There is something about a corrugated iron shed that attracts the eye. Iconic markers on our rural landscape, they serve so many purposes, everything from shearing to hay storage and mechanical works. Regardless of searing heat and bitter cold they are places of shelter and productivity. But what takes place within those spaces is changing as indicated by The Old Workshop Café at Anakie between Geelong and Ballan. When my eyes were drawn to an old shed with a vibrant new look about it, I couldn’t help but stop off to find out more.
Good coffee and a social gathering place are an essential ingredient of any rural town and Anakie (population 690) is no exception. Local businesswoman Debbie Walker has put her accounting skills, chef daughter, and an old engineering shed to good use creating a quality café featuring organic produce for locals and travellers along the Geelong Ballan Road.
That’s the short version. In reality, it has been a much longer journey and, like every small business, fraught with its challenges. But at the end of the day Debbie is justifiably proud of her achievement and the opportunities it has brought to her small community.
For 25 years Debbie and husband Bob operated their engineering works on this site. As more equipment was acquired and they reached full capacity for electricity, it was time for a move. Adjacent land was purchased, new larger premises were purpose built for the engineering works, and suddenly, the old workshop was vacant.
Two years previously Debbie had already established a small café on the opposite side of the road. ‘I’ve always been passionate about producing my own food and cooking,’ explains Debbie. ‘When Krystal, our chef daughter and mother of four, started looking for some part time work it was perfect timing.’
The vacant old workshop promised more floor space, off-road parking and an opportunity to showcase organic vegetable beds and fruit trees as part of the café landscaping. With their existing café experience, Debbie’s planning skills, and Bob’s engineering expertise to fit it out, it should have been a simple transition. Like many small business owners caught in that time warp of investing large amounts of money and keen to get trading as soon as possible, Debbie discovered otherwise.
‘Dealing with council without a doubt,’ Debbie says when asked what their biggest challenge has been. ‘We expected help because we were encouraging employment and attracting tourists,’ says Debbie, ‘but couldn’t get a straight answer when setting up the disabled toilet. It took 12 weeks to find out where a handrail should go.’ She soon discovered that it was quicker to get information from other sources. ‘After two years of fighting and having spent too much time, effort, and money, I just couldn’t back down.’
Debbie’s analytical mind found the Health Department much easier to deal with. Proudly she shows me behind the scenes in their spotless kitchen and cool room. ‘The department has stringent health and safety guidelines which we gladly adhere to. We have one of the cleanest commercial kitchens, a fully trained chef, and all of our staff undertake a food handling course. When things go quiet with customers everyone knows without asking to scrub under the benches and check behind the doors.’
Ten casual staff are employed by the café which opens Friday to Sunday. ‘They (staff members) come from near and far,’ Debbie says. She translates that to ‘some live just up the road while others travel up to 15 kilometres away.’
Working in hospitality is not for everyone she cautions. ‘I have to be careful to maintain relationships in a small town and encourage potential employees to come and talk first.’ For those who do have people skills it is a great training opportunity.
It goes without saying that customer service is paramount in hospitality and Debbie is constantly thinking of ways to make to make customers feel more comfortable in an open shed environment. ‘We get the fire going when it’s cold, and on hot days use lots of ice, cool the glasses in the fridge, and bring out the big fans. People realise that we’re trying to make them as comfortable as possible.’
‘It’s a tough industry,’ she admits. It can go from no customers to ten cars pulling up simultaneously. ‘One day it was so hot and we were absolutely dead business wise but still had to have full staff. We cleaned out the storeroom, tried out some new recipes and made a big batch of beetroot relish. Even though we had few customers we got so much done.’
Being a part of a small community brings many benefits. While the café provides an important space for locals to gather and socialise, it also provides an outlet for local producers of flowers, honey, olive oil, and even handmade glass necklaces. ‘It enhances our business, so we don’t charge them anything to display and sell their goods. My only stipulation is that they have to make it themselves,’ explains Debbie.
With an accounting background and 30 years of experience in the family engineering business, Debbie has no illusions when it comes to investment. ‘You have to spend money to make money,’ she advises, ‘and you can’t expect to retrieve your investment in the first year.’ As is often the case, the best of budgets and time schedules can blow out, but the Walkers keep forging ahead regardless. In one extreme example a sewerage plant was budgeted at $5,000 but cost $28,000. ‘It means that our decking has to wait a bit longer,’ she shrugs philosophically.
As The Old Workshop Cafe enters its second year of trading, Debbie is feeling very satisfied with their achievements. Their customer base has grown requiring an overflow car park to be introduced. ‘Not a bad problem to have,’ she smiles. Likewise, the garden has grown significantly. ‘It’s a great pleasure to give the menu a twist on a regular basis to incorporate the seasonal produce from the garden.’ Recently they have applied for a liquor license and are patiently waiting on council to respond.
‘We always have plans for more to be done but the staff, service and food are exactly where I’m happy with,’ says Debbie. ‘We’re not big business, we are very much part of the community.’
Debbie’s top business tips:
Be brave. Don’t be scared to make a decision.
Enjoy what you do. If you love it, it’s not work.
Be a part of your community.
GOOGLE MAPS The Old Workshop, Ballan Road, Anakie (open Friday to Sunday)
KERRY ANDERSON: Founder of the Operation Next Gen program and author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. In 2018 she was named as one of Australia’s Top 50 Change-Makers. READ MORE