Three months ago the Newcastle food industry was turned upside down. Restaurants shut, supermarkets ran short of stock. Customers were staying home and trying to stay away from the coronavirus.
Everybody in the food business had to find their own way forward. Here we share the stories of four fresh produce suppliers making sense of the last 100 days.
The Milkman's Back
When Peter Butcher began his home delivery of fresh food lines in the spring of 2019, sparked by a desire to help dairy farmer Glenn Haines of Udder Farm at Luskintyre gain more exposure for his milk, he immediately sensed a strong demand from the public.
At Christmas, he was flat out serving 150 customers, with a wide range of bread, dairy, poultry and produce.
When COVID-19 hit, it took his business to a whole new level.
"It's one big blur, to be honest," he says. "We were growing pretty quickly as it was. The virus hit, and we've gone to five new levels.
"We are now delivering to 300 customers a week, and have got a second van on the road. We are in process of looking for sheds and coolrooms. And adding more vans. There are people asking me to go in every direction."
Butcher is carrying 250 product lines from about 14 suppliers, and delivering to homes in Port Stephens, Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.
"We are delivering quality and can meet a customer need," he says. "That gives me an edge there. I want to keep the basics, supporting locals and finding hidden gems around, which is good."
An Apple A Day
When COVID-19 hit, Sheeren Morris was in the early days of getting her business started as a pediatric physiotherapist. Her husband, Caleb, had only been made redundant from his job in the hospitality industry in January. There was no JobKeeper allowance waiting for them.
So they parlayed their experience of running a food co-op - buying produce from the Sandgate markets and supplying it to 15 families and friends - into a startup business, calling it An Apple A Day.
"When COVID came, we scaled it up," Sheeren says. "It's a huge amount of work going from a hobby to a business. Now, we're going to make it stay."
They reached a peak of 150 clients, offering both home or business delivery (at a cost of $10) or pickup from the laneway behind their home on Woodstock Street, Mayfield.
They offered a variety of box options - fruit only, veg only, mixed produce - and have expanded to offer eggs, honey, coffee beans and more.
Shereen is confident in the business model: offering practical, good food, delivered in a fresher condition that the supermarket norm, and at a cheaper price (15-20 per cent) than supermarkets.
"When I sit back and look at it all, I'm proud of what we've done. What we've achieved is great. To set up a business during COVID, set it up debt free, I think we've done well. But like any business owner, we've got a lot to do."
Newcastle Farmers Markets
Kevin Eade, director of Newcastle City Farmers Markets, is confident the worst of the coronavirus crisis is over. The markets were deemed an "essential service" and traded right through the pandemic.
Dealing with thousands of members of the public across three markets - Eade runs the Lake Macquarie markets at Speers Point, the Gosford markets on Sundays and the Newcastle markets every Sunday - he's got his finger on the pulse and says people are eager to return to their normal practices.
"My personal belief - most people think, it's all over. Let's get on with things," he says.
Changes at the Newcastle markets at the showgrounds - forced by social distancing measures - will likely stay, he says.
"We have totally reconstructed the market," Eade says. "Customers like the new layout. They are pleading with us not to change the layout. We have spread everything out."
Visitor numbers are climbing. Last week figures were better than six months ago, he says. About 130 vendors are attending, only a small drop since COVID-19.
The markets have gained ground in the public's mind. Eade says: "Certainly it's changed people's attitude, it's better to be out in open air and sunshine to do your shopping. Number one, viruses don't like it."
The Lake Macquarie City Farmers Markets are on this Saturday, June 13, from 7am to 1pm. The Newcastle City Farmers Markets run from 7am to 1pm every Sunday.
Newcastle Greens is an award-winning producer of microgreens and specialty vegetables to the restaurant trade in Sydney and Newcastle. Their restaurant trade disappeared overnight during COVID, losing 85 clients.
With a constant supply of product, owners Dylan Abdoo and Elle Brown began offering vegetable boxes (which included exotics like Lamborn snap peas, shishito capsicums, Mexican sour cucumbers, Spanish radishes, Romanesq broccoli along with staples cauliflower, pumpkin, potatoes, broccoli).
Now, with about 35 restaurants taking produce from Newcastle Greens they will reduce the boxes to the public ("Restaurants can't wait to get their hands on good stuff," Abdoo says.)
COVID-19 has offered hard truths, like it's easier to be agile when you are a small business. If the COVID returns, it will be bad. "Another one would be a killer," Abdoo says.
"We were all indulging a little too much. We were charging hard. In the new world, people will be smarter with their costs ... We will be tighter as well. If we get a second wave, and are waiting for money, that will be straw that broke the camel's back."
David Sivyer, who runs the urban farm project Feedback Organic, withdrew his stand from the Newcastle City Farmers Markets, during the COVID-19 crisis. He pivoted to supplying a "feedback" box of vegetables and herbs (with eggs at an extra cost) to households.
Sivyer's business revolves around completing the circle of food. He picks up 3 tonnes of food waste every week from local restaurants, schools and homes, and makes compost, which he uses to grow produce at a couple of urban farms. Then he sells the food he produces, including back to the places that supply the waste.
"When COVID came along, it was a catalyst for our 'feedback'," he says. "We harvest on Saturday morning and deliver from 3 to 6pm on Saturday. It was a great catalyst. We decided to take a break from the farmers markets for health concerns."
The new system is closer to a model that can be used everywhere, and Sivyer, who's sister Sarah Sivyer runs Just Been Laid egg company, is happy with the direction.