She’s probably one of the most familiar faces in Wingham. A self-confessed foodie, a business identity, deeply devoted to promoting our local produce, and a dogged, dedicated, worker whose achievements, plans and dreams make you want to sit down, have a coffee and take a deep breath.
Donna Carrier’s cheerful, if driven persona, is something of an inspiration. But, like many tall poppies who stick their head above the parapet, there’s always someone ready to take a potshot. And, while some locals might roll an eye, as she appears in the local press holding her 35th food industry awards – Best Café Restaurant North Coast/Northern Rivers and Best Breakfast Restaurant
North Coast/Northern Rivers and a major award “Café of the Year” for Regional NSW, . . . she has earned each and every accolade.
And, Donna is to first to admit, ‘Sometimes the locals just think, “Oh gawd, another award for Bent on Food,” like it’s just a piece of cake! But I feel I’m lifting the profile of the area and the media is good for the town. It’s been a bit of a hard slog sometimes. And, I hope that other businesses can profit by my achievements.’
Leading the Way
It’s often the way, when someone who puts in the effort, time and talent to work for a community, that others tend to sit back and let them lead the way. And, it’s easy to criticise them for landing in the limelight, and getting the kudos as a result.
Donna has been a driving force with the Wingham Chamber of Commerce, and is now serving her fourth term.
‘It’s tough getting people to take it on, plus run your own business.’ She’s frustrated that some businesses don’t see the need to market themselves.
Donna feels that, if every business in the district did a little more marketing and advertising, then that would benefit everyone, so she tries to encourage businesses to join.
‘Even just joining the Chamber adds to our membership, which gives us more clout with Council to achieve things if there’s more of us.’
So what drives Donna? She’s a detail person, she is quick to praise and help and train staff, and firmly believes that a job should be done properly. She wants everyone to be as dedicated to doing the best they possibly can as she is, assuming that it will also help them achieve their own goals.
Donna was raised in Sydney, the eldest of two sisters and a brother. When she was five, her grandfather became ill, and her parents moved in to help her grandmother. But, visiting her
husband in hospital, a drunk driver hit her grandmother’s car, leaving her with a useless arm, and a dragging leg.
‘But, she was my inspiration,’ says Donna. ‘Grandmother Millie plugged on, cooking and gardening, and sewing clothes for people. I learned a lot from her – except sewing!
‘We moved to the Blue Mountains, and I had a job after school in Grade 7, at an old fashioned milk bar, where the elderly man owner taught me how to make milkshakes – yes in those metal containers, and I still have some – and sandwiches. But then my Dad’s uncle got sick, so we moved up here to help out.’
Calmly she continues, ‘But I left school in Year 9, as I was beaten up by four girls in the toilets at Chatham High. I was too scared to go back to school. I was only 15. Then, when I was 17, I went to Cairns and worked on a banana farm. When I got back, I landed a job in hospitality, and I lucked out with a job with chef Manuel Damien at the Little Snail Restaurant in Forster. He also knew his wines, and every afternoon he’d teach me about wines as well as food. And drummed into me the importance of good service. His restaurant won all the awards for the best European restaurant
for years. He was Italian but cooked French food. He’d started the Little Snail in Bondi before coming up here. He gave me such a thorough grounding. I learned a lot from him. He was one of those real cranky perfectionist chefs . . . he’d throw the meal in the bin if the right herbs weren’t done just so on top or, if you didn’t come in and get the dish quickly enough to the table. We used to get foodies like Len Evans and Margaret Fulton up here to eat, and I talked to them and learned a lot.’
When she was 25, she went to Sydney and did a wine course in marketing and met Lyndy Milan.
‘Lyndy was so good to me, and I did some wine stewarding for her; she is still supportive. So, I ended up selling and marketing in the wine industry, where I met chefs like Stefano Manfredi and
Serge Dansereau. Stefano was here a few weeks ago, so it’s nice having those contacts.’
Always thirsty to learn more, Donna did some travel writing courses and got the travel bug.
‘If I’d learnt that when I was young, I would have done more travelling, maybe made it my career. After working in the wine industry for 12 years, I suddenly decided to give up everything and take off. I sold the company, my car, my house, broke up with my partner, and travelled for 18 months. In Europe, I met a girl who was writing for The Lonely Planet, and who was heading to Egypt,
Jordan and Syria, and she said “come along”, but I didn’t. I wish I had, as they’re so changed and ruined now. Sad. I came back and worked at Cassegrain for four years. I travelled round a lot working on some of their food brands that they sold through their cellar door, as well as their wines.
‘Then suddenly the cookery school in Wingham became vacant. So I thought, what I’d really love is to have a small place to sell coffee, cakes, condiments and beautiful produce like the places in Sydney, which was hard to find up here. So I plunged in. But then it started getting bigger, so we moved around the corner to Isabella Street.’
It quickly became obvious to Donna that marketing was essential to the success of a business.
‘Because I’d been in marketing, I knew how to write award submissions, which was a great help. It was 2004, and we’d started at Easter and, around Christmas, John Saxby, who was then Editor of the Herald Good Food Guide, came up to see his family and came here, and he wrote about Bent on Food.’ Suddenly, Donna’s café, “Bent on Food” was on the radar for tourists passing through, as well as locals from the district.
‘I’m actually known more outside the area than perhaps appreciated here,’ she admits a little ruefully. ‘When people are staying in the area or travelling through, they come here looking for us as they’ve heard about us. But I think there’s a perception locally that “Well, we’ve been there once so we’ll go somewhere else, now.” But you need that local support.’
When business was getting a bit slow, Donna wrote to the tour bus companies, and asked if they’d come and she’d give them a special deal, which she hoped would benefit the whole town.
‘The tourist buses stop in, but it depends on the coach driver’s schedule. I tell visitors what’s happening in town, any sales or something new they should see. They run through the Museum, but it’s hard to get them to tool around the town.’
Donna feels confident that the new Midcoast Council might be more supportive than a former Council, that worried about how many inches her blackboards were placed out on the pavement, or taking away outdoor tables.
‘At least we feel secure, as we were worried that we’d lose the Manning Valley Naturally tag, but we’ve been told that each area will maintain its own identity. But we’ve now got more to market, with the natural attractions and assets like the beaches and the beautiful hills around Gloucester. It can be frustrating, though, as many people don’t look at the big picture, they just go on about the roads getting fixed. At a recent meeting, one lot complained about the tourists coming and spoiling the roads.’ She bangs her hand on her head in frustration. ‘The tourists come and bring MONEY! They build the economy! We all survive on tourists coming through.’
Donna thinks there should be some focus on the gaps in the market.
‘Perhaps we need some more up market or different shops. Weddings do well, but there aren’t enough wedding venues. They bring a lot of money to town. We need more things to do
here in the winter. Also, we simply don’t utilise the river enough. Or four wheel drive tours, or abseiling, more bushwalking trails and tours, fishing and kayak trips, things like that. We need to build on Wingham’s heritage image and save the buildings. I was devastated at losing the Australia Hotel and the old stables. We need to promote our unspoilt area.’ Her enthusiasm bubbles over. ‘Something we should promote more is the organic side of this area. I really use local produce and promote it, which I think has helped with the awards. The food industry people come anonymously and try my food, look at the service and cleanliness and so on, but the tourism award is a written submission. We have a great story to tell, in how we support and promote the local farmers and producers.’
She’s noticed over the years that products, be it pork or mushrooms, that she started using and promoting by naming the producers on her menu and plugging them on social media, have grown and now also spread the word with cross promotion.
‘We are so lucky as we are naturally organic, the area is pristine and sustainable, we must protect that. Our farmer’s market is great, no one brings anything from outside the area. We need to be pushing Destination NSW to get a food and wine strategy in place.’ Ideas flow as she talks about her cheese making classes, using fresh milk direct from the farms, not delivered in plastic, the
need to market the Manning directly into Sydney, to attract people to move here and start a business.
Her dream is to have a property with a few cabins, grow food, have animals, run classes, open up on weekends or holidays, when people are travelling through, have a big barn for weddings, and do the cooking classes.
‘People like it to be in the country, on a farm. I am inspired by the Macleay Valley and what they do. I’m invited up there a lot to talk about food.’ She shrugs, ‘Frankly, I think I’m more valued out of this region than I am in it,’ she says ruefully. ‘Macleay is so supportive of local businesses and producers and promoting their area. Their council bought a building as a cooking school called The Hub for the community to use, to go there and make jams and such. If they’re doing any catering, they can use the school for a very cheap price.’
Donna has tried reinventing her business from cocktails to dinners at night, but found people didn’t want to go out.
‘It’s not just the travelling at night, and we do need transport if people want to drink, but my chef (Simon Livingston) and I think maybe people don’t see us as a smart restaurant for a night out.’
And her philosophy for a successful venue?
‘I try to make people feel at home when they come to eat, like they’re part of a family.’
Donna and her partner Graham Nash have been together for eight years. He has his own business as an accountant and financial advisor, so helps Donna with that side of her business.
‘But, on his holidays, he’ll wash dishes and weed the garden,’ smiled Donna.
Graham also works with her when Millie, (named after Donna’s grandmother), their 1950s replica caravan, goes on the road as a portable bar for weddings and parties, or a coffee and hot snack stop at outdoor venues like the recent dressage competition at Taree showground.
Seated with coffee in the sunny back garden of her café, where wisteria threatens to smother a fence, and spring flowers explode around us, Donna waves an arm.
‘I really want to revamp this area. But I’m so busy with my new passion; running chalk painting classes. I’m devoted to Annie Sloan paints that can transform furniture and pots and things with little effort. I love to upscale old furniture, for one thing it’s stronger, but it comes up amazingly with these paints – no need to sand or prime. There are a lot of historic homes around here with old furniture they want to refurbish. I’m going to the UK, to Oxford, to do a five day workshop with Annie soon.’
In between all this, Donna is again teaching at TAFE where she helped set up the Taree TAFE Student Enterprise.
‘The chefs teach them to cook, and then it’s open to the public, and I show them how to make coffee and serve customers. And, at Port Macquarie I’m teaching marketing, but there are a lot who want to pick and choose, have weekends off and so on. In hospitality, you can’t do that and, when it’s your only job, you are expected to work on weekends. I gave up a lot to get ahead, and I still do give up my time and work on weekends. t’s what you have to do. This is the career I chose.’
She pauses. ‘And I love i .’