North Wollongong restaurant owner Andrea Rubbo had been following news of a looming lockdown in NSW with a sense of dread and inevitably.
Most of his family back in Italy had lost their jobs after stay-home orders were introduced to control the COVID-19 outbreak ravaging parts of the country and by March, as the virus took hold in Australia, he was certain it was his turn. He braced for Lucia's By The Sea to go under.
"Like other businesses, I was prepared to go broke to be honest," he said. "We had a bit to survive but we didn't know how long it was going to last. Because I'm Italian I knew exactly what was going on there, so I didn't have the best of hopes. Fortunately I was all wrong."
By the end of March, as more businesses shuttered amid tightening restrictions and climbing case numbers, Kembla Grange mother Toria Kotamanidis was also glued to news coverage of the virus.
She was sitting down with a coffee one morning when a report on the restriction of non-essential gatherings in pubs, restaurants and cafes got her thinking: People still need to eat so what will happen if we go into lockdown? Will supermarkets be our only options? And if cafes and restaurants are open how will people know?
"That's when it popped into my head," Mrs Kotamanidis said. "I thought, wouldn't it be so convenient for the Illawarra to have a Facebook group to see what's available and what can be picked up or delivered when we went into lockdown.
"Local eateries could post and let people know what they were offering foodwise and if they are now delivering or available for takeaway. They could post specials and keep their loyal - and now new - customers up to date with their businesses as well."
She called the group Illawarra Menus, a little bit of brilliance from a woman not even part of the hospitality industry (she owns the family daycare centre Sue's Scholars). In the first week, 1000 people joined, and within two months the number had soared to 10,000. Nine months and 38,500 members later, many eateries credit the community Facebook group with keeping them afloat during the pandemic.
Mrs Kotamanidis set the group up in a way that made any hierarchy that existed within the local food scene redundant, with chicken shops and burger joints encouraged to post their menus alongside top restaurants like Babyface, Steamers, the Lagoon, Villa D'oro and Lucia's. It proved a great leveller as the upscale venues seized on the opportunity to let the community know they were open and pivoting to takeaway to survive the ban on eat-in meals.
When Mr Rubbo spotted the rapidly growing Illawarra Menus page, his business - like every other fine-dining restaurant in the state - was in deep trouble and he too knew he had to adapt or die, so he came up with an idea - "I don't know if it was an idea or desperation not to go broke" - to transform his fancy white-tablecloth restaurant into a little home-delivery pizzeria.
He admits the massive departure from a la carte stung a little. His resume boasts a Michelin star in Rome, and there were management roles at Wollongong's iconic waterfront restaurants the Lagoon and the Harbourfront, before he took over Lucia's last year on the coveted, ocean-facing corner of Cliff Road and Bourke Street. But while his ego may have taken a knock, his bottom line did not.
After sharing his new takeaway offerings on the Illawarra Menus Facebook page, he was soon delivering pizza - the authentic Italian variety, with three-day rested dough - and other dishes to suburbs across Wollongong. He was not only surviving but thriving and at the end of a tumultuous 2020, his business was remarkably in the black. In fact, Mr Rubbo says it was his most profitable year yet.
"It saved my business," he said of the Facebook group. "It basically tripled my customer base just by having that page. Every day I could post what we were doing for the day or the specials we had and I had thousands of people looking at it.
"Don't get me wrong, we've done our part, but I think more than one business owes her the fact they're still alive, from what I can tell from my story. I've actually invited her to my restaurant at any time to have dinner with her family, just to actually meet her, because I don't even know the face of this young lady."
Fairy Meadow's Outback Steakhouse franchise owner Donald Tenorio also offered Mrs Kotamanidis - who does not make any money from Illawarra Menus - dinner on the house in order to show his appreciation for her creation and continued efforts to help it flourish. And like Lucia's, Outback is starting the new year stronger than ever after teetering on the brink of financial ruin.
"The government didn't allow any dine-ins, which is easily 95 per cent of my business, so we were only allowed to have takeaways, pick-ups and deliveries," he said. "But Outback is not known for those things - we are more of a dine-in restaurant so we really struggled in terms of where do we get our customers? Or how will the community know that despite the pandemic we were still open?"
In March, after being forced to stand down most of his staff, Mr Tenorio and a few remaining managers started calling and emailing regulars to let them know the restaurant was still open for takeout. Then Illawarra Menus happened.
"It was actually my wife who was quite active on Facebook that saw it," Mr Tenorio said. "She said 'why don't you join the group?' We joined and, lo and behold, we were able to get reconnected to the community.
"We posted menus to let people know what to order, how to order, what hours we were open and we even offered a couple of specials. It was very helpful because people were interacting on the page, leaving comments, giving feedback, asking for numbers - at the end of the day there was a common location where we could meet given the restrictions and the limitations we had during that time.
"Right now we're making about 12 to 15 per cent of our sales from delivery, takeaway and pick-up so that's gone from five to 15 - threefold in terms of what we used to do.
"The period now compared with the same period last year, we're doing much better because one, help is coming from the Illawarra Menus in terms of being active on the Facebook market; second, with the restrictions people cannot go to another state or visit somewhere else. We are more confined where to go, so I think it helped us keep our business buoyed."
A heavily pregnant Mrs Kotamanidis is expecting her second child any day and will rely on a team of trusted admins to help maintain the group during the early days of her maternity leave, but she is proud of what she has created and promises it's not going anywhere.
"I think the page will continue to be popular (after COVID) because it gives local business a free way to advertise," she said. "I don't make or charge anyone any money from the page, so everything is absolutely 100 per cent free.
"And with the page still growing I think a lot of people will keep going back to it, even post COVID-19, because it has so many options for them right at their fingertips.
"The page is here to stay - that's a promise. We live in such a great community and it's my way of giving back and showing my love to the Illawarra."
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