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30 October 2019
By Lotte Reiter
Come afternoon, a little factory awakens in the heart of Halls Gap.
With pans clanging and stock pots bubbling, the scents of the Kookaburra Hotel rise in its kitchen.
It is a restaurant that has been delighting the region’s taste buds for 40 years, thanks to a mix of traditional cooking and a much-loved menu, with a good handful of friendliness on the side.
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And owners Rick and Vonne Heinrich credit these factors as the key ingredients of their recipe to success.
“We don’t change the menu very often, because traditional food has never gone out of fashion,” Vonne said.
“Though restaurants now are opening up with their fandangle food, they don’t last long.
“We put a lot of effort into cooking stocks for a period of time as a basis for sauces, so everything is packed with really good flavour, and everything is made by scratch. Every schnitzel is made by scratch each day. We don’t mind spending a bit extra for high quality.”
Rick, originally from Horsham, and Vonne, who grew up in Balmoral, took over the business on October 22, 1979, when it was still called the Kookaburra Café. Vonne said from the very first day she treated customers like friends coming to her own home. And in the following 40 years, through many major rebuilds and a name change, the humble restaurant has grown what could almost be termed as a cult following of happy stomachs.
So much so, Vonne said they would struggle to compile a guest list if they had decided to have an official 40-year-anniversary celebration.
“It’s a welcoming atmosphere here. We have a lot of long-term customers who have become great friends,” Vonne said.
“We’ll often have people coming in saying, ‘oh, I ate your duck here 25 years ago and loved it, I can’t believe you’re still here.’ And I reply, ‘well, I love repeat business, but do you think you can come a bit more often?’”
Vonne said because the couple rarely changed the restaurant’s menu, there were many signature dishes that Rick, the kitchen’s head chef, had been cooking – and undoubtedly perfecting – across their 40-year history.
“We have traditional Italian, German and some Asian dishes too,” she said.
“One dish Rick has cooked for the past 40 years is our baked duckling. He’s boned thousands of ducks. That’s a traditional French dish, with brandy and green peppercorn sauce.”
Despite the highs and a clear passion for food and wine, Vonne said the industry was also ‘a bit of a grind’, particularly after 40 years and with both herself and Rick past retirement age.
She said their children, who all grew up in the kitchen, had ‘wisely fled’, leaving them without a succession plan, and she admitted the couple would like to sell in the future.
“In this industry people expect you to be perfect all the time,” she said.
“With Facebook and Trip Advisor now, if you’re not perfect you get called out – ‘oh, they were a bit grumpy that day’.
“You could be doing 10 things at once and if a grumpy customer comes in it can be a very difficult thing to stay pleasant 100 percent of the time.
“It’s been a bit of a grind, day in day out. But it’s been growing, we’re as busy now as we probably would have liked to have been 40 years ago.
“Forty years in this industry is just unheard of. But we’ve also been very blessed. Something special happens pretty much every day.”
The entire Lifestyle Wimmera Edition 5 is available online. READ IT HERE!