Tales from the frontline: Interview with Olivia Rockwell

Olivia Rockwell is excited about the return of guests to Continental

Olivia Rockwell is the restaurant manager at Continental Deli Bar Bistro in Sydney’s CBD, and was named the 2018 Host of the Year at the Bartender Magazine Australian Bar Awards.

She also penned a poignant opinion piece on australianbartender.com.au at the onset of the coronavirus shutdown that demanded action on a wage subsidy for Australian workers put out of work, one that got widespread attention.

She chatted with Sam Bygrave as we were preparing the recent Bartender magazine special edition. Here’s what she had to say about shutting down and getting back to business.

Because our venue is in the city, the beginning of it was kind of weird. A month before the shutdown we were doing probably record numbers, then over the space of a couple of weeks it really just kind of dove down. That was during that time when they were putting in all kinds of different restrictions slowly every couple of days.

It really affected my casual staff — most of my team is casual, it affected them pretty drastically in the space of a week or two, which in our industry you know, that’s a lot for things to change that quickly.


The benefits of working in hospitality as a casual worker is when it’s really busy you’re like making bank and getting great tips and it’s really busy all the time. But I think this is quite a unique situation for the casuals in our industry because there’s no work. There’s nowhere else to go to get work. It was particularly hard for me to watch that happen to my staff.

Because I have a small team — I think a lot of us run on smaller teams especially when you’re in owner-operator places — when you’re with a small team you keep it sort of tight roster-wise, so you do you spend most of your time with your people.

It was like going to see your friends everyday, like getting to hang out with your friends every single day. You know you work together and you are about each other, you work really hard together to make it work.

Yeah it was really hard to watch my friends go through having somewhat of a steady income to going to have literally nothing, and kind of nothing on the horizon for them at first — yeah, it was tough.

I was really surprised that [visa workers] they were really quite specifically cut out of the legislation because I would say most venues — bars, restaurants, cafes, everywhere — we all have people who are here on all kinds of different visas from student visas to working holiday, you have people on work sponsorships. It’s kind of crazy to think that they’re not included. They pay a higher rate of tax than we do to be here, they pay a much higher tax on taking their super out if they choose to leave, so yeah, I have a lot of friends who have been here for a long time, four years or so, waiting for permanent residency, and they’re just not included.

It just seems quite unfair. We’ve been kind of begging chefs and bartenders and bar managers to come over here and bolster our industry and make it a world class industry. And that sort of sharing of skills coining from Europe, America, everywhere has really brought us up. There’s not been from my perspective a lot of [government] consultation with people in our industry. They didn’t understand, and they don’t understand, that these people who are on visas aren’t just here trying to get a free ride, trying together free Medicare, they’re people who have been working really hard for our industry.

For me, before JobKeeper came around, trying to access JobSeeker was next to impossible. I mean I know there’s people who lined up for hours outside of Centrelink, and then trying to access websites and phone calls that were three hours long — I don’t think they knew the scale of what they were doing by closing all of our venues. I think it was a massive underestimation.

I think that the general public is going to appreciate what we do more. I do think people have really you know being at home it’s kind of nice to be at hime and cook and that sort of thing that I don’t get to do very often, but I can’t wait to go to a restaurant, I can’t wait to have someone make me delicious food, I can’t wait to drink a bottle of wine and sit there and be in an atmosphere that’s been created, cared about. So I feel like most people are going to be ready to come back out and appreciate it a lot more. I hope.

It’s going to be insane. I’m so excited. I can’t wait. I can’t wait to see all my friends, I can’t wait to see all my regulars. Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it.