1 August 2023

Trading places: It seems every second Sydneysider knows about Crookwell

| John Thistleton
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Two women in a homewares shop

Genia Allen (left) with customer Rosalie, from Gladstone, in Ensemble and Co, which is changing under new ownership. Photo: Supplied.

Crookwell’s affinity with Sydneysiders has lured a Balmain businesswoman and her husband into the town’s main street, where they have acquired retail collective Ensemble and Co.

New owners Genia and Brett Allen came to Crookwell on a friend of 40 years’ recommendation that the cafe, homewares and nursery shop was the perfect fit for their hospitality and retailing backgrounds.

That friend is furniture designer and former chef James Salmon, who is planning a major upgrade for the 1885 Masonic hall in Crookwell, which he bought in October last year for $460,000. James hopes to redevelop the huge building into a boutique hotel and restaurant. He regards Crookwell as an authentic, unspoiled country town and urged Genia and Brett to move there.

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“We did say no for a little while,” Genia said. “We thought we needed time to think about it and do our own analysis. Interestingly, as soon as we agreed, it was amazing how many people we spoke to [in Sydney] who are aware of Crookwell and the Upper Lachlan district and what it has to offer.”

In Crookwell, she discovered a broad demographic of young farmers, retirees and health workers in a setting as charming as James had promised, well served by retailers and professional people.

Stone building

Visitors from Sydney find plenty of interesting scenery on the drive from Goulburn, including the restored Wheat Sheaf Inn. Photo: DTC Photography.

Ensemble and Co founder Elizabeth ”Billy” Willis launched the business in January 2021 in a 1930s building long known as the Arcadia. As well as a cafe, Ensemble has 13 other retailers of fashion, furniture, homewares, upmarket jewellery and a plant nursery.

Genia and Brett have extended the cafe menu’s offerings and opening hours to include Sunday, and installed a new oven, fridges and preparation bench space.

“I have always had a passion for presentation, flavours and good food,” Genia said.

“We do layering of detail, but in a simple way. I have been involved in interior design, female and male fashion, homewares, and I designed a range of my own homewares.”

Now she aims to soften with greenery inside the former Arcadia, which has high timber ceilings sunlit by skylights.

“In order to create a little more soul, warmth and cosiness, we have added about 30 real Boston ferns hanging from the ceiling,” Genia said.

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The Allens have accepted customers’ offers of two or three freshly baked cakes to sell, along with homemade pies, sausage rolls, honey rolls and biscuits.

Libby Storrier, who has a baking venture at Crookwell, is another supplier.

“It is important that everything that appears on our counter is made by us or by local people,” Genia said.

Ensemble and Co will serve high tea four times a year.

While retailing occupies most of the shop, down the centre runs a large space that Genia plans to put to good use with pop-up dinners and a guest chef and set menu on Friday and Saturday nights, accompanied by live music.

“We have a couple of chefs who are keen to do that for us,” she said.

She also wants to host a regular masterclass on before-and-after projects, such as buying an old car and restoring it, or rescuing an old caravan from a paddock and bringing it back to new.

The couple arrived in Crookwell in autumn to catch the fiery colours of falling leaves.

“I really love the drive between Goulburn and Crookwell. It has some really pretty parts,” Genia said.

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