Old Pharmacy’s new life as haven for seasonal workers

The crew at MKS come from all over the world. Owners Matt and Katie (third and second from the right) say their aim is to support local producers as the area rebuilds and replants.­­­­

Adelong has a new cafe, with ‘MKS’ holding a soft opening in the Old Pharmacy last Saturday. 

Matt and Katie Stone (MKS) hadn’t planned on becoming cafe owners. The couple had been contractors for Hume Forests, bringing in backpackers to plant during the wintertime and fight fires over the summer for the past few years. The cafe happened almost by accident.

The Stones and their four young children moved from Bombala to Batlow last March and are currently looking to purchase their own home. At the same time, many of their seasonal workers have been stranded in the Snowy Valleys because of Covid. Mrs Stone said she asked her real estate agent to keep an eye open for a building where the backpackers could live, somewhere relatively close to the fire ground where the forestry work will take place.

“It’s in a great spot, it’s got the appeal to it, it’s got the space,” she said of the Old Pharmacy, which was eventually brought forward as a possibility.

“The cafe is a bonus. It’s a bit of a hobby.”

Initially, they were only looking for accommodation, but the pharmacy came with a cafe and they discovered their workers had some hidden skills.

“We were just looking for the accommodation and then I thought it was a waste to have so much talent with our employees and the space to do it,” said Mrs Stone.

“All the cakes are made fresh daily by a pastry chef,” explained Mr Stone, “One of our workers is an Italian pastry chef.”

Along with the Italian pastry chef is a Brazilian barista and a qualified barista trainer, along with many others who have years of skills and experience in hospitality.

Mr Stone said most of the staff had committed to working at the cafe for one year, and their chef has promised to train her replacement.

“Anything that they can do, we get them to do it,” said Mrs Stone.

The couple are very mindful about supporting the Snowy Valleys economy, along with local health and safety. As the pandemic escalated, they put tough restrictions in place for their workers, having each of them abide by quarantine requirements and sign an agreement that they would not travel outside of the Snowy Valleys. 

As conditions have improved, that travel agreement has expanded, first to include Wagga and then Canberra just last month.

The Stones said many of their staff have been grateful to have a safe place to live and steady work to keep them going, especially with family members in other countries suffering as the pandemic closed countless businesses across the world.  

“We’ve got a Brazilian fella’ and it’s bad over there. He wanted to go home and his family told him to stay,” said Mr Stone. “They own a cafe in Brazil. They’ve only just reopened the cafe and there were three months where they weren’t getting any income.

“He is that grateful to have full time work. He’s been sending money home to his family. 

“I think it happened a bit to areas that were highly impacted by it, even all the fellas from Europe.”

When the couple first put out word that they were hiring cafe staff, Mr Stone said he made the mistake of including his personal phone number on the ad. Almost immediately, he was receiving 20 calls an hour, every hour, up until 11pm at night. Most of the calls were coming from backpackers who had lost their jobs in the cities and were desperate for work.

Mrs Stone said she received hundreds of emails before they were able to remove the ad and stop it from being shared. Many backpackers, stranded by the virus and ineligible for welfare payments, had been living in their cars, making do with whatever work they could find. 

“It’s cost effective for them (to live upstairs from the cafe) and it’s cost-effective for us to have good workers and it brings something that was needed,” said Mrs Stone.

The couple are purposeful about sourcing local produce and supporting local companies like Batlow’s Crafty Cider.

“We’re trying to bring stuff to towns that we work in,” said Mr Stone. “With the accommodation, we’re trying to bring it here rather than source stuff elsewhere, because our planting is going to be here on the burnt country for the next six years.”

The Stones have been working on both fronts to support the local community, both through setting up the cafe and continuing their work with burnt trees.

Mr Stone said in between replanting, they’ve also been trying to help with tree removal for people who were affected by last summer’s fires. 

“We’ll go in and do tree falling for people, but I’ve noticed a lot of Sydney arborists come down to try and make quick money and you go and do a job for someone and you give them the bill and they say, ‘That’s not even close to what we were quoted from the arborist.’”

Mr Stone said he was disappointed to see people from outside the area taking advantage of local families and the inflow of post-fire payments.

“A lot of people think they’ve got insurance money, but it’s not to clean up their yard, it’s not to clean up their trees, it’s to rebuild their house,” he said.

“It’s to rebuild their lives,” added Mrs Stone. 

The contractors are also hopeful that while they’re replanting the trees, the higher-up decision makers are planning ahead for future fire seasons.

“Just maintain it to a standard where it doesn’t get that bad ever again,” said Mrs Stone.

“We were talking to a lady in Batlow and they lost their family home and they’re taking off to Sydney. She was absolutely gutted, losing everything. She said ‘I can’t go back.’”

The Stones said it’s been difficult to watch local families dealing with the aftermath of the fires, meeting many people who’ve had to take unpaid leave or quit jobs just to be able to get their properties cleared and homes rebuilt. 

Moving into the busy replanting seasons, the Stones anticipate they’ll be employing 40-60 people each year for the planting work and 10-20 at the cafe. Mrs Stone said word of mouth travels quickly among backpackers when there’s steady work available, but they’ll also aim to hire local juniors for weekend work. 

“We’re definitely always willing to give someone a go,” said Mrs Stone.

The problem they’ve found is that welfare payments have made it less appealing for many young Australians to take up the physically demanding work of tree planting. They say their work relies on backpackers, who don’t mind starting at lower wages while they build up their endurance and skills. A new worker might only earn a few hundred dollars at the beginning of a season, but Mrs Stone said that rate can go up to $1400 a week for someone fit and willing. 

For now, they’re grateful for the workers they have and looking forward to establishing MKS as a haven for both their workers and locals looking for some hot Brazilian coffee and fresh Italian pastries.