How Phoebe Breyer-Menke turned crisis into success at her Darwin-based Roma Bar

‘I didn’t hesitate’: Phoebe Breyer-Menke on turning crisis into success at her Darwin-based Roma Bar

Phoebe

We’re profiling female cafe and restaurant owners over the next few months, thanks to the support of Uber Eats. These women are running incredible and innovative food businesses all over Australia, but many have been doing it tough due to the pandemic and in some areas the bushfires.

First up, we meet Phoebe Breyer-Menke running the iconic and much-loved Roma Bar in Darwin. She shares how she got started in the industry, and the fast pivot she made this year to put the business in its healthiest position yet.

Phoebe Breyer-Menke grew up washing dishes and cooking in a restaurant that has been part of Darwin for more than 40 years.

Her parents Patty Ring and Paul Costigan purchased Roma Bar in 1989, which became renowned for accommodating locals, reporters and judges from the courthouse and ABC radio station around the corner.

At the age of 19, Phoebe decided to hang up the apron and moved to Melbourne to pursue a career in commercial dance. 

With an unsatiated appetite for adventure, she then set off for London where she started working at a cocktail bar. 

“I met my husband [Justin] pretty much the second day I arrived,” she said. 

“He was the manager of the cocktail bar.” 

The couple moved to Switzerland together where Justin was asked to run a bar and nightclub at a very exclusive ski resort.

“I had great fun,” she said. 

However, all the excitement came to a halt when the global financial crisis hit in 2008.

“The luxury nightclub in the middle of the Swiss Alps was affected,” she said.

“Justin ended up coming down to meet me in Australia. He’s South African and he just absolutely fell in love with Australia.” 

Returning home

When Phoebe’s father revealed he was ready for retirement and wanted to sell his share of the restaurant, she moved to Darwin with Justin to help. 

In the throes of running the kitchen, working with her mother and connecting with all their customers, Phoebe fell in love with the café again. 

“We decided to buy my dad’s half,” she said. 

“It was just realising how much I enjoyed the day-to-day working.

“We have a great relationship with our staff. I’m having fun every day. It’s just part of my soul, the café. It’s my home.

“When you’re younger you want to break free from the family and do your own thing and see the world. 

“But I’d done all of those things.”

Phoebe now has two children with Justin and she continues to run the café with her mother.

“We’re most proud of just offering a home for people,” she said.

“Our regulars are there for breakfast and there for lunch. They can have good food, a good coffee and a good atmosphere. 

“The customers own it as much as we do. It’s their place.”

A series of unfortunate events

When 2020 began, Phoebe and Justin were getting ready for a new adventure in Central America. 

It was a much-needed break with many business owners like them having been through a rough chapter. 

“Every business in Darwin was feeling the pinch of a few difficult years,” she said. 

“We were actually following the global situation with coronavirus quite closely because we didn’t know whether to go or to cancel our tickets so we were quite up-to-date at that point with how quickly things were turning. 

“Things had gotten so scary in Italy and so we just realised we had to cancel our flights.

“Watching other businesses around the world and even in Darwin, everyone started to offer delivery of food and the supermarkets were going crazy and selling out of toilet paper.

“I thought this is all crazy and what’s going to happen in a minute? 

“I don’t know if my business will get closed down.”   

Phoebe started coming up with an emergency plan but she knew running coffees around town would not be feasible or safe. 

That’s when she had an epiphany. 

“If people are bulk-buying everything, why don’t I put together a pack that they can bulk-buy from us and that way I can keep us cooking,” she said.

It was a simple solution: provide customers with a pack of their favourite dishes frozen so they could be enjoyed at any time from the safety of their homes. 

It also gave Phoebe relief knowing these could be delivered to customers without contact.

“I can keep my staff safe, I can keep my family safe and I can sell food,” she said. 

As soon as she came up with the idea, she posted it on social media.

“The phones started ringing and people started ordering and it was fabulous,” she said. 

“That’s been a real eye opener to how many people don’t want to cook at home.”

A day later, she received the news that all cafés and restaurants would need to switch to takeaway only. 

“When that came in, I felt like I already had an action plan in place for how to keep my business churning and keep my staff working,” she said 

“So the news was definitely a blow and certainly scary but I at least knew what I had to do the next day.

“It also gave all of our regulars who were now having to stay at home a way to safely support us and also stock their freezers.”

Freezer packs have now become a permanent part of the business and given Phoebe a way to generate income during their off seasons. 

It has been a powerful lesson on what can be achieved in crisis.

“I didn’t have time to sit and wonder if this is a good idea or bad idea,” she said.

“I didn’t have time to hesitate. I just had to trust my instinct and go for it and it worked.

“Our business is now stronger and healthier than it has ever been. 

“With the new revenue stream and the amazing support from our customers, suppliers, landlords and local government we are in a very strong position to not only survive but thrive.

“Life is crazy!”

This series is made possible thanks to the support of Uber Eats.

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