No sooner had the lease been signed than news broke of a virus ripping through China and spilling out into the rest of the world.
Matt Morrissey and his partner Katie Hancock had come to Queanbeyan to open a new café, just as COVID-19 arrived and all their potential customers boarded themselves up at home.
But as far as they were concerned, duty called.
“We could’ve shut the doors during the pandemic and I could’ve found work as a chef elsewhere, but we fought hard to stay open for the people we employ,” Matt says.
Bean Central on Monaro Street in Queanbeyan offers employment to those who would otherwise struggle to find it – “people with various disabilities, people who are down on their luck and people who through no fault of their own have found themselves unemployed”.
“We wanted this to be a community café from the very beginning,” Matt says.
But after supporting the community for two years, Matt is now asking if the community might consider supporting them. He says he wrote one of the hardest social media posts he’s ever had to write on Tuesday, 3 May, asking for $25,000 in donations to keep the café alive.
“Since Bean Central opened in June 2020, Katie and I have poured everything we have into the café, just to simply keep the doors open. We’ve sold a house, taken no income from the business and gone into a substantial amount of personal debt to keep it alive.”
Matt says the two years of struggle have caught up with them and the business is now on the brink.
“There’s nothing coming in we can use to keep propping it up. The last six to eight weeks have seen some improvement, but we’re now trying to play catch-up.”
Matt describes himself as a “late bloomer” in the hospitality industry, starting an apprenticeship at the age of 40. From there, he did stints at Bentspoke Brewing Company and a regional winery, before deciding to come closer to home.
“At that stage, we had just finished catering for the ‘Women of Queanbeyan’ calendar launch,” he says. “We just loved the community spirit that is Queanbeyan, and felt that we’d give a café a crack.”
They signed a lease on a property adjacent to the Riverside Plaza in December 2019, with an opening date pencilled in for March. A matter of days before the doors were due to open, however, NSW was plunged into lockdown and business just went from bad to worse.
By June 2020, they were paying $11,000 a month in rent, while trying to pay staff at a time when customers were extremely thin on the ground.
“The maths didn’t really add up,” Matt says.
Fortunately, they weren’t forced to lay anyone off but they did resort to a skeleton crew.
“The employees may not be getting as many shifts as they may have once had, but they’re still working for us.”
Matt’s partner Katie is an HR consultant, and while the pair sacrificed his income, their house, and their loan eligibility for the sake of the staff, she worked “basically seven days a week to provide some income”.
Katie says she can’t believe they’ve had to resort to the most “shameful thing”.
“But the alternative was to have to close the doors. We’ve exhausted every avenue of funding.”
Matt says the situation is improving as business slowly returns to normal, but the donations will help get them back on track.
“This is not just a cash grab. This is us saying that we do need support. We know that what we’ve got is a special place and we really do fight to keep it open. We hope it will flourish and continue to provide employment opportunities to these vulnerable people.”
He says the support is definitely out there, and the majority of people who have responded to his posts have been “quite positive”.
As of 5 May, 73 people had donated a total of $6590. To donate, visit GoFundMe.