Local Larder: Showcasing the best Canberra has to offer

Nic Crowther
Tue 06 Sep

Canberra business comes in many shapes and sizes. From giant construction firms through to emerging micro-business, the spirit of enterprise is alive and well in a city known more for its public service.

Julie Nicols and Rachel Evagalou have spent much of the last decade building Handmade Canberra – a series of markets that showed off the wares of talented Canberrans. From homewares, to decorative prints to jewellery, the demand kept coming, and led to the establishment of Shop Handmade in City Walk in 2008.

With that shopfront being demolished to make way for Highgate apartments, the next project for the dynamic duo is Local Larder, a two-storey temple to Canberra creatives located on the corner of Bunda and Akuna streets on the site of the old Rivers store. Julie promises us, “a café, cellar door and retail spaces, that will become something of a tourism destination in the heart of the city.“

It’s an ambitious project, and The Shaker wanted to know what it was like to be a conduit for people looking to monetise their hobbies, as well as the role Handmade has played in changing the way tourists perceive Canberra.



The pitch
Julie leads the discussion: “Local Larder is going to allow all the demographics – public servants, defence personnel, tourists to come into the city and enjoy a beautiful space and have something else. We’ll have local craft beers and the region’s great wines all available to enjoy alongside Vanessa Scanes’ awesome food.”

This is a big step up from Shop Handmade. Rachel provides some observations on the difference between the two stores. “Food and wine was the big thing that was missing. We started the Handmade Market with these products, but it drifted out after a couple of years. Now, with the size of the new store, we’re able to service that market properly and provide a really good experience for anyone looking to try the region’s produce.”


Regional flavours
“Food and wine is one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry. People are now travelling specifically to discover the flavours of a region,” says Rachel. “Local Larder will be the perfect place to showcase those products.”

The impact of international flights on the local market is something the ladies look forward to; however, the announcement has not had a large impact on the design of the outlet or the way they intend to trade. “From the start we were in the mindset of servicing the tourist market (as well as trading off local pride). We’ll certainly tweak a few products–such as supplying cute take-away packs for busy bus tours–but it all fits within the plan we’ve established for the business.”

As Local Larder moves into the food and wine space, we can’t help but wonder if there is a risk in utilising such scale for an industry that is so susceptible to quickly moving trends. Will the idea of ‘eating local’ or being conscious of ‘food miles’ be relevant in five years’ time?

 “There’s no doubt that food trends are something we have to consider, however the business is based on a much broader philosophy of promoting the local producers and giving visitors an experience they can’t have in any other city. For that reason, we’re not concerned about a shift in food trends, because Local Larder has a very particular DNA that doesn’t necessarily respond to those kind of shifts,” says Julie.



The tourism experience
Sadly, the average Australian souvenir shop is filled with stuffed toys made in China and poorly-appropriated Indigenous cultural references. Given Julie and Rachel’s ongoing desire to redefine the gift store experience, what does this mean for Local Larder?

“In the last shop, we were very well known for being able to come in and grab something that was authentic, well-made and definitely original,” says Julie. “The idea of a fake boomerang, to us, is completely horrific.

“That’s not to say that we’re without a sense of humour. Our tea towels are great sellers, but the difference is they are printed by local artists and made from high-quality linen.

“If people want a cheap and disposable knick-knack, then there are plenty of stores providing those sorts of products. It’s certainly not going to be us, though…”



The Government interface
Given the important role that Handmade has played within the local market, you’d imagine that government would be eager to support the activities of Handmade in developing the local economy and helping to promote ‘the coolest little capital’.

Rachel simply sighs. “You know, we’ve met with almost everyone in Canberra – from Chief Ministers to Senators to the MLAs and they all love what we’re doing and offer all sorts of verbal support.

“Sadly, when it comes to funding, nothing is forthcoming.

“In reality we’re probably a victim of our own success. Government is really great at providing grants and support for start-ups that have big ambitions and want to do something new. That’s great, but at the end of the day they are an unknown quantity and might not have the same solid track record.

Julie picks up on the theme. “From day one we’ve worked our butts off, and have helped hundreds of businesses to get a start or to support their existence. Now that we’re in our eighth year, there is a perception that we really don’t need any help, despite the fact we’re growing the scale of what we’re doing and working even harder to improve the tourism experience.


by Welly's WondersBuilding the economy
Handmade, and Local Larder, sit at an interesting place where they are providing a platform for hundreds of Canberrans who are taking the leap into small business. Should the ladies be supported for their efforts? Or are they reaping the rewards of recognising a gap in the market that wasn’t being catered for?

“Coming to the opening and writing a letter of support doesn’t really help us. When developing Local Larder, we had to again assume there would be no monetary support, and make sure that we could stand on our own feet.”

I get that the government has a focus on supporting charities and businesses that are struggling, but we had a broader economic impact of $11 million dollars last year through tourism, and sometimes we wonder why the government doesn’t have an interest in developing that further.

“That impact came from the efforts of two people working full-time. Imagine what we could achieve for Canberra with a third!”


Looking forward
Most Canberrans would be surprised at the number of businesses that Julie and Rachel work with.

“The supplier lists just keep on growing,” says Rachel. “Especially now that we’re bringing the food and wine back into the mix. The demand to get into Local Larder (160 suppliers) or Handmade Market (over 250) easily outstrips the space we have at either outlet, so we need to be very careful in the way we curate the products for each.

“All of that takes a lot of time. Much of the time spent on the business is involved in managing the relationships with our suppliers.

“That said, there are certain things we’d like to have in the shop that is a bit more difficult. Crockery is a tough one. Linen is another. We don’t have much of a manufacturing industry in Australia so often our suppliers will use an international product with a local twist (printing/glazing/etc.). That’s why we say we have a local focus, but the customers have a keen eye, and if they find something in the shop that is not entirely made in Australia, we certainly hear about it pretty quickly!”


…and the opening?
“Ha!” laughs Julie. “We’re not going to put a date on it, but you can expect to see the doors open in early 2017. The Canberra Centre has been fantastic in the way its supported us, but their vision is as big as ours, and the store is being totally rebuilt from the ground up.

“It’s totally going to be worth it, though. Once we get the doors open, people are going to see the effort we’ve put in, and we’ll be so proud to show it off.

Julie gives us the final word. “Canberra has never seen anything like Local Larder before – and there’s a good reason for that. It’s really, really, really hard.”

[Local Larder]

Illustration by Welly Wonders