The Resilience of Royalty

Jul 9, 2020

Theatre, Bar, Cinema, Restaurant: it’s hard to describe Castlemaine’s Theatre Royal. And, it’s even harder for such a business to survive once all those activities are outlawed. But, in the immortal words of Jeff Goldblum - life finds a way.

Most Mondays, the staff of the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine would get together for a movie – in their giant, 170-year old cinema. “We watched the third series of Twin Peaks, and we watched Heat not long ago,” recalls Tim Heath, co-owner of the bar, restaurant, cinema and live music venue. “But to have this be a home cinema, without any patrons, we’d last probably two days.”

And, when the pandemic started, that’s exactly what it looked like it was going to be. So, on Monday March 23 – the date the Federal Government outlawed the serving of diners (not to mention gigs or cinemas) – movie night was cancelled. Instead, Tim and his business partner, Felicity Cripps, were delivering pizza.

“On the Monday we did a full pizza takeaway home delivery menu,” Tim says. “In the space of a day, our restaurant manager Loudon had designed a full menu, printed it onto a poster in the window. We were here at 7 in the morning, we did all the prep, got takeaway containers, and that night I started delivery driving.”

It’s worth noting, here, that the Theatre Royal isn’t exactly a pizza joint. It serves pizzas, sure, but the heritage-listed building wasn’t ever designed with takeaway in mind. But, because they’re savvy operators, Felicity and Tim’s business has long been diversified. Under normal circumstances, both locals and visitors would head to the Royal for a show – maybe an international act like Lydia Lunch or Kurt Vile – have a cocktail at the bar, dinner at Lola’s, the in-house bistro, or catch a recent-release movie (of only the most exacting quality).

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Theatre Royal is the heart of this small country town. And, a lot of folks here in Castlemaine were worried that our heart might stop beating. “We had a lot of friends in Melbourne whose advice was that you’ve just gotta pivot and get any income in you can, because things might get pretty slow,” says Tim. “Luckily, things were far from slow. We really have worked very hard in the last two months.”

While the theatre itself is empty, the lights have remained very much aflame during lockdown. Under the stewardship of Felicity and Tim, the business did pivot, and quickly began considering new ways to service the township.

“In a lot of ways, and I think a lot of other businesses will agree, it was a way to take stock of everything and re-evaluate what you do everyday. In that way, it was great,” explains Felicity. “It’s also been a really good way to engage with our customers. I got to take over a lot of the communication with the general public, whereas usually I’m just kinda proofing or adding the necessary bits to newsletters. It was really wonderful to start communicating with everybody myself.”

It turns out that the Theatre Royal’s customers were pretty stoked to start communicating, too. “We started receiving so much feedback. From a mailout that’s generic and goes to 4.5k people, we’d get emails or call the theatre thanking us. Because of COVID, there was this level of appreciation that was unprecedented,” she says. “I’ve never called a restaurant after having take-away, even if I’ve adored it. I’ve never thought to call and thank them personally. It was so lovely.”

Not everything about the experience has been lovely, of course. Over 50 percent of the theatre’s mostly casual staff were stood down, and the two have been working themselves ragged – which isn’t exactly sustainable with a new baby on the way.

Still, it’s given the pair the self-confidence that, when it comes to the crunch, they’ve got the smarts, the energy and, importantly, the community support to stay afloat. “I feel quietly confident,” says Felicity. “What I’m confident in is that I’ll change it if it doesn’t work. That’s the gift of lockdown: people know that everyone is navigating new territory. It won’t go back to what it was; it’ll be something different.”

For his part, Tim takes a similar philosophy: “I always think a change is as good as a holiday. History is change, and it’s necessary, so I’m all for it.”

An initiative of Fine Food, Hospitality Unites is the voice of the foodservice industry, dedicated to sharing the collective experiences and solutions to thrive in a post-COVID economy.

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