10 July 2023

Mt Kembla's caravan cafe a hot spot for residents, workers ... and local wildlife

| Michele Tydd
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Sarah Widodo in her caravan cafe in Mt Kembla

Sarah Widodo’s caravan cafe has become a popular spot for Mt Kembla residents and workers. Photos: Michele Tydd.

Perched on the fringe of a cow paddock, Retro Roast Coffee Van at Mount Kembla Village takes the cake for location and atmosphere.

It’s the fusion of Cafe de Wheels and Taronga Zoo that is attracting a growing clientele, who delight in the clean mountain air and regular sightings of cattle, deer, wedge-tailed eagles and wombats.

Business owner and Kembla Heights resident Sarah Widodo, with business partner and husband Catur, didn’t plan it this way seven years ago when Sarah developed the idea of opening a cafe that would provide a meeting hub for the villagers.

“We have a pub and a club but no general store or anywhere where the community could gather,” she says.

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But a heritage zoning rule that prevented any further commercial businesses to operate became their stumbling block.

After extensive consultation with Wollongong City Council, the couple were advised they could operate a mobile food truck as a takeaway outlet on rural land beside the main road leading to the village gateway.

From the start, Sarah steered clear of a gimmicky ultra-modern vibe, preferring cosy nostalgia as a core value, with a menu containing nothing unpronounceable.

Old caravan sitting in a Mt Kembla paddock.

The coffee van has been a definite hit with locals passing through the village for work or leisure.

It includes past and present favourites like muffins, croissants, pies, toasties and cakes – with the promise of all-day pancakes once their hours are extended. And there is sometimes an affordable daily special.

Food, by law, can only be served through the window of the classic rounded compact replica pre-1980s caravan, but that does not stop customers from taking their order and eating picnic-style on their rugs or seats.

“We didn’t want a flashy-looking base,” Sarah said. “Mount Kembla is a village with a humble but rich history, and the intension was always to respect and reflect that heritage.”

“We’ve only been open for seven months but we already get loads of positive feedback. The most common reactions are ‘OMG…this is so cute!’ or ‘It’s so lovely sipping coffee in the open.”

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From the couple’s perspective, it has been hard work getting established, but the location brings a certain joy to their lives.

“We are greeted daily at 5.30 am by a family of wild ducks who sit waiting for their bread treat,” Sarah said.

“From 7 am the Dendrobium Mine truckies roll into the village and many stop for a coffee and chat.

“Then come the walkers, joggers and cyclists – not just from Mt Kembla but surrounding suburbs like Unanderra, Cordeaux Heights and Figtree.”

Many are on their way to or from the Mt Kembla Memorial Pathway, which pays tribute to the 96 men and boys who died in the 1902 Mt Kembla Mine Explosion.

Retro Roast Coffee Van is open from 6 am to 1 pm Monday to Friday, and 7 am to 1 pm on Saturday.

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