Troy McDonagh, managing director of Betty’s Burgers & Concrete Co, says he’s grateful that the chain’s restaurant in Windsor, one of three hospitality businesses located in the building that collapsed, was empty at the time.
“No team members were rostered until 10 am, so we were very fortunate that there was no one in the restaurant. And even [though] the corner we’re on is a busy corner, there were no guests around the restaurant, so no one was hurt,” McDonagh told Inside Retail.
“Once I knew that, I thought, ‘OK. Anything else we can deal with.’”
Pru Corrigan, CEO of PR agency One Daydream, said there normally would have been nine people working in her office on Green Street just 100 metres away from the collapsed building in Windsor. But due to Covid-19 restrictions, there was only one person in the office on Wednesday.
“She said that our building, which is over 100 years old, had begun to shake like crazy and she ran down the stairs – we are [on the] top level – because she feared the building could collapse,” Corrigan told Inside Retail.
“As she opened our front door to escape, the Betty’s Burgers building collapsed in front of her with a ferocious noise and smoke started to fill the street. Onlookers were staring in disbelief, and they ran to the building to see if anyone was hurt. One lucky woman [reportedly a resident in an upper-floor apartment] ran out of the building – very upset but unharmed.”
Corrigan ensured her employee got home safely, but was unable to check the office for damage as the road was still closed on Wednesday afternoon.
“I don’t believe there is damage, but it makes me question the safety of these old buildings,” she said. “I’m not sure there were many building laws in place for earthquakes and safety back in the late 1800s – but I am now checking with my landlord.”
McDonagh has also been blocked from entering the Betty’s Burgers store in Windsor for several days while structural engineers assess the integrity of the building. In the near term, this will mean swallowing the cost of lost perishables. But in the long term, while the building is being repaired, it will mean several months of missed takeaway sales from the chain’s busiest store in Melbourne.
“It’s disappointing for our team because they love the place, they love the guests and being in the community, and we can’t do that now. We have to wait until we know what the timing is and then we’ll build a plan to get it back up and going again,” he said.
One of the top priorities for McDonagh is supporting the Windsor store’s 60-odd team members and finding space for them to work at other restaurants in the network.
“Our full-time leaders have been redeployed to our other restaurants,” he said. “The big challenge is [that] a lot of our casual team have not been working a lot anyway because of lockdown, so we’re just working out a plan for those team members. We’ve got a number of restaurants here in Melbourne and a couple more to open, so I’m sure we’ll be able to get them all, or many, back to work as quickly as possible.”
While the Melbourne earthquake was a shock to many people already rattled by the prolonged stress of Covid-19, history shows it could have been much worse. In February 2011, a 6.2-magnitude earthquake killed 185 people and caused widespread damage in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Major retailers were badly affected by the disaster, including the supermarket chain Countdown, which reported damage to fittings and fixtures and structural damage in some stores. It took several months for the retailer’s supply chain to return to normal operations and for all stores to reopen to the public.
In 2013, the government said it expected the total cost of rebuilding to reach NZ$40 billion, and some economists say it will take the New Zealand economy 50-100 years to fully recover.
Japan experienced an even more devastating 9.1-magnitude earthquake in March 2011, the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900. It triggered a massive tsunami in the northeastern region of Tōhoku and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.
Nearly 20,000 people are estimated to have died in the events, over 6200 were injured and over 2500 are still missing. The cost of rebuilding has been estimated at US$122 billion.
Major earthquakes are rare in Australia, but Wednesday’s tremor reminded retailers of the importance of being prepared.
“It doesn’t matter how busy you are, [or] whether you’re a single-site operator or have multiple venues,” McDonagh said. “Having systems and processes that the team knows…there’s accountability with those things.”
After the earthquake, “Everyone knew what to do, everyone knew the process, everyone knew how to communicate,” he said.
Paul Jerome, managing director of Emergency Management Consultancy Services, believes there are two key aspects to emergency preparedness: risk assessment and business continuity planning.
“When the earthquake starts, it’s about seeking appropriate shelter internally. Then it’s about safe evacuation,” he told Inside Retail.
When the immediate crisis is over, it’s about getting the business back up and running. But depending on the damage caused by the event, this could take several days or even longer.
“What do you do if you can’t start up again? Perhaps your building is damaged, or needs repair – how do you keep your business running?” Jerome asked.
Retailers may also find that their partners and suppliers have been impacted, or that the basic infrastructure they rely on isn’t working. Simply having a backup of their business data may not be enough to resume normal operations.
Jerome says the biggest takeaway from the Christchurch earthquake in 2011 was the ability of businesses to adapt.
“Whether it’s Covid, or an earthquake, it’s really about the capacity of the business to have a resilient approach to how they do what they do, so they can continue to operate online deliveries, takeaways, provision of services from a remote location, whatever the circumstances happen to be,” he said.