The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the wealthy Valmorbida family to pivot away from its new dining and entertainment business and return to the grocery trade grandfather Carlo founded.

The tragedy was compounded by the fact that Mr Valmorbida and cousin Luca Sbardella (whose mother Luisa is Carlo’s daughter) had only reopened King & Godfree a year earlier after almost 4 years of closure while they carried out a $5 million-plus renovation that doubled floor space to 3000sq m in the heritage-listed building and created the event spaces.
“It’s been extremely saddening after all the effort by our team to get where we were and then have to close down our business not knowing when we can reopen,” Mr Valmorbida said.
Mr Valmorbida and Mr Sbardella along with general manager Jonathan Armao and executive chef Matteo Toffano then set about reconfiguring their space around the one business left grocery retail. King & Godfree had started as a grocer in 1884. Post-renovation, they kept the delicatessen to complement the in-house dining, but that now became the centre of their business strategy.
“That was the only thing we could do.”
Out went the tables that serve 100 over a busy lunchtime. The floor was covered with cartons of pasta, cases of wine and trays of tinned tomatoes. 12.5kg-sacks of self-raising and bread flour line the window bays. They brought in fresh fruit and vegetables. Apples, quinces, tomatoes, potatoes and onions sit in cartons by the front door.
The giant concrete coffee bar, part of the Herbert & Mason redesign and installed piece by piece in sections, forms the centrepiece of a cafe section that is now closed and offers overflow storage for the pasta, tins and bottles of sauce that sit on the hastily-erected shelves adjacent.
The giant bar is now just overflow storage for stock in the pop-up grocery store. Wayne Taylor
Grocery underpins the family’s fortune. For more than three decades, Valcorp imported Lavazza coffee into Australia until 2015, when the Italian company took it back in-house.
It’s now underpinning the pivoted King & Godfree. The Val Verde pasta and Moro olive oil come from Conga Foods, the business owned by the family of Carlo’s late brother Saverio Valmorbida. Much of the wine on sale comes from distributor Red + White, owned by John Valmorbida.
And then there’s the Sirena Tuna. Piles of tins cover one part of the terrazzo-like grocery floor. The family put that business earning some $20 million a year up for sale last year, but then changed its mind. That was a good call, Mr Valmorbida said.
“It was just a strategic issue and I’m very happy that the family didn’t sell it.”
No amount of fancy footwork can disguise the battle for survival, however. Grocery brings a fraction of the revenue King & Godfree took from food and beverage and events.
The loud signs plastered over King & Godfree windows, promoting takeaway meals the store prepares eggplant parmagiana goes for $21 don’t fill the silence of a venue once bustling with diners.
Handwritten signs on the Pidapipo gelateria Jamie and sister Lisa Valmorbida opened in a corner allow only two people in the store. Payment is only by credit card.
“It’s been rough,” Jamie said. “We’ve been managing our costs. For us, it’s about keeping people employed, keeping the business alive.”
But it has also created opportunity. They started up an online grocery store that they’ll continue even when business returns to normal.
“We didn’t have an online store,” Mr Valmorbida said. “That got going in one-and-a-half weeks.”
It now accounts for half of all grocery sales.
“For us, to be able to combine retail, deli and dining is really unique. People really enjoy it. It’s made us realise the importance of doing a really good job of retail.”
They’ve been able to bring staff back thanks to JobKeeper payments and say the business will pick itself up once people flock back to venues.
“We’ll be okay,” Mr Valmorbida said. “We’ve just got to be very careful.”