Over the past 18 months, each time Melburnians have emerged from lockdown, they find their world – especially once-busy retail zones beyond their 5-kilometre zones – has changed again.
What shops and cafes will they find have survived Lockdown Six, whenever it ends?
Down in the once-stellar zone of Chapel Street and Toorak Road, South Yarra, they usually discover a few stalwart eateries have limped along on take-away, and inevitably, more For Lease signs.
Even by June last year, the vacancy rate there was one in five shops, with most of the missing being fashion outfitters and colourful niche boutiques.
Despite the dour signs, in the protracted 2020/21 Victorian lockdowns some retailers and restauranteurs seized what they perceived as opportunity knocking on Chapel, and have traded up in terms of the spaces they occupy.
One who has doubled his South Yarra cafe footprint is Laurent Boillon, a French-trained baker who established his first Melbourne store 28 years ago on Toorak Road in the corner-occupying office, retail and residential tower known as Como Centre.
“Going against the grain” was the irresistible pun in the publicity spiel for the 2021 opening of the much-expanded, interior-designed boulangerie that telegraphs Boillon’s bravery in investing heavily and going bigger when so many around him have disappeared.
Moving three doors down from the first Laurent, but still in the Newmark Capital-owned Como Centre that gives him dual frontages to the street and the covered shopping mall, along with 110 seats, a big feature has been to recreate an open kitchen so customers can watch while a pastry is whipped up in front of them.
“I’ll have a tray of strawberries and make a nice fresh one on the spot from scratch,” says Boillon.
Such in-store entertainment is, of course, not happening currently because although South Yarra is one of 10 in the much-expanded Laurent chain of 18 cafes across Melbourne still operating for take-out (the rest, in shopping centres or the CBD, are temporarily closed), no one is sitting down in the choreographed atmosphere to be tempted to another croissant or coffee.
While, as his interior design firm GOLDEN tells it, Laurent Boillon “spends big on his fit-outs” and is in the process of revamping another two shops in Ivanhoe and in the CBD’s Collins Place, in South Yarra his timing for a reopening fanfare was comprehensively derailed.
Soon after opening in May and experiencing such “an amazing” immediate response from customers “that within 10 days we were up by 15 to 20 per cent – I couldn’t believe it”, Lockdown Four was announced, lasting 12 days.
Then Lockdown Five (10 days), and now Lockdown Six – another month and counting.
“Chapel Street is very dead but we’re surviving,” says a resigned Boillon. “We’re making a little bit of money.”
In the split-level combination of two former Como stores, the Design by GOLDEN team sought to match what they perceived as Laurent’s brand character of quality by touching the place with many different stone surfaces including travertine marble, “to reference traditional methods of French baking”, says studio director Daniel Stellini.
While the imported display units for breads, cakes and pastries are standard across the stores, each outlet differs in its design. Within the 231 square metres at Como, Boillon wanted different ways to experience a seated visit.
Stellini explains that the pale blue Marblo table was custom-made to encourage communal seating, “with chairs that are almost stool like”.
“The [orange] banquettes are designed for longer stays,” he says. So too are the mall-side armchairs.
There are many different seat styles because, Stellini says, “We like to layer our stores. We don’t want our spaces to feel like furniture showrooms.”
For the same reason, each shop is design-nuanced to its location and clientele.
“We always design contextually with a different palette of materials. But we want every store to feel like a Laurent store.”
Stellini says he admires Laurent Boillon’s bravery and business prowess.
“He’s a smart man and he knows that in Melbourne we like quality things,” he says. “So he does spend money on his fit-outs and he gets good return from them.”
To that end, the Collins Place location, due to open in late October, “is another brave move – it’ll have a champagne bar”.
Boillon, who walks through the city weekly to gauge its current and future possibilities, is going to permanently close one outlet in William Street, “because there is nobody there in the south end of the city”. Yet he is maintaining the faith that “when the population is vaccinated to a high level, we will turn this around”.
To get back to business as it was before March 2020, he reckons will take three years. At 57, he’s prepared to put in the time to back his investments that now include the overseas export of Laurent products.
“I still have the energy to keep going. I have so much to give and to do. I’m excited.”