By CAITLIN CROWLEY
CROWS Nest cafes and restaurants are setting a new standard for the quality of food and coffee available on Darling Downs menus.
The High Country Hamlets region has seen an explosion of boutique dining options in the last two years, spurred on by a surge in visitor numbers through the pandemic.
Tracey Ford traded in her corporate career in major retail for country life, embarking on a year-long renovation project with her husband Shane, before launching Harpers Country (pictured below) in what was the old Crows Nest Soft Drinks factory in November last year.
The bustling cafe is stocked with gourmet local products like cheese, jams and honey, but it’s their coffee Tracey is most proud of.
“I feel like we’re doing well,” Ford said.
“Shane and I always said we wanted to have the best coffee this side of Brisbane and I reckon we do.
“I honestly can say that with confidence because I think our coffee is really good, people travel out here for it.”
Just a few kilometres away, the Curly Carrot restaurant has also developed a loyal following of local customers and caravaners, who stumbled onto its hearty, seasonal menu while staying at Crows Nest Tourist Park, where the restaurant is located.
“We like going back to basics really, things that you used to have at grandma’s or mums,” chef Jesse Cole-Smith said.
“Things like chocolate cake and crumbles and self-saucing puddings.
“A lot of our winter menu, it’s not steak and vege. It’s a beautiful chowder or the local pork from our butchery topped with some creamy cabbage – wintery, hearty meals.”
Jesse and her husband Bailey have strong relationships with local farmers who ensure a steady supply of fresh ingredients from rhubarb and berries to avocados and winter veggies.
“We have people who just come in the back door and drop us off these monstrous pumpkins or these really weird carrots, beetroot and things like that. So taking advantage of what’s grown here,” Cole-Smith said.
“We’re directed by them, if something’s not available we just shift it and change it.”
On the other side of town, new bistro Myrtille and the My Little Blueberry bakery are also putting a gourmet spin on local produce, as part of the Nolan’s Block precinct.
Southern Queensland Country Tourism boss Peter Homan said Crows Nest is the wider region’s “tourism hot spot” at the moment.
“Tourists always take their memories and experiences away and those guys are doing an outstanding job – transforming an area that was predominantly a drive through into a destination,” Homan said.
“The food experiences are second-to-none.”
“Crows Nest was a bit old fashioned, a bit dusty, it almost had that tumbleweed going through town,” Jesse Cole-Smith said.
“Now businesses are painting their shopfronts, they’re cleaning their windows. They’re building the standard of the town up a little and there’s a lot of love.
“This area in particular is buzzing. It’s pulled the socks up of so many other businesses in the area, producers, other restaurants, tourism especially. People are buying more cabins and putting in more motel rooms.
“Businesses are talking to other businesses about how we can feed off each other and thrive.”
That regional renewal is something Tracey Ford has noticed too.
“People are more confident and even the IGA, it has grown. You don’t have to go into Highfields if you don’t want to,” she said.
However both business owners would like to see more support for the burgeoning tourist destination, from both the state government and Toowoomba Regional Council.
“I don’t feel that they (Council) sort of recognise the ability that these smaller towns have,” Ford said.
“I think Queensland tourism needs to up their game, honestly.”
“It’s really becoming a destination and it just needs that bit of extra support,” Jesse Cole-Smith said.
“We’ve got our foot in the door with grants but it’s all hard work.”
Kristen O’Brien from foodie directory Dine Darling Downs agreed targeted funding for areas like the High County Hamlets could make a huge difference.
“I think there should be more funding at a state level into micro-communities like this, into small food tourism groups,” she said.
Toowoomba councillor James O’Shea said community and not-for-profit groups were welcome to apply for funding to assist their project or event, with applications for Council’s next round of community grants open now and due by August 1st.
“Preference is given to applications that fulfil a range of criteria covering community inclusiveness and interaction, a willingness to encourage community partnerships, upgrading facilities or services or establishing a new service, facility or initiative,” O’Shea said.
The Community Economic Development Grants up to $5,000 (or up to $10,000 per applicant, with matched funding) are available to help community organisations deliver programs designed to benefit local businesses and the broader area.
“Council is determined to support our Chambers of Commerce, Progress Associations and other not-for-profit groups who meet the selection criteria to deliver programs and job-creating projects that will benefit local businesses, particularly as our businesses continue to recover from the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic,” Mayor Paul Antonio said.
“This funding is aimed specifically at empowering local organisations to deliver the types of projects that they know will support economic growth and opportunities in their own communities.”
Peter Homan said Southern Queensland Country Tourism already markets places like Crows Nest as individual areas with their own unique characteristics.
“We take towns, experiences and we take events to market,” he said.
While international tourists have traditionally represented just 5-7 percent of the local visitor market, Homan expects that figure to increase to around 20 percent, as inbound visitation bounces back post-covid.
“We’ve received incredibly high inquiries and the market’s changed – they’re not looking to do tour groups or bus tours – they want to be independent travellers and hire a car,” Homan said.
“They want blue skies, no covid cases, lots of greenery and national parks – that’s what they’re looking for.”
Southern Queensland Country Tourism is working on a new tourism brand called Savour, which will be targeted at international visitors showcasing six key food trails in the region, including country pubs, cellar doors and farm gate produce stores.