Emily Caska On Building Avoca Surf House From The Ground Up & Navigating Hospitality During COVID-19 - The Grace Tales

Emily Caska On Building Avoca Surf House From The Ground Up & Navigating Hospitality During COVID-19

Emily Caska has single-handedly built Avoca Surf House, on the NSW Central Coast, 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, catch up on her new role as a GM for a Sydney publican group, and find out more about how hospitality is pivoting during COVID-19 – and why she can’t wait to open the doors again. 

Visit Avoca Surf House

Tell us about yourself and your family...

Funnily enough, I always wanted a girl – I have three sisters, had always babysat gorgeous little girls, I knew how to do the girl thing. Then out Otis came, boy parts and all. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. He’s my little warrior boy. My father was born during World War II in Germany and 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 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 and 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. 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. 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 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.

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”or “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 businesses 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.

You've recently been appointed GM for a Sydney publican group - how did that come about?

Like the Avoca Surf House, very little planning or strategic foresight lead to my current role! In fact it organically grew following a long lunch at the Surf House. Bill Young, my brother’s best mate, and former Brumbies and Wallabies teammate, joined us for lunch on the deck. Reminiscing over my visits to Canberra as 14-year-old girl soon gave way to a business conversation about my venue then onto his pub group, Young Hotels. Myself and my good friend Paddy Coughlin undertook a six-week strategic review of the business at Bill’s request as he identified a need to do things differently. Amongst many other recommendations, a new role emerged to support the future trajectory of the company which I was graciously offered.

Whilst this role, in particular, was not even on my radar (nor Bill’s!), it does bring together a number of skill sets I have honed throughout my career – including strategy, financial management, branding, marketing, leadership, stakeholder relations, agility, legal counsel, information technology, property development and construction, research – all within both a company and an industry that are both striving for a very innovative future so it’s great to be a part of that. Having Bill as my boss and mentor in this was hugely important in my decision. I hold such immense respect for him professionally and personally and we have one another’s backs completely on this journey which has given me confidence in my (many!) moments of self-doubt in what is a complex industry. 

Life throws you opportunities when you least expect them and when that opportunity allows you to utilise all your skills whilst concurrently developing them further, you realise it is a real privilege to learn from the best and jump on board.

Your entire industry has been thrown into chaos with the lockdown. Can you tell us how it's been for you?

Interesting to say the least! I started my role on 16 March with a clear strategic vision and this wonderful air of excited momentum then BANG! Just one week later, on March 23 we closed the doors to all our venues in what was a heartbreaking and surreal moment. One week after that, on March 30, we purchased our sixth pub – yes, we purchased a pub that we couldn’t open! In a move that some might call crazy, we are now capitalising on the opportunity to renovate far quicker and with greater offerings than would have otherwise been possible while trading. This breathing space to enjoy the process has been a luxury amidst the chaos and a project I am truly relishing as we restore this pub to her former glory. Lending my feminine touch and non-traditional eye to the project has seen the introduction of many features, such as a glass roof bistro, landscaping with lush greenery galore, and even some pink in the colour palette! Due to open in August, the Illinois Hotel at Five Dock will be a wonderful 70’s style neighbourhood oasis. 

On the Avoca Surf House front, we closed on 23 March also. We assessed take away, home delivery, and grab n go style options but in a town of only 4,000 people and with a fairly premium product that would require high volume to make margins, it wasn’t financially viable no matter which way we designed it. Whilst our doors have stayed closed, we have remained very busy planning to not only be back to normal but be back to better when the restrictions ease.

Do you exercise? Eat well? Meditate? Chocolate? Wine!? How do you practise self-care?

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? 

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.