RAW DEAL: Sugar ban final straw for Grafton business
FINANCIAL strain from tightened NSW Health regulations has influenced a decision from the owners of the North Grafton General Store to reluctantly close its doors.
'The Hospital Shop', which has been a family-owned institution on Grafton Base Hospital grounds for decades, will cease trading at 5pm today.
Owners Marie and Craig Howe conceded that a number of factors, including the inability to sell sugared soft drinks and no long-term guarantee from Northern NSW Local Health District, made the business unviable.
Speaking on behalf of the couple, Mr Howe said it was not a decision they wanted to make nor took lightly.
"It's certainly not because we're ready to move on, it's a decision because we have to move on," Mr Howe said.
"We've agonised over it. Marie's cried about it every day since we made this decision. What about the regular customers who come in before their dialysis treatment or chemo, or the bloke who's wife is in palliative care?
"It's going to horrible for patients and their families. It's those people that make this decision really difficult.
"But there comes a point when you're bleeding cash and making no money, you've got to pull the pin."
FOUR YEARS WITHOUT A LEASE = NO CERTAINTY
WHEN Mrs Howe started running the business in 2011 it came with a lease. However, according to Mr Howe every attempt to renew the lease since it expired more than four years ago has been met with silence from NNSWLHD.
"We've been operating without a lease for more than four years," Mr Howe said.
"The shop needs complete remodelling. We would've happily made those changes four years ago, and with a lease probably would've done it.
"We've asked at least half a dozen times to have the lease sorted out. Every time we were told they'd send documents to us soon and start negotiations, and nothing ever came.
"We didn't expect anything. We didn't ask for a reduction in rent. We just wanted a lease. We got nothing.
"The last time, in about December last year, we were told we would have a lease by January or February. But not a word, except today surprisingly."
The Daily Examiner spoke to Mr Howe on Wednesday afternoon, about 24 hours after the couple announced their decision on the business Facebook page, and immediately after a visit from a Northern NSW LAC representative.
"The Grafton Base Hospital shop has been a much-loved feature of Grafton Base Hospital for several decades," NNSWLHD acting chief executive Lynne Weir said on Thursday. "It is well-supported by hospital staff, patients, visitors and local neighbours.
"NNSWLHD was saddened to hear of the shop's intended closure and has met with the business owners to offer support and discuss options for the future operation of the shop.
"The shop's staff and services will be missed by the hospital community."
But according to the owners, it's too late for an olive branch.
Without any long term surity for the business and a potential $263.8million redevelopment of Grafton Base Hospital on the cards, the couple could no longer wait for the knock on the door.
"They were just going to keep us in here trading to keep everyone else happy while they get their plans through," Mr Howe suggested.
"We were operating under the feeling we were treading water until they could do whatever they wanted to do. If you haven't got a lease you're at the whim of when they want to beat you.
"Now we've jumped early, we've suddenly got someone wanting to talk to us about leases. But it's reached the point now there's nothing they can do."
HOSPITAL SUGAR FINAL STRAW FOR STRUGGLING BUSINESS
THE final straw for the business has been a significant downturn in revenue since the removal of sugar-sweetened drinks from sale in hospitals throughout NNSWLHD as part of stage one of the NSW Health Healthy Food and Drinks in Health Facilities for staff and visitors framework.
"All our fizzy drinks have to be the diet version," Mr Howe said. "Aspartame and other sugar substitutes are apparently okay.
"I one hundred per cent think people should drink less sugar. But I don't think restricting one shop in Grafton is going to help achieve that.
"If people want to drink it, they will go elsewhere. Whether it's right or wrong or good for them or not, people will have what they want. People can still go somewhere else to buy 10 cans of coke and three pizzas and bring them back to eat.
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"It's not just the drinks, it's the peripheral sales around that. Most of our food is handmade, and the girls have noticed they make much less since this came through. It's human nature, if you go somewhere else to get your drink, you're probably going to get your lunch there too.
"The law might say it's not a restriction of trade because the shop is on hospital grounds, but from a small business perspective how isn't it?
"Add that to the money (lost from sales) on the vending machines (located at the hospital) and you're looking at a hell of a lot of cash out of the business.
"If five years ago we could've remodelled the shop and the way we run our business, we may have been able to stay open for business or sell it to someone who could make it viable.
"But we've continually been ignored and this is the straw that broke the camel's back.
"There might be someone out there with a bunch of cash who can remodel the shop. Hopefully a local person takes it on and has a crack at it, but good luck with the restrictions.
"In reality not a single person in Grafton has become healthier because of this. What has happened is that three ladies in Grafton are now looking for a job. We've got a lot of local suppliers that we're their biggest customer and they're not going to get our business anymore, so it's not only us that it's going to hurt.
"Apparently it's caught the attention of someone up in the ministry. I hope so. Unless you can get the people in Macquarie St (Sydney) to change this ridiculous concept then there's nothing you can do.
"It's too late to save our business, but it's a story that's going to be repeated in country towns across the state if they don't have a good look at it."
NORTHERN NSW HEALTH TO CONSIDER ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS
"NNSWLHD has implemented the first stage of the NSW Health Healthy Food and Drinks in Health Facilities for staff and visitors framework, which includes removing sugar-sweetened drinks from sale in hospitals throughout the LHD," NNSWLHD acting chief executive Lynne Weir said.
"The strongest evidence for a link between sugar intake and overweight and obesity is the consumption of sugary drinks. However a full range of healthier options are still able to be sold including water, diet drinks, flavoured milk and fruit juice.
"NSW Health is taking a leadership position to make healthy food the easy choice in our health facilities. It makes sense for hospitals to lead the way.
"We have worked closely with our food and drink vendors in our facilities to ensure they are informed about the changes resulting from the framework.
"NNSWLHD will also explore alternative options for food and drink services at Grafton Base Hospital.
"NSW Health launched the Healthy Food and Drink Framework last year to increase the availability of healthy food and drink options for staff and visitors in our health facilities, while still providing choice.
"We know that staff and visitors are also supportive - a survey of staff and visitors across the state showed that 89% support having more healthy food choices and 79% support healthier drink choices."
WRITING ON THE WALL - IT WAS GOING TO GET WORSE BEFORE IT GOT BETTER
THE next stage of the Healthy Food and Drinks in Health Facilities for staff and visitors Framework to be implemented later this year will introduce a restriction on the display of foods high in sugar in hospital vendors as well as a reduction in portion sizes.
Mr Howe said this would have further impacted on the business.
"The losses we're making now would double," he said.
"Only 20% or less of what we display will be allowed to be what is considered sugary junk food."
This would mean the shop's tray of chocolate bars would be substituted by "only one Snickers bar and one Mars bar". The small shop would not be able to sell ice cream, because the display cabinet alone makes up more than 20 per cent of its display.
HOSPITAL SHOP WAS TRIALLING FOR NEW STAFF
SUCH was Mrs Howe's passion for her business, she worked the past six months without taking a wage for herself.
She was even trialling people to put on an extra staff member up until a week before the closure date.
"We weren't making money, but worked through it and could see the light at the end of the tunnel," Mr Howe said.
"But last Friday night we sat down, had a good talk about it and added up the numbers. There's no way of recouping the money. It's all well and good to throw your savings into it if there's an upside down the track. But there's no upside, so there was no choice.
"Through all Marie's health issues, and my mother and her father dying, the shop's been closed two and a half days in eight and a half years.
"We used to do jail lunches for visitors. But even when it shut down Marie kept the shop open every Sunday at a loss. Doctors and nurses need to eat and drink.
"Marie's never missed a rent payment and will be leaving the business owing nothing to any supplier, and these ladies have done a great job.
"They've shown loyalty and done everything right. It just has not been reciprocated by North Coast Health, by faceless people in offices.
"Now they are all out of work. All three are looking for a job."
LOSS OF GOODWILL GESTURE AT HOSPITAL
PERHAPS the biggest loss is the generosity of the 'Coffee On Hold' initiative, where customers choose to pay for an extra coffee to be served to someone doing it tough .
Mr Howe said it was the first business to have 'Coffee On Hold' when previous owners introduced the concept.
The Howe's continued the goodwill gesture, handing out prepaid coffees to bring cheer to someone's day.
"Marie worked out she gave away about 2000 free coffees," Mr Howe said.
"It's not out of our pocket, it's out of the generosity of many of our customers, such as the doctors and nurses."
OPINION: TOUGH PILL TO SWALLOW FOR LONG-RUNNING FAMILY BUSINESS
VICKI Lawson has worked at North Grafton General Store for the past 13 years. She kept the business going when her employer Mrs Howe was away from for long periods during 2016-17 to undergo chemotherapy for multiple sclerosis.
In 2016 Ms Lawson won People's Choice Favourite Employee at the Clarence Valley Business Awards.
Now, along with Mrs Howe and Anastasia Fauntleroy, she is a jobseeker as red tape cuts into the viability of the business she remained loyal to.
While the NSW Health restrictions on the sale of sugary products in its hospitals aims to address the obesity epidemic and related health issues, it's hard to ignore the direct impact it has had on this family-owned small business.
The owners looked at various ways to diversify its product range to entice people into the shop. But it takes more than legislation to change people's habits, especially when there are rival stores within walking distance of the hospital with zero restrictions on their trade.
But not everybody has the luxury of waltzing down the road to the nearest corner store. Those people - the elderly, immobile and busy hospital staff - will truly suffer in the interim with no immediate solution in place.