While businesses across Victoria, and even around the world, are hoping that trade will go back to a pre-COVID normal in the near future, some are not even sure what normal looks like.
After opening in May, Ballarat CBD bar Renard was forced into lockdown just two weeks later and has never operated outside some form of COVID restrictions since, going through four lockdowns in its short life so far.
Previously known as nightclub Faux Social Club, Renard is the brainchild of brothers Teddy and Louis Powlett which came to fruition after the nightclub was forced to close at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
With restrictions at the time limiting nightclubs to just 20 patrons at a time, Faux was no longer sustainable and closed its doors.
While the closure was necessary, it gave the brothers an opportunity to rethink their business model and offer something more akin to a cocktail bar and social club.
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Renovations on the Mair Street venue started August last year and as restrictions lifted throughout the summer, Renard was ready to open in May.
Unfortunately, the venue was open for just two weeks before Victoria entered its fourth lockdown and has been in and out ever since.
Co-owner Louis Powlett said with businesses open and people out and about, they were 'aching' to open the venue as soon as they could.
"It almost felt like a looming thing... it was a little bit iffy knowing that we could just go into lockdown, but we were trying to get it open as fast as we can because there was all this good trade from summer and it was starting to cool down a little bit but we wanted to be open as quick as we can to start turning a profit," he said.
"People were out and about so it seemed like a good time to be open, but then to be stung by a lockdown two weeks after opening was not what we were hoping for."
However, Mr Powlett said there were some silver linings in the restricted opening in that it allowed the business to find its feet better than being overrun over its first weekends.
"In May, there were still density limits, so to be able to open into density limits probably helped us find our feet a little bit better in that we could only have 40 people in here at a time. It really helped us hone in on our style of service and everything just by virtue of there being capacity limits," he said.
"It felt like a soft opening and allowed us to ease into it, for sure. The silver lining of it, I suppose, is that it allowed us to not get overrun at the start. Because it is a new format for us, having done nightclubs and turning it into a more cocktail bar, bistro-esque place, with a very different style of service, I was kind of happy to be able to ease into it."
With lockdowns and density limits preventing some would-be customers from trying Renard, it has meant the venue has not yet lost its lustre as Ballarat's shiny new bar.
Mr Powlett said every time a lockdown had been lifted, it felt like a whole new opening for the venue, but hoped the next one would be the last re-opening.
"With the lockdowns and everything, it kind of did feel like we had a new opening every time we did it because with every lockdown, we found it harder to maintain our momentum and find our groove," he said.
"Now, I think, with the vaccination rates and everything, it's starting to feel - hopefully, fingers crossed - like a problem of the past.
"I think coming into spring and summer, hopefully, we have a clear run and are now able to function with some sort of semblance of normality. There will still be restrictions, but hopefully no other firm lockdowns."
Since opening in May, Mr Powlett estimated Renard has been closed for at least a third of the time it has been open, forcing the new business to find new ways to continue trading, but the closures have also allowed for him to focus and have some of the behind the scenes parts of the business ready to go for re-opening.
While switching to takeaway options may be straightforward for some hospitality businesses, that is not so much the case for a cocktail bar. However, Renard was able to adapt and start offering pre-packaged, ready-to-drink cocktails and 'dinner addition packages' of charcuterie boards and desserts to accompany a meal.
Mr Powlett said there was a learning curve in going from mixing cocktails behind the bar to making them to be bottled.
"I'd never done pre-batched cocktails before so I spent a day just working on dilution ratios... It was a little bit of a learning curve but it's been like fun to learn new things too," he said.
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