The Captain’s Balcony: How we’re weathering the COVID-19 downturn
In tight times, every bit helps. The Captain’s Balcony owner Akash Deep says support from Westpac is helping small businesses like his during the COVID-19 downturn.
Small businesses are the backbone of the Australian economy and right now they’re doing it tough. Business owners face ongoing uncertainty and have been forced to make difficult decisions in order to stay afloat. The Captain’s Balcony owner Akash Deep explains how he’s steering his boutique bar in Sydney’s CBD through the COVID-19 crisis and seeking out savings to shore up his bottom line.
After coming to Australia as a student in 2007, Indian-Australian Akash Deep spent several years working in hotels and restaurants before deciding to strike out for himself. On the hunt for small premises, he fell in love with a three-storey Victorian terrace in Erskine Street in the Sydney CBD. He and wife Isabella opened The Captain’s Balcony, an Asian fusion bar, in the heritage-listed space in 2014. Their generous share platters, juicy burgers and hopping happy hour soon resulted in a strong following from local office workers. The bar also became a popular venue for small functions and events.
“When you start a new business, you anticipate it may take a while to take off but things went well for us, from quite early on,” Deep says.
Then the pandemic struck and punched a hole in the couple’s business planning and profits. Trade began to slow in February and then disappeared entirely when government shutdown restrictions forced the venue to close its doors in late March.
“When we first heard about the virus in January, we thought it would be nothing but by February things were coming out in the news and people were getting scared,” Deep recalls. “No-one knew what was going on and from that time onwards, things were down.”
He and his wife were forced to lay off four workers, none of whom were eligible for the JobKeeper wage subsidy, and scramble for funds to pay wages, suppliers and rent.
“We’re a small business and we didn’t have a huge reserve of savings,” he says. “If we don’t continue to generate income, we don’t have the funds we need to meet our commitments. We used whatever we had to clear everybody up and pay our bills as best we could.”
In mid-May, The Captain’s Balcony reopened but customers have been slow to return. Whereas the venue often served up to 1000 patrons a week before the pandemic, it’s now lucky to see 30 or 40.
“We’re in the centre of town, surrounded by the head offices of large companies – banks, accountancy firms and the like,” Deep explains. “We’re not a tourist bar, we’re a ‘local’ for the business community, but since March hardly anyone has been in the office. Often, when I drive here in the morning there are no cars; it looks like a public holiday.”
While many other venues in the area remain closed, he and Isabella wanted to get back to The Captain’s Balcony as quickly as possible.
“My wife and I have invested so much in the business. It’s been our life for the last six years so it was important for us to show we were open for business as soon as the government gave the green light,” Deep says.
They are saving on wages by working almost all hours themselves and have rationalised the menu to reduce food costs.
“We make everything fresh every day so it’s important we don’t order too much and waste food,” Deep explains. “Before COVID, we were famous for our specials but they’re off for the moment because we can’t risk the damage to revenue.”
The Captain’s Balcony has sought rent relief on its premises and is hoping to secure a loan to assist with cash flow under the Federal Government’s Coronavirus Small and Medium Enterprises Guarantee Scheme.
Fee relief from Westpac, provided to all small business customers after the pandemic was announced, has also been appreciated. “We have four merchant terminals with Westpac and do all our banking with them,” Deep says.
“Our monthly fees were refunded from April, on the terminals and our business accounts, which was great. Not every bank is as helpful and at the moment every little bit helps.
“Westpac’s merchant team manager has also been calling us every month to check how we’re going and whether we need anything – they’ve been very good and we’re grateful for the support.”
Ongoing uncertainty and challenging economic conditions have made 2020 a difficult year for small businesses. Many face a tough journey back to profitability and growth.
The Deeps remain hopeful trade will continue to improve as more remote workers transition back to the office. But they don’t expect the “on-and-off rollercoaster ride” to end while uncertainty about the virus and how it will be managed persists. “We don’t know what the coming months will be like but we try our best to be adaptable and do whatever we can do,” says Deep.
This article is a general overview and should be used as a guide only. We recommend that you seek independent professional advice about your specific circumstances before acting.