If you’ve been to Newcastle beach in the past 15 years, chances are you’ve seen Estabar - a small bustling cafe overlooking the water. And if you’ve been to Estabar, no doubt you’ve seen owner Bec Bowie inside. She’s got one of those faces you swear you’ve seen before, because you probably have.
Bec is passionate, friendly and fun. But she is also smart, principled and creative. She has run a successful small business despite facing huge obstacles from the CBD redevelopment. She is a mother, wife, advocate and integral member of the Newcastle community through her Hello Newy East social media project. And she loves good food. And coffee.
We followed her daily routine - co-ordinating family life with work, pleasure and her passions - and came out the other side inspired, and needing a cup of tea.
Wake up and smell the coffee. Bec lives in Newcastle East with her husband of eight years, Trent, and their twin sons, Alby and Van, 4. Plus Harry and Batsy their pooches.
The day starts pretty much like everyone else’s - waking up with the kids. “I brush my teeth. Then we all pile downstairs and put the coffee pot on. Coffee comes first,” she says.
“My husband pours the coffee and for me, that coffee is the most special coffee of the day because he’s making it for me and we’re drinking it together. It really sets the tone.”
My husband pours the coffee and for me, that coffee is the most special coffee of the day because he’s making it for me and we’re drinking it together. It really sets the tone.- Bec Bowie on the start of her day
Trent, an electrician with his own business, was one of Estabar’s first customers on the very first day. With two companies, two stepchildren (from Trent’s previous relationship), two small boys and two dogs, it’s taken some time to develop some semblance of a routine but Bec says they’ve finally figured out the balance.
“The stuff that I’m good at: cleaning up the kitchen, sorting out all the breakfasts, getting the lunches packed; and the stuff that Trent’s good at: getting the dogs walked, overseeing the children’s craziness and getting them dressed. Then we shoot them out the door, take a moment and then get stuck into our day.”
As head cook and lunchbox packer at home, Bec’s approach to food is “real food, good food” and this applies to the menu at Estabar too. The cafe champions seasonal, local produce and she avoids packaged products as much as possible.
So what does that leave in the lunchbox of two growing boys?
“This morning I packed leftover lamb roast from last night, apples and oranges, and a bit of scrambled egg. That’s the first time I’ve packed that. Normally I make a flat thin omelette.”
The key factor for Bec is, the boys know where it came from, or who made it.
“We can say to them ‘Alice [from Baked Uprising] made you that bread’, or ‘the kombucha was made by Erin'. They know a lot of the people who are putting food on their table which I really, really love. And they have a massive love affair with Sarah [Sivyer, from Just Been Laid] who’s got the chicken farm. We’ve been up several times to put the new chickens to bed, to teach them how to roost. So now, if we‘re having a chicken for dinner, they’ll say ‘Sarah’s going to miss this chicken’. So I’m surprised they haven’t turned into little vegetarians.”
But like most kids, they have a soft spot for junk. They love fresh white packet bread and will sample a few lollies at a party.
“Sometimes Alby comes down in the morning before any of us and we open the pantry door and there he is, standing on the toaster, ratting through the cupboards looking for Dad’s biscuits and Dad’s chocolate and he’ll say ‘Mum I found so many fun things for me to eat this morning!’.”
You don’t have to search too far to see Bec’s whole-food approach isn’t that far removed from her childhood upbringing on the Mid North Coast.
“I grew up in Taree and my dad fished all the time and we had a butcher around the corner and we had a big veggie patch in the backyard and we had a bunch of neighbours so there was always fresh food being passed around the street.”
“But we definitely ate TipTop and margarine as kids too.” These days, a couple of really thick-cut slices of freshly-baked sourdough lathered in butter is more tempting.
Once all the boys have left, Bec puts the house back together, then heads to Estabar. “I stopped working when I was pregnant because I was enormous. I’ve only just started back and I really, really love it. Mondays and Tuesdays I work on the floor which leaves Thursdays for me to do all my back of house stuff.”
That’s when she’ll spend the morning working on a project, or in this case, heading to the laundromat because the washing machine has carked it.
“I usually sit down and do social media stuff. My normal practice would be a post for Estabar and a post for Hello Newy East and then I would start thinking about the projects that I need to work on for Estabar.”
Estabar is one of Newcastle’s success stories. It’s only a small space, but it’s got a big heart and a big community behind it. It was the allure of working with a good team that attracted Bec to the idea in the first place.
“I did a Bachelor of Business at Newcastle University. It was all I knew I wanted to do - a business. I worked at Newcastle City Council for five years after uni, in economic development, tourism specifically. I was excited about Newcastle and I was excited about community.”
“Newcastle City Council was a great place for me to learn about community and collaboration, but after five years . . . I was not happy with the culture. My boyfriend [and business partner] at the time lived in Barcelona. He rang and said ‘there’s a space we could rent on Newcastle Beach where we could open a gelato and espresso bar’. I remember thinking I’d rather go broke in my own business than go mad at local government and so I jumped at the chance.”
Bec quit her job and prepared to open her first business. She had no background in hospitality, so she worked at some local cafes for six months to better understand the industry.
“In the end, I just kept getting fired,” she laughs.
Regardless, Estabar opened on November 19, 2004. Right from day one it was all about her staff and her customers.
"I just really wanted to work with a great team who were passionate about their lives and were going to bring 110 per cent and we were going to take care of people.”
Although sometimes it was the customers taking care of her.
“We weren’t intending to do food. It was Brian [a regular from day one] who said ‘Rebecca, for God’s sake, can you buy a jar of Vegemite and some bread and just at least serve toast?’ We had this idea…where you’d come, have a delicious pastry and a beautiful gelato, your coffee would be to die for, and you’d look at the beach, and that was it. We totally misjudged that, and so we put Vegemite toast on the menu.”
After years of eating toast and pastries, drinking coffee and living a hectic life, Bec was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. She knew she had to learn more about the role food plays in health and wellbeing and enrolled in a five-month course at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York in 2006.
“I went to New York because I really wanted to learn how to nourish myself and my people, I thought ‘if I’m going to feed people, I want to be feeding them really well’.”
I went to New York because I really wanted to learn how to nourish myself and my people, I thought ‘if I’m going to feed people, I want to be feeding them really well’.- Bec Bowie
While she was studying real food, she worked long hours at an Indian restaurant in the heart of Manhattan, and there she learnt about reducing waste.
“They didn’t waste anything. Everything went into the stockpot. If they opened a fridge door, there was a countdown.”
She came back brimming with ideas, but took her time. While the Estabar ethos had always been clear - fresh, locally-sourced food - she had to find the suppliers who aligned with her vision.
“I knew I had to put a meal together without having to reach for a packet.”
When food is your focus, and nourishment the name of the game, you’ve got to know where to find the best.
“Our menu has evolved around fabulous local produce and producers - and it still does,” Bec says.
The produce for Estabar comes from a mix of local suppliers and the Newcastle Farmers Markets. She has a couple of young helpers who buy the bulk of groceries for the cafe and earn a bit of pocket money each Sunday before she arrives.
“When I go in, I have a bit of a look around and I pick up anything else or I look for things that are particularly seasonal that we need to bring into our menu.”
Bec has some advice for the new or overwhelmed market visitor - “Do a lap, look, then go back and build a relationship. Just talk to your farmers.”
I wanted to create a space that people could be really proud of and bring their visitors to see when they were in town.- Bec Bowie
No doubt Novocastrians will recognise many of the suppliers used at Estabar: Baked Uprising bread, Just Been Laid eggs, Hunter Belle yoghurt and cheddar, Adamstown Meats for smoked ham. Coffee, at the core of the cafe, is supplied by Single O, a company in sync with Estabar.
“When we first started choosing suppliers for our produce we chose people with really great intentions and people who are proud of their craft. That really reflected in the deliciousness and the quality of the produce or the coffee.”
Lunch for Bec on a normal day is “dhal or a salad at Estabar, or leftovers from dinner the previous night with avocado and pickled vegetables.” For a first-timer coming to Estabar, she suggest the eggs with sourdough and smoked ham.
“I love that people ask ‘what have you put in the eggs?’, like, it’s so good it can’t be real.”
A guilty pleasure is chocolate. Chocolate gelato. Funnily enough, just like the gelato served at Estabar. But none today.
While we chat, Bec regularly stops to say hello to people passing by. They are customers, friends, colleagues. After running a cafe for as long as she has, you get to know a few people. Her nature draws people to her; she cares about them.
“I am so emotionally connected to the experience people are having. If it’s not really great, it can really freak me out.”
This emotional connection was tested over the past 18 months with constant disruptions to trade, beginning with the work on the Bather’s Way project, followed by Supercars preparation, and now light rail.
“March 30, 2017, the bulldozers started here. It was nine months of losing money. That was scary, we refinanced all of our home loans, it was epic. It was all dug up, then the Supercars started. There are four arterial roads into Newcastle and three of them were blocked. Customers would drive around and around in circles, it was excruciating for people. The reason I’m still here is because customers said ‘Bec, I wanted to give you my $4’. Because we’d made these beautiful relationships over time, they cared enough to come.”
Hello Newy East, a social media awareness project, was born from this period of distress and disillusion. Together with friend Anne Kempton of Timeless Textiles, the women put their heads together to figure out a solution to the massive drop in trade the city was experiencing. They approached authorities at local and state levels.
“We were planning events, we were talking about ways to help heal, to help us all work through this on a business front and on a community front. We went together to speak to all the relevant people and there was no joy, nobody had anything to offer us.”
“One line I’ll never forget is “cities evolve, not everyone makes it”. I thought that shows such a lack of appreciation for what we’ve done here, the community that has been built here, the businesses that established themselves in a time when Newcastle wasn’t awesome.”
“So one idea we came up with was to do this Hello Newy East project which was about showing the human face behind the businesses. There are real people here, who have invested their real lives and their real money and their real passions into this place and they need to be respected and cherished and supported.”
“We wanted to reach out to the broader Newcastle community to say ‘hey, please don’t forget us, we need you’. You know, 50 businesses have gone since all this started. People are refinancing, and seeking funds left, right and centre to keep going. We’re at the tail end of it now I hope, but the impact has been really big.
The Instagram posts feature businesses in the east end, and in the CBD. Images are colourful and showcase the best of the business.
And while it seems there is some light at the end of the tunnel with light rail completion nearing, Bec is keen to keep the momentum going.
“I feel like we’re not done yet because our businesses still need support - we’ve still got to find our way back to break even.”
I feel like we’re not done yet because our businesses still need support - we’ve still got to find our way back to break even.- Bec Bowie
The boys get dropped off by the day care centre in a custom bus (“I couldn’t do without it”) and she prepares dinner for the family. They are very much a meat-and-three-veg kind of crew.
“Last night we had the people from up the street over and I cooked this enormous lamb roast and we make bone broth at home. The lamb came from Adamstown Butchers. We got these amazing beans from Local Crop. A pumpkin that my dad had grown - we roasted that. And then I made an apple and rhubarb crumble. The night before I wasn’t home so they had chops and mashed potatoes. We get a side of salmon weekly from a lady at the markets.”
Both her and Trent are keen for their possessions, their food, their clothes, to have a story.
“It’s either going to have a story because it’s lived a life before or because somebody made it with really clear intentions.
Their dining room table was made by Bec’s father, her dining chairs are her grandmother’s, the serving boards used in Estabar also made by her dad. Sustainability is a backbone of both worlds.
“My mum made all of our clothes, my dad built all of our stuff. We didn’t waste anything we didn’t chuck anything away, we always fixed it and made it work again.”
Ever since her stint at the Indian restaurant in New York, Bec has battled a war on waste. From not running the tap to wash a dirty cup before it goes in the dishwasher, to composting and properly recycling, she’s always on the lookout for improvements.
One of the biggest changes was the introduction of The Juggler. Built by Single O, it saves 6500 empty milk bottles from landfill, prevents wasted milk, and is cost effective through its ability to save the staff time.
“It’s got two taps - one for skim, one for full cream, and it recognises each size of jug, so you only dose what you need to make that coffee or a couple of coffees, which is incredible because before when you were dosing by eye, we’d always have that little bit left which drove me crazy, but you had to dump it.”
It’s been a big win physically, environmentally and financially.
By 8pm the family is pooped and it’s time for bed.
“We eat out very, very rarely. Because we’re just buggered by the time we get home.”
Like all working families, it’s about finding the right balance for you.
“On Saturday we try and make it a family day, which means you’ll find us in Pacific Park with the boys climbing the trees and we’ll be reading the paper and doing the crossword, or down at the Cowrie Hole, where Trent will be surfing and we’ll be collecting sea glass.”
“We like to sit on the grass outside Scotties and have fish and chips from time to time.”
With a wholesome approach to food and eating, it’s now a way of life for Bec and her cherished team of more than a dozen employees.
“I really love what I do, and I really love the way that we do it.”
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