Aboriginal-owned cafe goes from near disaster to growth during coronavirus

While many cafes and catering companies close their doors to wait out the coronavirus pandemic, Cooee Cafe stays open...and grows!

Aboriginal-owned cafe goes from near disaster to growth during coronavirus

Posted by: Charles Pakana
Posted: 14 September 2020
      CMR - 030 - Sharon Brindley


Click on the play button above to listen to the full interview with Sharon


Connection Matters Radio (CMR): With the introduction of even the earliest of Victoria’s Coronavirus social restrictions, restaurants and cafés were hit hard, really hard. For many of them it’s been a case of closing up shop and waiting out the storm. For others, such as Cooee Café and Catering in Rosebud on the Mornington Peninsula, it’s about being agile and seeking new opportunities and avenues of business.

Joining me today on Connection Matters Radio is the owner of Cooee Café and Catering, Yamatji/Noongar woman Sharon Brindley. Sharon, welcome to the program.

Sharon Brindley: Hi Charles, how are you going?

CMR: Absolutely fine, thank you so much for asking. Sharon, what were the earliest or immediate impacts of Coronavirus on Cooee Café?

Sharon: It was instant because we were establishing a little catering businesses on the side and we lost 100% of that instantly. I actually cried a lot for the first week, and then obviously with sales going down in the shop as well, we were quite down. The first week was horrible, and then I guess I just started to pick myself up and got into recovery mode from then on.

CMR: Yes, you were really reliant on tourism down there, aren’t you? Because you’re the only indigenous café on the peninsula.

Sharon: Yeah.

CMR: So that must have, as you said, been totally instant.

Sharon: Yeah, it was totally instant. And we were also quite heavy with the locals and the tradies and what not as well. So when it impacted everybody and nobody knew what they were allowed to do, it was like a ghost town. I wasn’t sure whether I would have to shut the doors or not.

CMR: Well many other businesses did shut their doors, as I said in the introduction, to at least wait out the storm. What drove you to keep on going and look for these other avenues of business?

Sharon: After hitting rock bottom and feeling sorry for myself, I just thought, “No, I’ve invested too much.” 

It’s already a new business, I’m only going into my third year, and I just wasn’t giving up. So we just put our heads together, myself and my husband and the team, and just came up with new strategies of how to make it work.

CMR: And you’ve come up with some interesting strategies. We’ve got a couple of them, and there may be more, but let’s go with the first one. You have turned to frozen foods.

Sharon: Yes, it’s still in early stages, well, in the production stages. But we’ve developed our own range of frozen meals which we were selling from here to locals and whatnot. But we’re actually now making them more of a … I suppose we’re trying to sell them on a large scale as well. So I’ll be the first indigenous frozen meal company with indigenous product in there. So we have native thyme, we have kangaroo lasagna. We’ve got lemon Myrtle. Lemon Myrtle chicken. We’ve got fried satay chicken. There’s some delicious meals there.

CMR: And how are you selling those? Are they just through the front door or are you doing it a bit more wholesale?

Sharon: We started off through the front door, but then as you know, the Mornington Peninsula has many, many cafés. Everybody started with the meals so we sort of backed off and pulled away from that. And that’s when I started doing my single serve meals from here. So now the frozen meals are going to be more of a wholesale level. I’m hoping to get into some meals on wheels, and maybe even being able to source getting them into communities. That would be utterly fantastic.

Now within the shop space we have our range of single serve cheese and fruit platters, or we have single serve lolly platters which have been doing really, really well because it’s something that’s different for down here. So I suppose it’s always thinking ahead of everybody else, or trying to. Some work, some don’t.

CMR: So you’ve obviously tried a number of things. One of the initiatives that I’m very keen to talk about are the Cooee Café and Catering sweet treats.

Sharon: Well, we’ve made up little trays. And because we do a bit of catering down here, and obviously we can’t do that any more, a way for us to be able to do catering was to make single serves. So we have little trays and within that tray we have a Davidson Plum Muffin, and we actually have Uncle Herb’s cookies in there. And then we have other treats like donuts and a mix, an array of all different sweet treats in there with chocolates and whatnot. And hopefully my own chocolates soon. And we sell them to the public, and I either deliver them, we deliver them locally. At the moment they’re not made for delivery in the mail. They’re only for local or for catering. But obviously as they’re selling so well, it’d probably be something I’d look at in the future.

CMR: What’s this meant for your staffing? Because one of the biggest things in the catering industry was just people no longer having jobs in there. So what’s it meant for your people?

Sharon: For my people, the first week I spoke to them and I was honest and I said I was frightened. I didn’t know what was going to happen, whether we were all going to be out of work. I only had two that were eligible for Jobkeeper, the rest would have been unemployed. We made it through and started changing things. And at the moment my staff are all still working, and I actually need to hire someone for the kitchen. So, yeah, it’s definitely made things so much better by just changing avenues and trying to think outside the box.

CMR: So the main things we have so far are the frozen meals, which you’re looking to take to wholesale. We have the sweet treat platters. And you’re even looking to modify those so they can be sent through the mail or some delivery system.

Sharon: Yeah.

CMR: And chocolates. You mentioned chocolates. You’re experimenting with chocolates. That is always interesting.

Sharon: Yes. It had been something at the back of my mind for a while. My new company, Djulla Djulla which in Yamatji is “very good”, so Very Good Treats. So I was very happy to be able to use my own language in naming it as well. But then it was like I’m just going to do it now. 

There was obviously fear because you’re putting money into something at a time where you don’t know what’s happening in the future. But my husband’s been brilliant and he backs me no matter what. And so we put our heads together and yeah, my chocolates at the end of this month I will have two ton of our chocolate. We have a ton of Davidson Plum white chocolate and a ton of Lemon Myrtle white chocolate coming out, all branded. It just looks stunning and I just can’t wait to start sending it out into the gift packs as well and hopefully making it corporate gifts. And I’ve actually got a bit of interest from Singapore, so I’m absolutely blown away.

CMR: This is all happening, or at least being fast-tracked, as a result of Coronavirus.

Sharon: Yeah.

CMR: What impact will these changes, the frozen foods, the chocolates, the sweet treats… what impact will this have on the future of your business once we reach, as the Premier says, COVID normal?

Sharon: Well, it did totally change everything for us. Like I said, we were thinking of having to shut down, so the fact that Djulla Djulla will now be able to launch and take off, it will save, along with Cooee, and we’ll just say that for us with everything going forward. It’s going to make a huge impact. It takes so much stress away knowing that it’s coming, knowing that it’s going to work. 

CMR: Sharon, it sounds like things are going absolutely gangbusters for you now and post COVID. Thanks for coming onto the program today. We’ll catch up in a couple of months, especially to see how the chocolates are going. Best wishes for you, your staff and your family going forward.

Sharon: Thank you so much, Charles. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you and I look forward to our next meet up.


Click on the play button below to listen to the full interview with Sharon


      CMR - 030 - Sharon Brindley


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