The River Kitchen owner Maria Senear just made the decision to just open for outdoor and takeaway customers only for now, selling baking through the window. Photo / Danielle Zollickhofer
Hamilton CBD foot traffic is way down because of people being sick or isolating, working from home, or just playing it safe and staying home. How are the city’s eateries getting on? Not too well
it seems, but doing all they can to remain positive – and stay open. We talk with operators, the Hamilton Central Business Association and the elected representatives.
With Omicron cases high across the country and 2164 new community cases in the Waikato yesterday, Hamilton’s CBD is having a tough time due to Covid-19 reporting a drop in revenue, foot traffic and staff.
To help cafes make it through these challenging times, operators and the Hamilton Central Business Association are calling for the public’s support. Some eateries are trying to encourage worried customers by offering outdoor seating only and opening takeaway windows.
Hamilton Central Business Association general manager Vanessa Williams says the impact of Covid-19 was significantly felt in the close customer contact sectors of retail, hospitality, and health and wellness.
“It is pretty quiet and foot traffic is down. While some businesses enjoyed a good lead up to Christmas and a good summer, the move to the red light setting was a turning point for the CBD. There was a noticeable shift with things getting quieter.
“Some businesses had to temporarily close due to staff shortages, some businesses reduced hours or offers. This is a tough time. January usually is a hard month, because of the holidays and a lot of people are away, but the red traffic light setting made it more challenging.”
Figures from the Hamilton City Council show the average daily count of foot traffic in January 2020 was just over 1250. This fell to 1000 in January last year and to around 800 this year.
“As the numbers show an average, it’s hard to point out specific numbers, but based on the data, we estimate the foot traffic to be down by 20 to 25 per cent compared to last year,” Williams says.
River Kitchen owner Maria Senear says she really felt the impact of Covid also due to a drop in revenue.
“There is hardly any foot traffic, I know we do look busy because everybody is sitting outside, but there is hardly anyone in the CBD these days.
“There is no one in the offices, a lot of people are working from home and if they do come into the office, everyone is staying in their bubbles … The struggle is real. [But] there is not a lot you can do, it’s not anybody’s fault. We are all in the same boat.”
She just made the decision to open for outdoor and takeaway customers only for now.
“It’s for the safety of my own staff. I am down half my team, we are a team of nine, but I currently have four isolating.”
Senear says she also reduced operating hours and the menu in response to the Covid challenges.
“We usually have a cabinet with fresh things like salads and stuff, but we don’t do that at the moment. We sell baking, like cakes, muffins and slices out of the window like we did in level 3 and we still have a menu for people sitting outside.”
Additionally, she is facing supply issues.
“Some items, like baby spinach, are very hard to get at the moment. And I had to make two runs to Auckland last week to get coffee, because of the couriers. Let’s say I ordered coffee on Monday, it would arrive on Saturday or even the following Monday. I mean you do have some spares tucked away somewhere but they don’t last forever.”
Despite all, she says there was light at the end of the tunnel.
“Lots of our customers are very understanding, supportive and loyal. And as long as my staff and our customers are safe, it’s okay. My team grew together a bit closer, almost like a family and they also learned new skills. They are now all cross-trained.”
Hazel Hayes owner Dylan Bhantoa says he made similar observations.
“It’s been very tough lately … We had the busiest summer … Even on the 21 January, we had a wedding, on the 22nd we had a wedding, on the 23rd the red light was announced and when we came to work on the 24th we had this flood of emails with cancellations. That’s how fragile the market is.”
The physical Hazel Haze cafe just changed locations.
“We just moved our cafe to the Wintec house, because all our foot traffic was gone. We used to be on Victoria St, next to a big Wilson carpark that was packed from 8 o’clock in the morning. Now it is still near-empty by 11. And our daily catering dropped by 90 per cent.”
Bhantoa says the move of the cafe had an impact.
“We are doing three to four times better than at the old location, but it’s still not great … It’s not about getting rich at the moment, but laying the foundation to still be here in the future.”
He says he is trying to stay positive and if everything goes to plan, he will open a new restaurant at the beginning of April.
“It is what it is. I am looking on the bright side. Due to the move to Wintec, we have some freed up space in our old premises that we were going to use for storage. But we thought we could do something different. I am from Mauritius Island and I haven’t seen a Creole-French fusion style cuisine in New Zealand before.”
Williams says hospitality businesses were what people want to see in the CBD.
“They are the heart of the CBD. These businesses rely on community support and there are ways to make it work. I would encourage people who are worried about going out to choose the takeaway option.
“I just read that Norris Ward McKinnon announced they would support a different local food business every Tuesday through shouting their team lunch. It’s really cool to see this conscious support from people, that’s what these businesses need.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton City Council announced their support for its hospitality tenants through a rent relief package.
The Economic Development Committee approved $138,000 to provide 50 per cent rent relief to the Hamilton Gardens Café, Verandah Café at the Hamilton Lake Domain, Naughty Naan, Kampong Restaurant, Nivara Lounge, Morepork Café at the Zoo, Coffee Hub at Waterworld, Rototuna Family Golf Café, Kiwi Travel Café at the Transport Centre, Jin Wing Takeaways and Mexico Restaurant.
Economic Development Committee chairman councillor Ryan Hamilton says: “This is a sector that’s been experiencing hardship for a long time now … Hospitality is not an industry that can move to a sustainable online business model, and we don’t want to see these fantastic businesses have to close their doors.”
The relief follows similar support packages offered to council tenants in October and December last year where a combined total of $283,000 was made available to tenants in the hospitality and retail sectors, of which $142,000 of these funds has been allocated.
“Hamilton has an incredible hospitality sector and it plays such a critical role in both our economy and in our communities. The vibrancy it brings to our city is immeasurable and we want to do our part to make sure this remains long after the pandemic ends.”
Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate says she could see the hospitality industry hurting.
“They are having it tough. Just last week I went out for lunch and the cafe I went to closed an hour early because it’s not worth staying open for few people … People are working from home and are not going out for that coffee or that muffin or lunch.”
She says she wants to encourage people to go out.
“It’s all about keeping safe while you are out and using the tools we have to protect ourselves, wear your mask, scan in, sanitise, social distancing and vaccination passes … When Covid is gone, people will still want to go out so we need to make sure there is something to get back to.”
To walk in the shoes of the people affected, Southgate laid down her chain of office for an evening and volunteered at Hamilton restaurant Banh Mi Caphe.
“It was an enlightening experience … I had a great day with a serious message. We need to help hospitality businesses to get through the darkest of times.”
Southgate took out food orders and was excited to learn how to mix a cocktail.
“I am pleased to say I did get the food to the right table all without breaking a plate. Making good cocktails is quite difficult, but Roberto taught me how to do it. I gave my best impression of Tom Cruise [in the 1988 movie Cocktail].”
She says it was great to see some people still had the confidence to go out.
“It is reasonably safe to go out if you stick to the protocols. Working at Banh Mi, I got to see first hand the measures to keep diners safe, like scanning vaccine passes, sanitise, masks and spacing.
“Waikato Food Inc says there is a staff shortage in hospitality at the moment due to the isolation requirements. They want to encourage the community with hospitality experience or those who would like to learn to reach out and create a pool of stand-ins,” Southgate says.
She says she now had a newfound appreciation of wait staff.
“It is a serious job, not easy. You need to concentrate and are a lot on your feet.”