• Shane Leahy of Kangaroo Island Fresh Garlic (Adam Liaw's Road Trip for Good)Source: Adam Liaw's Road Trip for Good
Food providers suffered a double whammy in 2020 with both the Black Summer bushfires and COVID-19. Here's why bushfire-affected food businesses need your tourism dollar still, one year on.
Yasmin Noone

30 Nov 2020 - 12:58 PM  UPDATED 2 Dec 2020 - 9:31 AM

--- Join Adam Liaw on an inspiring journey to highlight Australia's bushfire-affected food producers on Adam Liaw's Road Trip for Good which premieres Wednesday 8.30pm on SBS Food and SBS On Demand. ---


For years, Martine Folden of Betty’s Barbecue (Betty's Bar) in Kangaroo Valley, NSW considered fire as a colleague of sorts: an essential element in her barbecued foods business that she befriended in order to turn rare beef and raw salmon into smoked goodness.

Then in late 2019 and early 2020, Folden experienced the other face of fire as she witnessed the Black Summer bushfires ravage her town. “It was like the apocalypse had come,” Folden tells SBS. “With the fires, the sky changed colour, the wind was blowing, lightning was striking and rain was falling. It was surreal on every level.”

Photo taken as Martine Folden returned back to the town after the evacuation.

The ferocity of the nationwide event saw a series of mega-fires occur throughout the country. Almost 19 million hectares burned, over 3,000 houses were destroyed and small towns like Kangaroo Valley were left economically reeling from a lack of tourism.

“It was like the apocalypse had come...It was surreal on every level."

Thankfully, the fire didn’t claim Folden’s house or her café’s physical structure. But the first fire ban in November 2019 rendered Folden unable to smoke foods.

“We kept trading in other things at the café for a while, but had to evacuate our home and business just after Christmas day when it was clear the fire was heading our way.” Folden, her family and farm animals camped in the evacuation grounds of Berry Showground for two weeks until the fire passed.

“The business remained closed during the busiest trading period of the year. After we came back, there were no customers around the town. Missing out on the Christmas season just wiped us out. We just couldn’t catch up on rent and no concessions were made for us so we had to shut down the café shopfront.”

Forced to innovate and change tact to survive, Folden soon decided to create a new business – one without a physical shopfront – selling ready-made smoked meats and fish at Kiama Markets.

“Not only did the markets keep me going financially after the fires, they kept me going mentally after COVID hit,” she says. “For me, I just love feeding people. It’s in my blood. I would feel like something is missing if I was not feeding people, so I knew I just had to keep on going.”

A double whammy: bushfires and COVID-19

Folden’s Black Summer experience of fire, hardship, innovation and recovery is one that’s been shared by many businesses in bushfire–affected towns that rely strongly on the tourism dollar for economic trade.

Over in South Australia, businesses like Kangaroo Island Olives are still trying their best to bounce back from the bushfires in the midst of COVID-19.

“It's hard to distinguish the difference [between the loss of business] that occurred because of the bushfires and COVID,” Michael Esposito from Kangaroo Island Olives tells SBS.

“But as a whole, the food service side of our business – where we supply restaurants, hotels and cafes with our produce – has suffered more than retail throughout the past year. That said we’ve seen some of that loss offset by the increase in our retail sales, mainly online.”

Esposito explains that focusing on online sales was more of a survival mechanism than strategic planning. “But it is helping us to make up the shortfall.”

Shane Leahy of Kangaroo Island Fresh Garlic

Some on the Island are hoping for more than just survival this year, like Shane Leahy from Kangaroo Island Fresh Garlic, who despite losing his home while out fighting fires for other residents in January, says he's ready with his biggest crop ever this season.

"[It was] pretty devastating initially to see that but it came back to looking into my shed to see that the garlic seed that I’d harvested two weeks earlier was still intact so the forward thinking was at least I can put in a crop this year," says Leahy. "In my mind it’s like this is where life starts again."

“People really did come and they came with the intent of supporting fire-affected businesses. The result was that we had the best February on record.”

Cupitt’s Estate in Ulladulla on the NSW South Coast – a restaurant operator, winery, and cheese and beer producer – is but another business that’s suffered a loss in trade this year because of a post-bushfire slump in tourism.

“At the start of 2020, everything felt really uncertain,” customer experience manager for Cupitt's, Libby Cupitt says. “But, after the fires, when it was deemed was safe for people to travel again, there was a really strong campaign to encourage people to return to bushfire-affected towns.

“People really did come and they came with the intent of supporting fire-affected businesses. The result was that we had the best February on record.”

Then, in March, just when the recovery effort was starting to pick up steam, COVID-19 hit Cupitt's. Travel throughout NSW came to a halt, as did restaurant bookings.

“We had to stand down most of our team but kept a few on, and reviewed things as we went. We went hard on online sales. We made ready-made meals for take away and sold produce boxes created from the food in the garden, wines, cheese and beer.”

Thankfully, the estate stayed afloat and is now making a strong recovery. But, Cupitt says, there’s still a fear that fire can strike again this summer. “The situation is still so uncertain. Anything can happen.”

Taking a trip to enjoy some of Australia's regional fare lends a massive helping hand to bushfire-affected businesses.

How about taking a road trip for good?

It’s been hard to watch the tourist towns we all love to visit suffer so harshly over the past year. So what can we all do to help the bushfire recovery effort one year on, and ensure that food and drink producers, retailers and restaurants maintain a thick buffer against another harsh economic blow?

The new SBS Food series Adam Liaw’s Road Trip For Good, which premiers on Wednesday 2 December at 8.30pm, puts forward one clear solution: when it’s safe to do so, travel domestically and buy local produce along the way.

The show sees Liaw visit bushfire-affected towns and regions across NSW, Victoria and South Australia to collect local ingredients, which he uses to create a range of dishes.

“Stopping at multiple places along the way during your drive can help to spread the tourists even further along bushfire-affected regions.”

During the four-part series, Liaw meets Zoe Manderson, creator of the online site called Road Trip for Good, which inspired the show. Manderson believes a simple road trip can improve the livelihoods of bushfire-affected towns because it relies on the ‘pit stop’ power of tourism.

“We know that on a domestic road trip, people can stop at a café in a regional town for coffee and then visit a winery for lunch on the way to their final destination,” Manderson tells SBS. “Stopping at multiple places along the way during your drive can help to spread the tourists even further along bushfire-affected regions.”

Manderson, who has visited many of the communities impacted by the fires for the website, acknowledges that some businesses will not be able to recover. “But there are so many other food and drink businesses in regional towns that are looking at the future as a positive opportunity to keep moving forward.”

Mandy Crispin from Tallangatta Bakery in North Eastern Victoria – who also appears on the series spent much of last bushfire season feeding victims in her town’s evacuation centre.

Crispin says although she’s nervous about the bushfire threat that comes with the upcoming summer season, she’s also hopeful that all will be well, that tourist will return to her town and her community will fully bounce back.

Adam Liaw visits Mandy Crispin during Adam Liaw's Road Trip for Good.

“A road trip is all about supporting a chain of businesses,” Crispin tells SBS. “By traveling to small towns, you’re not only helping the place you eat at or buy food from, but you’re also helping their suppliers. So it’s really important that you get out there and show your support for small towns this summer.

“It’s especially important for those communities that didn’t really have a Christmas last year because of the bushfires and missed out on tourism.”

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