Photography courtesy of the Wangaratta RSL
Of the over 200 RSL Sub-Branches throughout the state, around 85 offer members and visitors dine-in facilities. All of them have had periods where, due to the impact of COVID-19, they were entirely closed, or some managed to pivot to limited takeaway services.
Greensborough RSL, situated in Melbourne’s north-east, features a restaurant, café and bar.
Warren Blee is its Chief Executive Officer. He says business is looking up, after spending many of the past months closed.
“We are booked out Christmas Day, so that’s a big thing for us. We’ve booked 220 people into our bistro. It’ll give people a chance to meet their family in a really comfortable environment, showcase our food that they’ve missed all this year.
And if you’re wondering what’s on the menu, there’s a great spread in store.
“I think it’s a choice of four dishes, beef, roasts, crispy skinned salmon and a plethora of desserts.”
But it’s been a difficult road to get to this point.
“We were closed on and off for I forget how many months it was. I stopped counting!”
Each reopening after each lockdown came with its own set of challenges, with heavy restrictions limiting the business.
“Once there was a tiny easing of restrictions that I think, from memory, allowed a handful of people inside sub-Branch. We sat down as a board and decided that it wasn’t physically or fiscally possible for us to reopen. We needed to wait until we got some reasonable numbers allowed back in.”
He says it was an incredibly frustrating time.
“Customers were confused about what they could and couldn’t do, when we were completely closed, we had no revenue, we were the wrong size and shape to do takeaway, we didn’t have the capacity to do that.”
As Victoria inched closer to reaching its 90 per cent vaccination target, Premier Daniel Andrews announced there would no longer be density limits at hospitality venues.
Warren says it was a game changer.
“It was far easier to manage. I mean we had a lot more people in the room which meant we could have more staff on, and they didn’t have to walk around counting every half hour to assess whether people have moved from room to room or managing a line outside.”
With the holiday season looming, Warren is thrilled.
"For our staff it’s great to be back, for myself it’s great to be back. We’re hospitality people. We chose it for a reason and to not have people around it’s very, very difficult."
Over 200 kilometers away in the northeast Victorian town of Wangaratta, the local Sub-Branch faced its own set of unique challenges over the last two years.
Just 11 months after opening its new premises in April 2019, the first of the lockdowns struck.
Sub-Branch General Manager Chris Simsen says so began the ongoing problem of staff shortages.
“Unfortunately, we lost a little over 30 casual staff members when that happened…we’re still incredibly short staffed at the moment and it just doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon.”
Now that it’s business as usual, he says his team are going above and beyond.
"They’re stepping up and working quite a few hours, but I don’t want them to burn out. So, I guess that sort of leads into why we’ll have time off over the upcoming festive season."
The Wangaratta Sub-Branch will be closed on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, the Christmas Day public holiday and the Boxing Day holiday.
"I’m taking the opportunity to give staff a break, they’ll need it by that stage. There’s also quite a few staff that haven’t seen some of their family in 12 or 18 months."
Those days aside, Chris is expecting some fantastic trade throughout the holiday period, with the help of tourists.
“We’re in a good position where we’re a central place to stay and can travel to surrounding areas. I’m going to assume that everyone is itching to get back to that. The caravan parks are usually full and the town is quite busy, so I’m expecting the same this year.”
The new Sub-Branch boasts three outdoor dining areas, which was helpful during restrictions when only outdoor dining was allowed.
And the bistro comfortably seats 140 people indoors.
Chris says it’s music to his ears to hear the chatter and clunking of the crockery and cutlery.
Warren and Chris would like to wish all their members and visitors Seasons Greetings and they look forward to welcoming you into their Sub-Branches.