Wingham Local Donna Carrier has turned her café into a multi award winning business. We learn how she did it.
> Tell us about ‘Bent on Food’ and how your idea became a huge success.
Bent on Food was developed almost four years ago in Bent Street Wingham, hence the name. I had spent 18 years in the wine industry, and during that time I had the pleasure of eating at many great restaurants all around Australia, all expenses paid! I loved the wine industry but was ready for a change, and I had often thought about starting a food store or deli to allow country people access to great produce.
In June 2004 I met with Annette Greenhalgh, who was developing the cheesemaking and cookery school ‘Duck under the Table’. I agreed to lease the premises adjacent to the cookery school before it was even built and assisted in the marketing of both businesses. I wanted to develop a place where local produce could be promoted and sold, and regional produce from other areas could be sourced by local customers looking for something different. People just came from day one, word got out and relationships I had developed over the years with media ensured that we were well publicised. I worked in sales, marketing and public relations in the wine industry and had written many awards submissions.
So in 2006 I decided that I would enter Bent on Food into the North Coast Tourism Awards. We won our category and went on to win at State level, then two weeks later we won the 2006 NSW and ACT Small Business Awards ‘Best Regional Business’. The awards are submission based, and a judge then visits to assess all aspects of the business – sometimes anonymously.
I believe that the success of any business is dependent on the owner’s passion for that business and the industry they choose to operate in. Many newcomers to the hospitality industry do not last, as they think it is going to be much easier than it is. I started waiting tables at the age of 15 and knew very well the perils of hospitality.
> You did well in the recent Awards Ceremony?
We won the Tourism Restaurant Catering Services category at North Coast level in August, which meant we were automatic finalists in the NSW Awards, where we won bronze. We were up against some stiff competition from quality restaurants, and as a country café we were pleased to be amongst the pack.
At the beginning of November, we received our biggest accolade yet, where we were awarded ‘Best Café’ at the National Champion of Champions Small Business awards. In 2008 we have won five awards, and we are overwhelmed by the support of our loyal customers, who are very proud supporters.
> What prompted your move to your new premises?
The decision to move to the main street was simply that we outgrew our previous premises. The new position also attracts more passing trade, and we are amongst the other cafés, all offering something different.
The new Bent on Food is funky in its design and brings an urban feel to the region, which impresses locals and tourists alike. The first impression when entering the café/store is one of surprise, as many visitors are awed with what they call a little bit of the city in the country.
The original timber floors are a feature, along with the window bench that was handcrafted from the original vertical wall panels. The colours are warm and inviting, with splashes of red and chocolate brown. A large timber table acts as a communal table for customers to sit and chat with old friends, to meet new people, read the newspaper or study many food related magazines that lie around the shop. Many customers just prefer to sit and peruse the shelves for inspiration for their next dinner party.
Bent on Food is a destination, a place that people first visit because they are inquisitive, and come back to because they are impressed. It makes city people feel at home and country people feel proud that we can compete with our city counterparts. We are very proud of what we have built and intend on expanding next year, with an outdoor deck to give customers an area to soak up the winter sun.
> What’s a typical day in the life of a café owner?
Bent on Food trades 7 days a week and at this stage, I generally work all seven. Although every day is not spent in the café, to grow the business I must stay on top of the marketing and sourcing new products, menus, staff rosters and wages, and the dreaded BAS. I also work many evenings and attend quite a few meetings. I am currently building up my hamper business and we hold a music night each month, along with private functions. I also teach at TAFE about one day a week, so I am generally busy. To be honest, I do not do enough exercise, I am always behind with my bills, and I forget my friends’ birthdays.
Every year I make a new resolution to get more organised, to exercise more, to have a holiday, to spend more time with friends and family and to clean out my wardrobes. However, I do ensure that I eat good food, drink good coffee and good wine. I am also fortunate that I have made many friends through my work, so I get to spend time with them most days, I also enjoy my work and love my new premises, so going to work is not a chore. I was once told that you must wake up each day and tell yourself that what you do today is your choice, and I try to have a good day every day, but I admit some days are longer than others.
> What local produce do you source?
Bent on Food carries a great range of local produce, and last year we launched our own brand, which includes a Manning Valley organic honey. Some of our local brands include Red Belly Gourmet, The Other Chef, Comboyne Culture Cheeses, Monte Kia Ora Olive Oils and Capparis Goats Cheese.
One of the aims of Bent on Food is to bring the consumer closer to the producer, to paint a picture of the brand that sits on the shelf, talking up the intangible characteristics, explaining where the product is made and in many cases where the ingredients are sourced to make that product, but most importantly it is about the people behind the products.
Talking about the products enables consumers to connect to the region in a very real way, knowing that when they drive through the mountains and along the rivers, that there are people in those hills making cheese from goats that they milk by hand, or growing organic vegetables to make their award winning products.
> We hear the coffee is great too, tell us more about it.
Bent on Food prides itself on making memorable coffee, we believe that our locally roasted blend is just one reason for this. Our baristas are all passionate about coffee and they enjoy the compliments they receive from customers. Training is paramount, and we always keep our machine clean and NEVER refroth milk – the milkman loves us! We also ensure that we grind on demand, to ensure optimum freshness. Bent on Food runs regular barista workshops to help people with home machines learn how to make great coffee at home.
> Tell us about your gift lines.
We are not only a café and food store, we stock an ever increasing range of homewares, with lovely gifts for Christmas. These are products that are not seen everywhere, and I am particularly careful about choosing suppliers.
> What do you like about the area?
This region is my home. My family moved here when I was 12 years old, and I went to school at Chatham High School. My parents live in the region, as do my two sisters and their families. I lost contact with many of my school friends when I lived in Sydney for 18 years and it is great to see them come in for coffee after all these years. My headmaster, Mr Polkinghorne comes to see me, and I love it that he is proud of my achievements. I was a rebel at school and I am sure that I gave him a hard time.
I love the beaches without high rises, I love the rivers and I enjoy the diversity of the region – especially the passionate people who are working hard to make a difference.
> Where did your passion for flavour and food come from?
I think it was always there. I was always cooking cakes as a young child and I was very close to my grandmother, who was a great cook. I chose to do home economics at high school and learnt the basics. I also had a passion for agriculture and dreamt of going to agricultural college. I entered the hospitality industry instead and at 19 my mentor was Manuel Damian, who owned the Little Snail at Forster, which was then a popular restaurant serving traditional French Cuisine to people such as wine icon Len Evans.
Manuel was a hard worker and made his staff work hard too, but after our shift we always tried great wines, so I became interested in wine too. I later studied wine marketing at Roseworthy Agricultural College, which led me to a position with Brown Brothers Wines, where I worked with great people and learnt the art of food and wine matching … so it became my life.
Thank you Donna.