The last 12 months has been a test for everybody in retail.
For Lauren Henry, owner of Common Circus cafe and homewares store, she's met the challenge by pivoting to a takeaway only coffee and food menu at her Belmont store on Brooks Parade, and ramping up her online and in-store homewares sales.
Meanwhile, in the background, she continued her three-year search for a second store location, finally securing a site that suits her needs perfectly.
The new store, in a cul-de-sac on Dixon Street, Hamilton, opened for business recently. The two-storey building is behind St Peters Anglican Church on Denison Street, and was previously used as the church hall. A cornerstone on the building says it was built in 1896.
The building sits adjacent to the entrance to Hamilton Public School.
The food and retail at the Hamilton homewares cafe is almost exactly the same as at the Belmont store, there's just three times as much floorspace.
The menu includes a wide selection of Glee coffee, juices by HVRST, Probiotic Kitchen Kombucha, shakes and gelato, classic toasties, bagels, pastries and clever salads (Mexican black rice and cherry tomato salad, Mexican quinoa and bean salad, roast cauliflower, kasoundi, rocket and quinoa salad).
The range of products includes a very select assortment of beauty products, homewares, kitchenware, infant clothing and toys, cards and books.
Henry, with help from her husband and family, has spent several months painting the interior and renovating the building. They have restored the original entrance, removed 2000 ceiling tiles and brought the pressed metal ceiling back to life, and repainted on the main retail floor and the upstairs, which will be used for offices and community events.
"I've always dreamed of bigger, because there's more potential to do better community [services], like having a carpark where you could possibly have a market one day," Henry says.
"It just allows you to be more creative which is essentially what I love about it. But I don't think I would have skipped Belmont, because I have learned so much. And I am more about organic growth.
"It's the same here, we'll start small and grow into the space, rather than try and take on the world. I find that in my head is a little less risky."
Henry opened Common Circus in Belmont in October 2014. The business has been a success not only for her, but for the community, as it gradually became a focal point on the east side of Lake Macquarie - as a meeting place for morning chats, to browse for a gift, grab a takeaway coffee on the way to kids' sport, or a sandwich after a Green Point bush walk.
As Laura Higgins, a small business consultant and friend of Henry, describes it: "She's created a community, more than creating a space to connect. She's provided a haven - beautiful service, beautiful products and a warming, inviting space. It's a place where people can be themselves - kind of like a mini-vacation."
While coffee (Glee) was the main offer, Henry's smartly-curated homewares, cards, clothing, kitchenware and accessories stock has become equally as important.
The pandemic triggered further success for the retail stock.
"COVID has meant a lot of changes in what's sold for us," Henry says. "What hasn't worked previously is now working. It's been a real experimental year. Because a lot more people are shopping locally, it's allowed us to buy differently as well, and test things that have worked, which previously haven't."
The pandemic has also brought the importance of buying local to the forefront.
"Finally, the shop local thing has resonated with the masses," Henry says. "The husband understands why the local butcher is important. If we don't go there they won't be there. It's one of the silver linings of COVID. The local butcher, IGA, coffee shop, how they hire people and support the local people."
When Henry moved from Sydney to Lake Macquarie, she knew what she liked. And, she honestly admits, she's only tried to re-create what she herself is drawn to.
"My whole thing is that when I lived in Sydney, I lived in Cronulla," she says. "I loved my little apartment, you go up to the shops, you get a coffee, a paper, or you might go to the bookshop and get a nice book, flowers, wander on home. And that was how I wanted to spend my weekend so all I'm trying to do is create what I want to do. It's very selfish but you just gotta hope that everyone wants the same thing."