At first glance, Newborough’s Rutherglen Road is a pretty typical country Victorian high street. There’s a pharmacy, a bakery, a post office, a hairdresser, a newsagent, a butcher, a pub, and a few empty shops up for rent. It’s not too tricky to find a park, and you can be in one end and out the other in all of 30 seconds. Classic Victoria, you might say.
But about two-thirds of the way up Rutherglen Road, located in the historic old Bank Australia building, you’ll find Raw Harvest café – a venue that’s not quite so typical of a country Victorian high street.
For Newborough locals, the café is an oasis of sorts – serving up the kind of healthy, organic, locally-grown and produced meals and snacks that, generally speaking, can be hard to come by outside of Australia’s major cities. And the woman behind it? She’s Newborough born and bred. “It was important to me to bring something to Gippsland – especially the Latrobe Valley,” says owner and operator Elizabeth Maskiell. “I wanted to bring in the alternative food options that you’d otherwise have to travel for. We just want to provide good food for people in the area.”
A nutritionist by trade and qualification, the 29-year-old started Raw Harvest three years ago, driven by a simple philosophy that focuses on eating well, catering to food intolerances, supporting local farmers and producers, and practicing sustainable business. “We use local, organic ingredients; we encourage our customers to use KeepCups, reusable straws, reusable bags; our packaging is compostable; we give our food scraps to the chickens; we take our coffee grounds to the community gardens,” Elizabeth explains. “We’re doing everything we can to reduce our little carbon footprint!”
Raw Harvest began life as a meal prep service – Elizabeth would cook up healthy, nutritious ready-made meals and smaller snacks and sell them at local markets. She wanted to offer an alternative to the faux-healthy ready meals you see in supermarkets which, she says, are often full of sugar, salt and preservatives. From there, the business grew organically, and Raw Harvest has existed in café-form at 18-20 Rutherglen Road for the past 18 months.
It’s a big space; full of plants, natural timbers, and big smiles. There’s a welcoming cabinet of delicious food front-and-centre, as well as shelves stocked full of locally-made goods, and walls adorned with the work of local photographers and artists; it’s a gallery of Gippsland’s movers, shakers and various makers. The menu changes with the produce to hand, and Elizabeth’s team of 12 staff are forever looking for new ways to serve up the region’s locally-grown goods.
There’s an upstairs area which acts as a makeshift meeting space for local businesses and workers. Elizabeth’s dad, James, tells me that the local ambulance crews use the space almost every day as a place to decompress, enjoy some good food and coffee, and discuss the shift that was. “They do tough work, and they didn’t really have a place to go,” says James. “It’s nice for them to have a quiet space where they can come and relax.”
Elizabeth was diagnosed with coeliac disease – a condition in which ingesting even the smallest amounts of gluten can lead to chronic pain, illness and small bowel damage – 15 years ago, a fact that played no small part in her interest in food and nutrition.
Aware of the issues people with food intolerances face, particularly in the local area where intolerances might be poorly catered for, it was important to Elizabeth to be able to provide food and meals that anyone can enjoy. “That’s something that was really lacking here in Gippsland,” she says. “We take great care in providing options for people – whether they’re coeliac, lactose intolerant or anything else – so they can enjoy a great meal and walk away without feeling unwell.” And it’s working. Elizabeth says the café gets new customers every day, despite being “a little out of the way.”
Anyone who’s started a small business will tell you that it’s no walk in the proverbial park. And trying to minimise your environmental impact and support local producers (Elizabeth orders from 15 different suppliers each and every week) certainly doesn’t do much to make it any easier – or any more profitable. But for Elizabeth, the pros far outweigh the cons. “The satisfaction of having a job that’s improving people’s day to day lives – whether they’re customers or suppliers – is important to me,” she says. “It’d definitely be easier to call up one provider and get them to drop off everything, but I love the connection we have with the producers.”
In the age of abundant information and seemingly ever-changing health advice, Elizabeth admits it can get pretty difficult to know what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to eating well. For her, it’s all about moderation. “Enjoy the food that makes you feel good, and eat as much variety and colour as you can,” she says. “It’s important to just get back to the basics of what the human body needs and build from there. It’s not complicated – and the moderation movement is a great thing.”
As we’re talking, one of Elizabeth’s locals walks into the café with her parents. Elizabeth tells me that they’re both in their 90s. How much of apparent good health is to do with Raw Harvest arriving on the scene 18 months ago is up for debate, but with Elizabeth having just signed another three-year lease for Raw Harvest, they’re certainly looked after for the time being.
You’ll find Raw Harvest at 18-20, Rutherglen Road, Newborough. The café is open 7.30am-2pm Sat-Tues, and 7.30am-4pm Weds-Fri.