Last week, Gulliver and I had the distinct pleasure of enjoying a meal at Brae. This Dan Hunger restaurant currently sits at #44 in the World’s Best Restaurant lists and is generally considered the #1 restaurant in Australia.
We get to visit some pretty cool restaurants; it’s an experience we value. Not so long ago, we were lucky enough to get tickets in the lottery for the opening of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Melbourne. Chef’s table tickets, at that.
As much as I adore Heston’s imagination, it’s a very different experience. I think sometimes Heston lets the theatrics overwhelm the food, but, hey, that’s what you go to the Fat Duck for.
The wonderful thing about Brae is that, while the restaurant offers a few wonderfully imaginative moments, on the whole, the food is central. The flavours throughout the meal are thoughtful and delicate. I’ve literally never had such perfectly cooked duck in my entire life.
But this isn’t a restaurant review.
What I find really interesting, is what the existence of Brae has done for the town of Birreguerra.
If you’re not familiar with it, Birregurra (or Birre to locals) is about a 90 minute drive south-west of Melbourne.
Gulliver and I have a farm another 45 minutes down the road at Lavers Hill. What’s more, Gulliver’s step-mother actually grew up in Birre, so he spent a bit of time there as a kid.
This part of the Otways isn’t much of a tourist haunt. An inland road via Colac would bring you here on the way to the 12 Apostles, but tourists tend to take the iconic Great Ocean Road instead.
Open five nights a week, the restaurant can manage around 60 covers – at $240 a head for food, with $130 wine pairing, and a restaurant that’s booked out 6 months in advance, that’s not bad.
With six guest suites enticing visitors to stay the night, Birre can expect to have 200 people coming through on any given week. For a town of 688 people, that’s no small amount of tourism.
Rather than the suites, we opted to stay at a family run B&B, where the daughter told us her parents had retired to Birre before Brae opened. They’d opened their small B&B expecting to get a two or three couples through a month, maybe. It was designed as a small hobby business to supplement their retirement, nothing more.
Then Brae became popular, and suddenly they were slammed with bookings five nights a week.
Now, there are B&Bs opening up throughout the town to take on the overflow.
A bunch of cafes have opened for breakfasts, lunches and to sell local produce in alignment with the philosophy behind Brae. And the town has recently received government arts grants totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Look, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Brae.
But what was really exciting to me was the impact this business has had on a town that used to be just a stop and stretch your legs before continuing on to your actual destination.
How Does This Apply To Rural Businesses That Aren’t Brae?
Here’s the thing: a lot of rural businesses can’t survive on rural traffic alone. There needs to be a reason for people to visit from out of town. They need to become a destination business.
Gulliver and I have been talking about this a lot, particularly in relation to the Gellibrand pub. Much like Birre, Gellibrand is a cute little town that you pass through on your way somewhere else. It’s about half-way between Colac and Lavers Hill, so you’d only really know it’s there if you’re taking that same inland route to the 12 Apostles.
According to the 2011 census, the population of Gellibrand is 383 people.
Assuming at least a third of those are kids, and that there’s a chunk of non-drinkers who don’t go to the pub, you’re looking at a potential market of about 200 people in total. The problem is that the pub is not in walking distance to anyone, and since Gellibrand is a rural town, there’s no public transport for those who want to have a drink and then get home responsibly and lawfully.
That’s probably why the Gellibrand hotel has been through a lot of owners recently, and is currently on the market again.
Because of what I do for a living, I’m fascinated by businesses for sale. While I don’t feel the need to buy more businesses – my current one is enough work, thank you very much! – I do like to develop strategies on how I would make these businesses work.
And what I keep seeing with the Gellibrand Pub is a business that needs a destination component.
You don’t have to be in the top 50 restaurants in the world to be a destination business. And, frankly, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the Gellibrand Pub to try.
But they do have a beautiful spot on the river in an idyllic little town.
I could see a really successful little operation running out of there that teaches traditional fishing and fish preservation as a starting point. Then, it could extend to offer classes in other traditional pastimes – from preserving, to knitting, to hunting. The owners wouldn’t even need to teach these classes. The local talent is absolutely there. It would just be case of filling the classes.
And let’s face it –this return to traditional techniques movement has been gaining traction over the last decade. People want to go and stay in a little country town and learn how to cure their own meat, make their own sausages, build things, mend things.
It’s at the heart of the tree-change concept; this idea that getting back to basics and reconnecting with the land will fulfil a part of us that is lost by living in the city. It works too. You do return from a weekend in the country – wading in rivers, hands in the dirt – refreshed. There’s something primal about it.
How Can We Get More Businesses to Rural Areas?
Here’s the thing: the trend has been, for a long time, for people to leave rural areas in search of better employment opportunities. But we’re starting to see a reversal in that trend. People from the city want lifestyle. They want to live in small towns and communities. The issue is, unless they have a location flexible workplace (which is still pretty rare), how do they make money? Even if they already have an existing business, can they find the clients they need in a small town?
I think we need to tackle this issue with a multi-pronged approach.
First and foremost, something I’ve realised is that most people who move to small towns in search of a tree/sea-change and end up opening a business don’t really want it to be successful. They’re looking for a ‘lifestyle’ business. Personally, I think that’s a contradiction, but hey, if that’s your thing, you’re welcome to try it.
So, how do we encourage focused, ambitious people to start their businesses (or move their businesses) to small towns where there’s a high risk of failure?
I’d love to see local councils come on board to promote this and make it easier. The Colac Otway Shire Council has obviously seen the benefits of having Brae in the mix; I’d love to see them running weekend seminars for entrepreneurs on the area and what it has to offer.
I also think they’ll benefit from working with entrepreneurs to make it easier for them to get started by helping them cut through red-tape, as well as seeing what kind of perks they could offer, provided businesses tick certain boxes such as hiring locally.
That said, if a particular town is really dedicated to this – say Gellibrand or Lavers Hill – it would be ideal to see the locals come together to create change from within.
You know those stories of towns in the middle of nowhere selling land for $1 because they want to attract new blood into the area? Look, I’m not saying we should be selling our land for $1, but there are things we could be doing that would make the challenge a whole lot more tempting.
Rent free periods in empty shops, or ongoing cheap rent, for instance. The establishment of support networks in the local community. Introductions to local providers. The creation, where they don’t exist, of business groups or chambers of commerce.
Coolangatta, my former home on the southern Gold Coast, is a beach-side town that’s pretty dead in winter. When the organisers of Winter Sun, a retro car show, first asked if they could move their festival there, the town was excited. Soon, Coolangatta was flooded with thousands of people every day in the middle of winter, and local businesses saw huge booms. Exponentially fewer ended up going bankrupt over winter and shutting their doors permanently.
When Winter Sun announced they were moving the festival elsewhere, the council didn’t hesitate; they announced Cooly Rocks On, a 1950s rock festival encompassing everything that Winter Sun had offered, but with a family-friendly vibe.
Working hand-in-hand with its constituents, the council has created a destination event that brings tens of thousands of people into Coolangatta over winter, and floods the town with eager visitors, good vibes and, by extension, money.
Just like we’re asking these entrepreneurs to create destination businesses – we have to make towns destination towns to attract them in the first place.
It’s not just support to get people to these towns, either – it’s the ongoing support, particularly around marketing, that will make the difference in terms of attracting people from bigger cities and from around the country.
Look, I’m not saying that councils need to create a festival for every 300-person town in their area – that’s probably overkill – but working with locals and local businesses to come up with strategies for attracting people into town should be paramount.
Further, councils need to be liaising with corporations in regards to services.
It’s 2017. I can’t run my business without internet. And the fact that I’m still having to tether to my Telstra mobile at Lavers Hill, because no one will install a hardline to the house, is ridiculous.
NBN rollout is planned for 2019 – but no one can tell me whether I’ll have luck getting it or whether they’ll continue to refer me to mobile broadband.
It’s these kinds of uncertainties that make it hard for a business to take what is already a risk in moving their location somewhere more remote.
Brae shows no signs of slowing down as a business; they’ve been open for four years, and year upon year have been steadily rising up restaurant ranking lists. Because they change their courses based around what they grow on the farm, it can be a wholly different experience every time you go, providing a good reason for diners to return.
That said, it would be foolish to rest the entire fate of a town on the shoulders of a single business.
Putting a town on the map may start with one successful restaurant, but the town needs to capture that traffic and give them reasons to stick around and spend more money. Otherwise, there’s the very real danger that your 800+ visitors a month are going to drive in, go to the restaurant, sleep, and then depart first thing in the morning.
Full credit to Birregurra for recognising this and taking advantage of their current influx by building up businesses and art programs.
This model is incredibly exciting to me because of what it proves: people want to live the tree/sea-change life. The mass exodus we’ve seen from rural areas over the past decades can be staunched.
It will just take innovative councils working closely with entrepreneurs for the betterment of communities to make it happen.
Because as fond as I am of saying that entrepreneurs, not governments, change the world, when governments work in tandem with entrepreneurs, change can happen even faster and more effectively.