Market neighbours work through lockdown together

By Marco Holden Jeffery

You might not think it, but the pharmacy and the cafe are natural allies.

Before the pandemic, Victoria Market Pharmacy owner Cheryl Lim said most of her regular customers were also regulars of cafe Coffea Coffee next door.

“A pharmacy and a cafe work very well together - people drop their scripts here, go have a coffee and come back and collect it when it’s ready,” she said.

The pandemic dealt the two businesses a blow - without tourism and office workers Cheryl said trade had dropped by “about half” - but regulars were still turning out to support the two Queen Victoria Market (QVM) stalwarts.

Victoria Market Pharmacy had been a fixture on Elizabeth St for 90 years before Cheryl took over six years ago.

“I used to work here as a student and as a pharmacist, and when the previous owners decided to sell they gave me the option to buy,” she said.

Coffea Coffee hadn’t quite been around as long as their neighbour but co-owner Lisa Costa said since opening in 2000 they’d managed to build a very loyal customer base.

“People have been coming every week or every day for 20 years - because of the location we get the regulars, we get the locals, and we get the tourists,” she said.

Lisa stumbled upon the empty shopfront that would become Coffea Coffee one day while shopping at QVM.

Her and husband Fabio, who was then working as the master roaster at Grinders Coffee in Carlton, soon transformed the space into a coffee roaster and wholesaler before expanding into a cafe 18 months later.

Over the years, Coffea Coffee became well-known for its great customer service, hand-selected and freshly-packaged coffee, and famous castagnaccio - an Italian chestnut flower, pine nut and rosemary cake.

But since the pandemic started, the staff at the cafe had been busy thinking of innovative new ways to get their product to their customers - shifting to takeaway food, an online ordering service through the market and prepackaged coffee for take-home packs from their wholesale customers.

They had even found a solution for the famous cake.

“For our regulars who couldn’t get here - and they’re so addicted to that cake they buy it every day they’re here - we’ve done a bake at home version,” Lisa said.

“All the ingredients are in the box and they just need to take it home and follow the instructions.” 

A collaboration with their friends at the pharmacy next door was also in the works - customers would receive a free coffee at Coffea after spending a certain amount of money at the pharmacy - but the plan was put on hold when restrictions were tightened once again on July 9.

Both businesses had noticed natural shifts in what their customers wanted since lockdown - sales of at-home coffee equipment and decaf beans were up at Coffea, while Cheryl had stocked up on masks and sanitising products.

It was hard for both business owners to imagine surviving without the help of the City of Melbourne and QVM management - who had been providing 100 per cent rent relief for all tenants at the market since April. They said JobKeeper had also proved critical to their survival. 

“But our regulars are the other major ingredient to making sure we can keep the door open,” Lisa said.

“Our regular customers still support us, they don’t come as regularly now with COVID-19 but they come when they can.”

The future felt uncertain for the two small businesses, but both maintained a sense of optimism and even duty in the face of the pandemic.

“We just have to do what we have to do and everyone has to take a hit and do their bit,” Lisa said.

For Cheryl, relatively new to owning a business, she was just happy to keep doing the job she loved.

“I love serving my community, I love figuring out what issue a customer has and how to overcome it - that’s what I love about my job,” she said.

“I haven’t experienced something like this as a business owner, but whatever it is we will have to make it work.”

Coffea Coffee and Victoria Market Pharmacy are located at 521 and 523 Elizabeth St, respectively •

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