on earth, stood firm during the economic downtown of the 1890s, has remained open during the many recessions since, and welcomed thirsty Melburnians inside during two world wars.
If there’s any moment that even comes close to this year, it’s when the Spanish flu reached Melbourne at the start of 1919 and the government forced pubs to shut. Seemingly, that only lasted a few weeks, with the city’s publican association powerful enough to have them reopened, although they had to follow the sort of capacity restrictions becoming familiar to many local publicans in 2020.*
However, since March 23, like the rest of the city’s pubs, the Rainbow has spent a little more than 180 days shut, opening for just three weeks in the middle of the year when life approached something blissfully normal.
In part II of our look at hospo life in the Victorian capital over the past seven months – you can read part I here – we caught up with the team behind the Rainbow, and The Woodlands in Coburg, to see how they've managed with no pub and no customers.
The manager, Dave Farquhar (quoted above), says that in those moments he has headed inside, seeing the empty beer garden and front bar really hammered home just how the city has changed.
“You really feel it because the pub’s empty and the streets are empty, everything was just put on this massive pause,” he says.
“It goes down to our ethos as well; the pub is the centre of the local neighbourhood and part of the community, so when the pub’s shut you can tell the community is shut, the whole neighbourhood is shut down.”
While others have looked to takeaway, the Rainbow has mostly remained switched off; Dave says the move to takeaway sales of keg beer or food wasn’t something they figured they could make work sustainably as so many other businesses around them were also switching to takeaway.
At the start of this month, that changed, however, with the Rainbow’s popular Sunday roast roaring back to life in takeaway form in the hope change was just around the corner.
“The locals have loved it,” Dave says. “It’s not the same as having people in the pub but, once you start seeing that bit of activity around the pub, it does give that little bit of hope to everyone and say, 'It’s not that far away, the end is in sight.'.”
He says it’s an odd feeling being back at the pub after so many months away, given the way social interactions are that little bit different, not least due to Victoria’s mandatory mask-wearing policy.
“You’re trying to read body language differently,” he says.
“My first day using the till, I was rusty as. You think it’s like riding a bicycle but I was trying to work out how to turn it on, fill a growler and talk to humans again.”
That’s not to say they haven’t been busy, with much of the first lockdown spent on renovations. As the pub welcomes people back inside tomorrow, punters will find their old local as it always was, albeit with many new licks of paint, new toilets, well-sanded tables and more outdoor dining to welcome in Melbourne’s al fresco revolution.
“We had the worst toilets in Fitzroy,” Dave says. “Then we went hard on the renos and just got through that lockdown.”
Co-owner Jason King, who along with brother Adam has run the pub since 2010, says those renovations meant they were a little slow to reopen during the first lockdown but this time around they’re raring to go.
“The pub is looking great and we’re just looking forward to getting punters back in and doing what we do best, albeit slightly different.”
In October last year, the Kings also became the owners of The Woodlands Hotel, which they’re holding off reopening for now. Unlike the Rainbow, it doesn’t have the same sizeable beer garden so they're working to take over an adjacent empty block where they plan to create a makeshift beer garden.
The Coburg pub has felt the effects of Melbourne’s second wave longer than most too, with bookings cancelled as case numbers began to rise in the city’s north and west in June.
Then came the start of the second shutdown and, as Stage Three turned into Stage Four and a city-wide curfew kicked in, Jason says they asked staff to stop coming in.
“I said, 'I know you guys want to work and are willing to work but I think this is a time where we stop moving around as much as possible',” he says.
As a father of two kids who needed to be homeschooled, Dave says he's kept fairly busy but it’s been harder to keep close to all the staff.
“For a lot of Stage Four, there was no work to do and they were all just stuck at their house,” he says.
As many in Melbourne would recognise, the first lockdown was a time for Zoom drinks, trivia nights and slowing down. The second lockdown was marked by far colder and shorter days, with the adrenaline rush of experiencing the new having largely dissipated.
“The second lockdown was a real hammer blow,” Dave says. “Everyone bunkered down a little bit. For myself it just felt like I was just crossing the days off a calendar.”
Unsurprisingly, the past year has felt worlds removed from the more than two decades that Jason has spent running pubs both here and in the UK. He and Adam grew up in a family with hotels too, and he says hospitality is an industry you expect to always pull through anything the world throws at you.
“You think you’re recession-proof and bulletproof but then this comes in and you’re the first to be shut down,” he says, adding how quickly things turned upside down once the need to end social gatherings came in.
“It does make sense in hindsight, but I certainly didn’t see it coming. Speaking to a lot of my peers and we all feel exactly the same way; you think you can ride out most things.”
While he's an operator willing to change and adapt as the local market changes, he says never expected to have to focus so much on securing government support to ensure they survived.
“[We’ve] stopped being publicans and become professional grant writers. Adam and I have spent so much time, energy and effort writing grants for anything that’s available.
“We have had a few approved that will hopefully keep the wolves from the door.”
The support from the authorities has enabled them to take over more space outside their pubs too, with the City of Yarra and Moreland council supportive of both. Their two landlords have helped them survive until now as well, although bills and other costs have kept coming.
“The landlords of both our businesses have been incredibly accommodating and understanding and they have given us a serious rent reduction," Jason says. "Without that rent reduction, we’d be in some serious strife.”
Despite the year they've had, speaking just as Melbourne’s lockdown ends, Jason is filled with optimism.
“We’ve maxed out our borrowing and taken advantage of every element of borrowing the banks and government would give us,” he says. “We’re in a pretty tough financial position but, if we can get trading again, then we’re more than confident we can get out of it.”
That optimism is, in part at least, driven by the constant stream of calls for bookings they've taken since they announced the Rainbow would be reopening.
“I’m watching the emails and it’s just going 'ding ding ding'," he says.
While Melbourne’s desire to get on the beers saw the pub booked out almost instantly, further down the road uncertainty remains. Beyond the possibility of another wave, there’s the continued economic hardship faced by many; Dave says it’s hard to know how January will look like, let alone March once JobKeeper dries up. But the pub can open again and trying to look that far ahead isn’t necessarily all that wise.
“We’ve become really good at being resilient, you’ve just got to play what’s in front of you,” he says. “These are the restrictions right now and we just have to deal with them; you’re on a hiding to nothing if you don’t.”
He expressed concerned for many in his own team, particularly those who don’t have access to either JobKeeper or JobSeeker. As a New Zealander, he wasn’t sure he’d be eligible for any kind of support in the early days, while one staff member who’s from the UK has been living upstairs in the Rainbow’s function room.
“That’s probably been the most stressful part of it, wondering how the staff are going to be,” Dave says.
“We did our care packages but you still stress about them and worry about how they’re going to be.”
He says it’s been heartwarming to see the number of people working to provide support, like the CoVid-19 EAD project set up to feed impacted hospo workers. Now, as the Rainbow gets set to come alive again, he says the whole team is returning, excluding those who had to leave the country as flight cancellations gathered pace.
“Basically everyone who was on the books for us are all coming back, except for those who had to get out and leave the country,” Dave says.
As for Jason, he's confident they'll find a way through provided they can keep trading.
“We will be able to be innovative and create something that was financially feasible and viable. That’s provided of course that the people of Melbourne still want to come out to a good pub and have a bloody good beer and a decent meal. Which I’m sure they do.”
The nonstop stream of emails landing in his inbox as we chat suggests he's right.
*Many thanks to Mary Sheehan from Living Histories, for the details of Melbourne during the Spanish flu.
Best of luck to every venue in Melbourne reopening tomorrow and in the subsequent days. You can read our feature on The Cherry Tree's very different experience during the twin lockdowns here.
For those heading back to their local, 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.