Albee's Kitchen has temporarily closed, and the phone won't stop ringing.
The Malaysian restaurant sits on the main drag of Campsie, a suburb in south-western Sydney that's overrepresented in the health department's list of COVID-19 exposure sites.
Since lockdown came into effect five weeks ago, Albee's has persisted with takeaway. "We don't make a profit," says manager and restaurant namesake Albee Thu. Instead, the restaurant served a greater purpose, providing staff with a few hours' work, and rice-box meals – sometimes for nine dollars a container, sometimes for free – to community members doing it tough.
But as of Monday, Thu has decided to close the Campsie restaurant for the next few weeks. On the weekend, the butcher two doors down was deemed a COVID case location. "It's very close," she says. "All my staff are afraid. They want to stay home."
But phone calls from concerned customers are testament to how the restaurant has embedded itself in the multicultural community. Albee's opened in 2008, and has been credited with kick-starting the Malaysian restaurant movement in the suburb – a total of six Malaysian eateries, plying dishes such as belacan kangkung, har mee and nasi lemak, can be found in the Campsie shopping district.
At the other end of Beamish Street, Campsie Charcoal Chickens has also been fielding its share of phone calls. The takeaway chicken shop was forced to temporarily close in July after being visited by a COVID-positive customer. Although the premises was deep-cleaned and health authorities gave the all-clear to reopen, all staff at the small family-run business were stuck in isolation.
"We're not Woolworths that has a massive roster and a lot of staff where you can say, 'Right, you six get tested and stay home for two weeks. We are those six people," says manager Chris Conti. "Without us, there is no Campsie Charcoal Chickens."
For 17 years, the chicken shop has served generations of locals with its signature charcoal-grilled chooks and hot chips with gravy. The recipes have barely changed over the years and are such closely guarded secrets, only co-founder – and Conti's father-in-law – John Theodorou is allowed to prepare the chicken stuffing and chicken salt every morning.
Lockdown hasn't dampened the shop's popularity. If anything the takeaway model, albeit with QR check-in codes and customer-density limits, has made it more compatible with restrictions. At times, they've been busier than their pre-COVID trade.
So when they received the fateful call from health authorities, it wasn't a complete surprise. "We don't want to whinge about being shut down," says Conti. "Everyone's sticking to these rules, and we just said it's our turn, we'll cop it on the chin."
Campsie Charcoal Chickens reopened on Tuesday after all staff returned negative tests and finished their two-week isolation. It's one of the few restaurants and eateries still open in Campsie, and the family takes pride in being a community-focused business that can safely and confidently provide affordable meals to hungry locals. Some have been known to make their own Campsie duck-and-chips combo meal by ordering a large serve of hot chips from Conti's shop, before heading next door to the long-running Number 1 BBQ House for a Cantonese roasted duck.
"We're these two businesses who've seen everything change around us, and the community that's gone from being [predominantly] Greek and Lebanese, then Korean, and now Nepalese and Indian," says Conti. "We're proud of our little business. We've withstood [the pandemic] this far. This is just a speed hump."
There are additional precautions in place at the business: there's a makeshift counter at the entrance so customers can order without entering the premises, and only one person will be delegated to take orders. If – touch wood – a COVID-positive customer visits again, only that front-of-house staff member will be considered a close contact. It's all to keep co-owners John and Penny Theodorou, aged in their 60s, as protected as possible from the virus.
"We have to try to keep them safe. We're going back to work in an area that's considered a hotspot right now," says Conti. But against the odds, he's remaining upbeat. "I'm a big believer in keeping a positive mindset. [...] We're trying not to be too fearful."
Dolan Uyghur Restaurant hasn't been so lucky. The restaurant offered takeaway for a week but its location on a quieter end of Beamish Street, and the trickle of orders, meant it wasn't feasible to keep the doors open. Urumqi-born owner Murat Muhtar made the heart-breaking decision to go dormant in early July. "The restaurant is very meaningful to us," says his 16-year-old daughter Suygyu Muhtar. "So it was sad to see our hard work close."
She remembers her father long-harbouring a passion for cooking and eating Uyghur food. In preparation for family barbecues, he'd spend the day preparing kawap [lamb skewers], dutifully threading the marinated lamb meat onto the metal sticks; the next day, he'd grill and serve them with lagman, the distinctive toothsome handmade noodles of Uyghur cuisine.
After a stint in the construction industry, Murat finally opened his dream restaurant in 2019; Suygyu works part-time on the floor too. She says the family walks a fine line between accepting the current circumstances, and worrying for the business they've built. "We were of course sad and annoyed [about closing] but we knew it was for the best," she says. "[But] we are very worried for the restaurant at the moment and are waiting for the lockdown to end."
There's the resilience of local businesses, but Wally Mehana is wondering how long it can last. The CEO of the Canterbury Bankstown Chamber of Commerce says lockdown restrictions are testing the mettle of the business owners.
"We need to remain resilient and committed, but the bottom line is people are drained emotionally, mentally, physically and financially," he says.
He's advocating for a more "balanced approach" that considers both the health and economic implications of restrictions. "We can't just keep using lockdown as the only tool to shut down and control COVID. At the end of the day it's causing equal or more [economic] damage. This is where we need to strike a balance."
Mehana welcomes the Federal Government's recently announced pathway out of COVID. To get to the second phase of the plan, 70 per cent of the eligible population needs to be fully vaccinated. But he says even clearer messaging is needed to boost consumer and business confidence. "The government needs to be more honest and open and say: 'If you're vaccinated, we are committed to returning to normal.' But so far, they're making ambiguous statements," says Mehana.
Vaccinations are on Albee Thu's mind. She's already had her first jab; her second is due next week. And despite having to shut her eponymous restaurant for now, she's circumspect about Australia's positioning compared to the rest of the world. In Malaysia for example, where her father and brother still live in Kuching, case numbers tick by in their thousands every day. "I've had friend's mothers die, friend's brothers die. We are very lucky in Australia," she says.
Thu's been known to work long days to keep the business running, but she says this is nothing compared to frontline health workers. At a recent COVID test, she asked how many hours the nurse on duty typically worked. The answer? From 8am to 10pm. "I said, 'Wow, thank you. You are an angel.'"
Closing down temporarily is a small price to pay for the greater good. And although the usually bustling streets of Campsie are eerily quiet as stay-at-home orders remain in place, she retains a relentlessly sunny outlook. "Campsie will come back like before," she says. "But it'll just take time."