If you've ever hoped to read a story of strength, resilience and the power one individual has to change a community, this is it.
Emily Caska’s story is one worth listening to. Having escaped domestic violence and with her young son in tow, she has single-handedly built Avoca Surf House into a local institution. Much more than a coastal dining destination, the venue is a community mainstay, becoming a place for individuals, families and groups to gather, connect and find belonging. And despite having no background in hospitality and no conglomerate financial backer, it hasn’t stopped Emily for reaching for the stars, and just about getting there.
We are so delighted to share Emily’s inspiring story and will be visiting Avoca Surf House every time a coastal trip is in order.
Tell us about yourself and your family.
My little family is my five-year-old son, Otis, and I. It’s been the two of us since he was one week old. Funnily enough, I always wanted a girl – I have 3 sisters, had always babysat gorgeous little girls, I knew how to do the girl thing. Then out he came, boy parts and all. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. He’s my little warrior boy. He teaches me to stick up for us in moments where I’d ordinarily not do so for myself. He does, however, firmly believe that he and I are getting married so it’s a work in progress. My father was born during World War II in Germany, my mother a country girl from Tenterfield NSW. I adore my big wild family being one of six kids, and am particularly close with my sister Lucy who is 16 months younger than me. She’s my compass and my very best friend. She keeps things very real with a wicked sense of humour and happens to have an intellectual disability.
What did your career and your life entail prior to Avoca Surf House?
Far less financial spreadsheets, far more sleep! My background is in disability, child protection, government relations and foreign affairs strategy across Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. I still do that, too. I also started a paleo business serving the Eastern suburbs of Sydney, which I stopped the day I gave birth to Otis. I did 45 deliveries that morning (think heavy produce boxes, juice cleanses, meals balanced on top of my 39-week pregnant belly); two hours later I was in the hospital giving birth. We are now in the process of rebirthing NOOD FOOD as we speak! I went to New England Girls School in Armidale, followed by the University of Sydney where I completed a Bachelor of Economic and Social Sciences and a Master of International Politics. My father instilled in me from a very young age an appreciation and thirst for education – both in the formal qualification sense and in enriching life experiences such as travel, food and so on. As the saying goes, education is the one thing no one can take from you. It’s something I’ve carried forward to my parenthood philosophy – Otis and I travel frequently for work and fun, we enjoy dining out, we enjoy exploring and constantly learning.
What prompted the launch of Avoca Surf House?
In the actual moment of its fruition, not a lot! I like to think of it as one of those “jump and learn to fly on the way down” moments. I was sitting at Avoca Beach with a 2-year-old Otis, a friend said the restaurant behind us had closed down and that because I’ve been living in Bondi, I’ll know what to do with it. Haha. It sparked a personal interest in me as an avid foodie, alongside a glaring yet well-tried gap in our local market, so I called the local agent, arranged an inspection and he met me 10 minutes later. Barefoot and in a bikini, I said yes on the spot. I stayed up that night working excitedly on the concept, design, logo and menus. Bingo! The Avoca Surf House was born. I looked back at these notes just the other day for the first time and was struck by how everything has remained unchanged from that very first night. Once you lock into something, it’s incredible the amount of clarity and focused vision you acquire. Up until that point, it’s all daydreaming and fluff and it can be that saturation of muddled ideas that can actually inhibit you from taking the leap into action.
Upon deeper reflection though, I think in all of us lay a deeper yearning to belong, to contribute, to give back. Creating space – both physically and figuratively – in a world increasingly defined by disconnection is a luxury.
Can you share a little bit about Avoca Surf House and what it’s all about?
We are a place to belong, a place that caters to everyone, where all walks of life feel welcome, a community of local and nomadic spirits. We have a heart, a conscience and a commitment to our community.
Our heart – through disability employment, our ‘why’ sessions with staff, our proud and unwavering support of local domestic violence support groups and disability groups.
Our conscience – through supporting local providores and local producers, implementing a vast range of environmentally sustainable practices and hosting regular beach clean-ups.
Our community – through authentically supporting our local boardriders club, rugby club, the local primary school, our patrons and employing local staff.
Perched overlooking Avoca Beach, we offer casual contemporary dining, drinks and events ensconced by coastal chic minimalist design. Graciously dubbed the “world’s most chic community centre”, we also offer yoga, cooking classes, gardening classes, wine dinners, book clubs, art classes, kids club and more.
What role does Avoca Surf House play in the local community?
I tend to look at it in the reverse – we are a reflection of our community. They play a role in defining us. In a town of only 4,000 people, it’s not only philanthropically nice but commercially necessary. Building social capital is not a new concept to me, but in a commercial, for-profit space it continues to be a taboo – a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential component of a successful business. I hope our approach changes that perception. Not only do we contribute to our local community by way of traditional donations, charity drives and sponsorships of sporting clubs, but we also try to influence our microcosm and broader industry by showcasing our furniture that’s made by local artisans and tradespeople who happen to have a disability at Fairhaven. We normalise the employment of people with special needs by not identifying them, paying them the same wage as others and focusing on their talents and abilities. We use every major event we have to raise funds for the local domestic violence shelter. We support our incredible local small businesses through social media and referrals because I truly believe that we all thrive together. We proactively approach local mums and others who have stalls at the markets and invite them to run a workshop or class at our house, providing them with the support and infrastructure to do so as well as the permission to learn and grow. We host monthly beach clean-ups, offering a free beer or wine at the end. Indeed, these initiatives are philanthropic though also commercially beneficial. And if all else fails, we provide ice-cold beer and bloody good food in a cracking location.
Would you be able to share some of the struggles you’ve had to overcome, and the way Avoca Surf House has helped you through?
I am a serious introvert so as you can imagine, opening a highly public venue in a small town with huge visibility is really not a well-trodden path for a shy girl. I’m the girl who would happily wash the dishes and clear tables all day without talking to a soul, and I mean that with no discredit to our beautiful community, it’s just the way I’m wired. Suddenly people know my name, people know my story, people know Otis, people have things to say about me (both great and not so great) and I find it deeply overwhelming, particularly in the early days. Anxiety kicked in and there are days (still) where it will take me a good hour to leave the house to go to the Avoca Surf House, or I’ll pull up outside and sit in my car for ages building up the courage to go in. When I’m there, all anxiety and fears are abated, they just glide away. And the same thing happens the next day and the day after. I guess that’s just the rollercoaster of anxiety, but what matters most is that I keep walking in that door, I keep showing up with my shoulders back and my head held high (even when I feel anything but). You’ve just got to keep showing up.
The other great struggle was being a sole owner/operator in the early days. With that came feelings of having to do it all, feelings of isolation in not having anyone to share the load with our bounce ideas around with, feelings of utter terror when shit really hit the fan as it solely rests on you, feelings of inadequacy when you look at the highlights reel of other businesses and entrepreneurs. The beauty of Avoca Surf House is that I can make it whatever I want. That’s incredibly liberating, humbling and exciting. As a one-woman operation, it is agile, responsive, fluid, fresh.
Can you tell us about the community you encountered in Avoca, and why it became so important to you to give back?
Otis and I returned to my home town of the Central Coast as two very broken, shy, exhausted little souls. It was only ever a short term plan – four years later, we’re still here! I resisted permanent relocation for the best part of our first year here, traipsing between the Central Coast and Sydney with inordinate frequency, which saw me closed off to the true beauty of this community. It was actually Otis who grounded me and helped me see how wonderful it is to belong here. Avoca is a kind, fun, casual, stunning, fierce community. Stepping out of a domestically violent situation of 4 years and into this community made me feel alive again and I wanted to not necessarily give back but to just reflect back what it has given Otis and me.
What are some of the challenges you continue to face today?
To be honest, I wouldn’t say they are any different to the early days, I’ve just found different ways of coping. Just like the saying, it doesn’t get easier you just get better. Let’s be real here: I have anxiety, I am still an introvert, I get massive mum guilt about not being present for Otis, I miss out on a lot with my friends, I’ve borrowed money to make this work, I’m not looking after myself as well as I should, I have insomnia, I’ve been in family court for over 5 years now and counting, I doubt myself, we’ve recently taken our landlords to court sadly but necessarily, I get tired.
These are all still alive and present every day. I’m better at surrounding myself with the right people, both at work and in life. My team is seriously incredible and I feel so blessed that they choose to work with me every day. I’m better at saying no, at delegating, at forgiving myself and at swapping out impatience with gratitude. I’m better at reconnecting with things that bring me joy – podcasts in the morning, painting and creative arts in the afternoon, the ocean, learning, cuddles with Otis, travel.
Tell us about the commute between Bondi and Avoca. How are you making that work?
I’ve lived a highly transient lifestyle from my boarding school days in Armidale through to my career taking me from Karratha to Hong Kong to Melbourne all within a week, so the thought of being in one place for more than a few days is foreign to me. I am blessed to have two homes on the Central Coast now – in North Avoca and Wamberal – so the Sydney side of the equation has abated slightly, though still a place we adore. Nothing beats Bondi on a balmy Spring afternoon, sipping chilled rose at my dear friend Matt Moran’s restaurant, North Bondi Fish. Bliss!
Home is not where you are from, but where you belong and who you belong with. Otis loves to travel, so we’re taking advantage before he starts school. Hong Kong, Singapore, Hawaii, the US, Byron Bay, Cairns, Perth, Melbourne, Darwin, Bali all feature in our schedule. I’m incredibly lucky to have a son who is as much of a gypsy as me – he’s also become a pro at asking strangers to take photos of us on our adventures because as a single parent, you realise you don’t get too many beyond selfies! We’re very spontaneous – we’ll think of somewhere and off we go, like Thelma and Louise. The beauty of our highly connected world is that technology enables me to do this without compromising productivity or connection.
School starts next year for Otis so that will change our lifestyle by forcing us to be more settled five days a week – my anxiety about this recently eased to acceptance and positive anticipation. It’s about time I grew up a little but one thing is for sure – I will not be your typical school mum. I’m absolutely hopeless. I’m the mum that if wine, good music and great company are involved, I’m there. Bake sales, mother’s groups, book clubs, being on time, overseeing homework – these aren’t quite my thing but I’ll give it a crack. Luckily for me, there’s a great congregation of incredibly unique and fun mums in Avoca. I’ve found my tribe.
• Opening a venue like yours must be no small feat - particularly without a hospitality background. What was the process like?
“You have no background in hospitality” was a daily statement in the first six months. “You’re that girl from Bondi”, “No one has lasted there more than 18 months, you won’t either” were quick to follow. These statements simply triggered stubborn ol’ me to quietly think, “I’ll show you” and work even harder to make this beast a success.
Truth be told, we all have a background in hospitality. We are all human. We are all customers. We all want a place to belong. We all want to leave somewhere feeling better than when we entered. That’s hospitality. The food and beverage is the product, but the true essence of hospitality really lies in how we treat one another as humans. Hospitality is empathy, responsiveness, kindness, it’s about being self-aware and having integrity. Now, don’t get me wrong, I was scared as hell about food costs and beer lines and rostering, but at the end of the day I knew common sense reigned supreme. I found people who knew food costs, beer lines and rostering and focused my energy on how I wanted people to feel at Avoca Surf House – both staff and customers.
Clearly I’m not a builder, but I relished the fit out process. I was there every single day from 5am to 7am, off to work, then back again from 6pm to 10pm. Through our local tradies on site, I learnt how to use a drop saw, I painted the walls, I put together every one of the 110 chairs, I pulled up the carpet, I drilled in skirting boards. Yes, me!
People walk in and are in awe – thanks largely to our incredible view – but truth be told, we can thank IKEA, Kmart and Bunnings for the majority of our fit out. You don’t need a designer, you don’t need inflated budgets – these things merely inhibit your ability to start your dream. Just a healthy dose of common sense: simple design, maximised floor space, timeless décor, automation through technology, taking the best parts from other venues and making them your own.
Here we are, two years later, outlasting the four business in this space before us. I hope that means we’re doing something right and can continue to do so for many years to come.
What role has your son played (and continues to play?) in all of this?
Otis’ role is integral to both our success and my sanity.
If it weren’t for Otis, I would have stayed in a cycle of domestic violence, unbeknown to me, for many years to follow. As soon as he was born, within one week it was just the two of us. Otis gave me the strength to break a cycle I would have never stopped for myself. Otis is empathetic, wise, kind, calm, curious and affectionate. He is the personification of all that is pure and fun in this world and that inspires me every day.
How do you make the balance work between business, life and motherhood?
I think ‘balance’ is perhaps a flawed way to look at it. If you’re trying to find the perfect work/life/mumma balance, you’re setting yourself up to fail – especially as a small business owner, especially as a single mum. I prefer to think of it as ensuring that whatever you do makes you feel both joyful and secure simultaneously. Life isn’t about switching off from one and morphing yourself into another across work, life and parenthood. They are inextricably linked and you just have to find a way to merge them all (relatively seamlessly). I have a drink with friends at the Avoca Surf House – meaning I’m there to see staff, I get to see operations and I get to mingle with the locals. I plan social events that include Otis or that include fitness. Indeed, I make dedicated time for Otis but that’s then balanced by me getting up at 4am to do a few hours of work before he wakes so I can carve out that time with him. Do I recommend this approach for everyone? Absolutely not. It works for me because if I switch off from one completely, my anxiety is triggered. I like to stay across things so this is how I cope, in an interwoven, busy, fluid way.
How do you take care of yourself?
This is my most recent focus and admittedly, something I am utterly terrible at. I genuinely enjoy working. When I get an exciting idea in my head or an engaging project, it is all-consuming. It brings me so much joy whilst also bringing out my stubbornness and impatience and need for efficiency. One thing I do always ensure is nutritional health. No, I don’t mean a regime of strict clean eating – I adore McDonald’s cheeseburgers too much for that! I do, however, make sure I take supplements (namely: multivitamin, double strength vitamin C, mega B and chlorophyll in the morning and magnesium at night) and eat lots of fresh vegetables. I don’t drink coffee or soft drink which I think also helps regulate my energy. I am also fortunate enough to live right on the sea. I find that incredibly calming and necessary.
Do you exercise? Eat well? Meditate? Chocolate? Wine!? How do you get through the hard times?
I’ll be honest – meditation and yoga for me inevitably ends up as a silent list writing session in my head until it’s over and I frantically run out to write them all down.
I’ve always been highly conscious of is fuelling my body with highly nutritious meals and supplements. If I’m not functioning well physically, I’m compromising my ability to function optimally cognitively. Don’t get me wrong though, I thoroughly enjoy a warm cinnamon donut or three without an ounce of regret.
My mum always says, “you have to have something to look forward to” and this has really stuck with me. Whether it’s a nice dinner at our favourite local restaurant, snuggles with Otis, a swim in the ocean, a quick trip away, a bushwalk without my phone, a night out with friends – it’s a worthwhile investment of time and/or money. I’m a big believer in rewarding yourself, being kind to yourself, high fiving yourself.
One perk of owning a bar is access to wholesale champagne – I definitely take advantage of that! That helps in the hard times, as does the unwavering support of the gorgeous friends I share it with.
What lessons do you hope your son is taking away from this experience and what you have created?
When we got our home in North Avoca and soon thereafter fit out of Avoca Surf House began, Otis was a fiercely shy boy. He would hide behind my legs at the sight of any other human. He would cry hysterically at the thought of being separated from me. Fast forward to today, he’s the Mayor of Avoca. His entire being has been transformed in this metamorphic experience. I hope from this he learns compassion, I hope he learns to accept people from all walks of life as one and that hard work pays off. It’s my hope that Otis’ entrepreneurial spirit is ignited, that he sees the transition from idea to actuality and garners inspiration from that to apply in his own life, in any field. I hope he learns the value of perseverance, endures the beauty of failure and displays dignity in moments of success. I hope he sees that it is indeed possible to be both secure and joyful in life and that his mumma loves him to the moon and back.
What are some of the misconceptions about domestic violence? And how would you respond to these?
Sadly, so many. It’s these misconceptions that inhibit so many women, men and children experiencing domestic violence from getting the awareness and support they desperately deserve.
In the interests of brevity, I’ll list them in dot point form. The following could not be more inaccurate nor downright dangerous to believe:
- Domestic violence is reserved for those of lower socio-economic backgrounds.
- If you haven’t been hit, it’s not domestic violence.
- Stay, the violence will end if you change your ways.
- Leave, the violence will end when you separate.
Is there anything you’d like to tell a woman who might be experiencing domestic violence?
- This is not your fault. Repeat, and repeat again. This defies logic or sense, don’t even try to apply such. Just know this is not your fault and place responsibility firmly where it deserves to be – on the abuser.
Google “domestic violence support”. Read it. Call them. Go along. Gosh, I wish someone told me this earlier! Attending our local clinic was the very best thing I ever did. For once, I understood the pattern, I was normal and I wasn’t alone. We even laughed about our experiences as often as we cried. It was a gamechanger for me, prior to which I didn’t believe it would happen to me. I was educated, I had a great job, I lived in the eastern suburbs, no way, not me. Yes way. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for your child/ren.
- You will be ok. In fact, you will be better than ok. We only have this one life, you deserve to be living it better than this.
- Protect yourself. Don’t leave naively and don’t think it will just suddenly stop one day – you’re setting yourself for both risk and disappointment if you do. Get legal advice and keep yourself safe. If you have children, have public places for changeovers instead of your home, as one example. Narcissists don’t change. In fact, when their control over you wanes they get more aggressive, more controlling, more violent. This is in no way a reason not to leave, but leave consciously and plan safely.
- The most poignant advice I got early on – look at yourself through the eyes of your child, right now. They are sitting on the floor looking up at you. What are you doing? Who do they see? How do you look? Are you happy? Is this how you want them to view you and view women? We have a responsibility not only to ourselves but to future generations to stop them thinking this is ok.
- Finally, not everyone will get your situation. It will be too much for friends to hear, too much for family to comprehend. That’s ok. It will surprise you, it will anger you, it will hurt you but it will serve you. Those that do emerge in their place will be more than worth the pain.
What’s ahead for you and for Avoca Surf House?
For Avoca Surf House, I feel we’ve finally hit a sweet spot in terms of our brilliant tightknit team, our food and beverage offering and events. That took a solid two years though, we are no overnight success story. Now, it’s time to expand our footprint beyond core business with the upcoming launch our own branded luxe beach goods, a gourmet deli, catering and gorgeous bespoke homewares.
Closest to my heart is our charity, The Lulu and Otis Foundation, for legends who happen to have a disability and children affected by domestic violence. I’m committed to this not just being another charity where you donate money and never really know where it goes. This is a full circle model – high impact, high transparency, high accountability.
On the personal front, practising self-care is a conscious priority. It’s not something that comes naturally to me so I’m uneasily but necessarily navigating what works for me. Meditation and yoga aren’t my vibe. Connecting with my friends, the ocean, travel, fresh air, family, art, the good things in life – that’s my vibe. I’m living lighter by the day – less stuff, more meaning. It’s been a liberating process of literally throwing out things with 80’s music blaring and champagne in hand. I highly recommend it! I’m looking at some exciting ventures in Hong Kong and LA (because, you know, my overactive little mind just never stops!) and maybe one day I’ll find a boyfriend over the age of 5, too!