Shop Local: Introducing Kombu Wholefoods

Chris Gill July 09, 2020
Kombu Wholefoods

The benefits of shopping locally are endless. From lowering your carbon footprint to supporting your local suburb or town, smaller, independent businesses are the backbone of our community.

To celebrate this notion, we’ve decided to kick off an exciting new Shop Local series that will look at the benefits of shopping locally in more detail, as well as profiling some of the stores that stock Boody and telling their interesting and unique stories.

To kick-off, we caught up with business and life partners, Lowanna and Kevin Doye, who own and run Kombu Wholefoods, Bellingen, New South Wales.

Bellingen Shire

Hi guys. We heard you have an interesting story as to how you ended up in the picturesque town of Bellingen.

Lowanna: I first met Kevin at the iconic Glastonbury Festival in Somerset, England in 1997, as he was helping operate a solar-powered cinema in The Green Fields, screening a range of documentary films on social and environmental issues, including my latest film exploring the risks of genetically-modified food.

We both ended up working for a not-for-profit film production company, Undercurrents, in Oxfordshire, distributing quarterly videozines on social and environmental issues to thousands of postal subscribers.

One evening, over a pint of beer in a charming old British pub, I shared with Kevin a wild idea for a project that was brewing in my mind. Inspired by the latest film I was editing – claiming the aviation industry was the leading contributor to global warming – I had decided that I had no other option than to boycott aeroplanes and travel back home to Australia by bicycle!

Kevin jumped onboard and after 18 months, 16 countries and 12,000 kilometres (each) of pedalling, we ended up in Sydney. It was an incredible journey. We learnt many life lessons, particularly a humbling reminder of how fortunate we are to be born in the west.

After a couple of years in the heart of Sydney, our first child Tallara came to join us. As new parents, we felt an immediate yearning to return to a rural setting, to give our family a similar connection with the earth, that we had both enjoyed as children.

My mother had visited Bellingen to perform in the annual Jazz Festival with Joy Yates and her acapella choir and suggested we go and check the town out. Needless to say, her maternal instinct was spot on. We immediately fell in love with the Bellingen Shire and moved up soon afterwards.

Affordable good food

Can you tell us how the store came to be?

Kevin: When Tallara was nine months old we left our Inner West village of Glebe and moved to Bellingen. It was late January, in that stinking hot summer of 2004. With the intention of continuing to produce documentary films on environmental and social justice issues, we soon established that this would not materialise here on the Mid North Coast.

At the time Bellingen was without a wholefoods store, and as passionate advocates of affordable chemical-free living and local produce, we hit on an idea! With Lowanna’s earlier career in the health food industry and my expertise in logistics, we decided to combine our skills and open Kombu Wholefoods.

We started off simply by looking at what food was in our larder, contacting those companies and then slowly adding to the Excel sheet as we discovered new lines. Also, after submitting a lengthy application, we were incredibly blessed to receive the start-up aid of NEIS (New Enterprise Incentive Scheme) – an immense support during our first twelve months of trading.

Kombu opened in October that year in a converted garage at the top of Hyde Street. We consciously decided to launch our store on the same weekend as the much-loved local music festival, Global Carnival. It was a baptism of fire but we got through the initial teething phase and have been growing ever since – both in terms of the range in-store and the number of customers we serve each day.

We both believe deeply that it is crucial to have affordable good food available to all. As such we work hard to keep our store as reasonably priced as possible. We try our best to check each new product, ensuring that no nasty ingredients sneak onto our shelves. Feedback illustrates that over the years we have built up a decent bank of customer trust in this process. 

Environmentally we both believe that there is no choice but to all work together towards future sustainability as no one can do business on a dead planet. Whilst we can all make individual changes in how we live and what we consume, Lowanna and I both believe that it is equally important for us to continually look at the environmental impact of all our business decisions.

Buying local

How important is healthy living, and environmental sustainability to your business? 

Kevin: I grew up in Hampshire, England, and as a child, I loved the beauty of my surrounding countryside. In my early twenties, with a wife, a mortgage and a steady job as a Customs Officer at Southampton Port, my life direction suddenly changed when the government decided to bulldoze a new road, through a special place I had walked many times, to save four minutes travel time on the journey to London. 

An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Twyford Down was a Site of Special Scientific Interest, with some historians believing King Arthur’s final battle took place in this chalk landscape (big skeletons were found during excavation for the deep motorway cutting). It was the point for me when I realised that I needed to stand up and say: ‘Enough now!’

We have a beautiful planet on which we live, and we need to put a line in the sand somewhere, and together we stop moving ever more quickly and growing (‘biggering and biggering’ as renowned children’s author Dr Seuss says in The Lorax).

I love this land and feel blessed to be here. I believe that we are clever enough to be able to live a happy, healthy life without reducing the life of this earth.

Every action we take has environmental, social and financial implications. We work hard to take these perspectives into account in the day-to-day running of the store. For example, we stock over 300 bulk lines because buying bulk food is more affordable with much less packaging, a win for the planet and a win for your pocket!

We also have a local produce coordinator who works hard to source as much fruit and vegetables from local and regional, chemical-free small scale farms. Buying local produce supports our growers, keeping the money in our area, building a more thriving community, reducing our food miles, and providing our customers with fresh, nourishing raw ingredients.

Earlier in 2019, we launched Arame Street Food outside our store. Offering an affordable and delicious range of hot meals every lunchtime on weekdays, it has grown quickly over its first few months as there is a need for speedy healthy lunches for the hundreds of folks who work in Bellingen township.

We could coach ourselves

How would you suggest all of us make changes to live healthier and more eco-friendly lives?

Lowanna: We can look at where we shop. Supporting local stores means more money circulating in our communities and a healthier and more thriving life for us all. 

With climate change on all our minds, we can look at the food that we are currently eating. If we slightly decrease the proteins and starches on our plates, increasing the fruit and vegetables at breakfast, lunch and dinner, this will have a positive impact on our mental and physical health, with the added bonus of a reduction in our packaging.

This is because it is possible to purchase most fresh produce, whether at Kombu or any other store, without using plastic bags. It may take a little longer at the checkout but it is worth it.

By subtly decreasing the portion of protein on our plate we may find that we can now afford organic poultry, lamb or beef. Switching over, to support the organic meat industry, is a huge gesture towards individual and global health.

We could walk or cycle distances of three kilometres or less, and purchase a handlebar basket or bicycle panniers, to carry our groceries back home. We could look in our kitchen cupboards at our favourite packaged food items and see if we can replace plastic-wrapped products for alternatives wrapped in compostable cellophane or cardboard boxes. 

And we could coach ourselves to be more vigilant with not only bringing our own shopping bags but also reusable smaller storage bags to refill bulk dry goods, as well as fruit and vegetables in our local stores.

There are so many actions we can take to reduce our footprint. Have some fun with it and be creative!

Here at Boody, we feel proud to supply our bamboo range to Kombu. What are your top sellers there? Do you have any top picks from the Boody range? 

Kevin: Our top sellers are the Shaper Crop and Padded Shaper Crop Bras, the Full Briefs and Midi Briefs and the Full Leggings. Feedback from some of our staff includes:

‘The leggings are really comfy; equally great for sports, lounging and layering,’ and ‘The Shaper Crop Bra is super comfy for lounging, yoga and bed-time!’ and high praise for all of the knickers, ‘They are soft and comfy’ and most importantly, ‘they age well – wash after wash – and are still great to wear a year or so down the track.’ 

Top sellers at Kombu

What are some of your favourite things to do in Bellingen and the Coffs Coast? 

Lowanna: Recently, on a Saturday, we attached our bicycles onto the back of the car (it is a tight squeeze with all six push bikes!) and drove into Coffs Harbour, where we followed the beautiful Coffs Creek cycle/walking route, which weaves its way through the city following the waterways, bushland and the beach. It was loads of fun and helped us build a hearty appetite for lunch in one of our favourite city cafes. It was a great day out together as a family. 

What are your plans for the future of Kombu Wholefoods? Anything exciting in the pipeline?

Lowanna: Seven years ago, now with three more children (a son, Edan, and daughters, Juniper and Sky), after running out of room in our first location at the top of Hyde Street we moved the entire contents of the store (during the massive week-long flood of January 2012) down to our current home. We could not have done that mammoth logistical feat without the support of our determined band of generous customer volunteers.

We are now bursting at the seams here as well! Despite the temptation of multiple customer requests over the years to open other stores on the Coffs Coast (and further afield) we prefer focusing our energy on delivering the best service we can in our one-and-only store. Besides, our amazing team would agree that there is always enough to do to keep us out of trouble.

The future of Kombu

The future of Kombu is incorporated into our everyday decisions, one example being our staff culture. Even though it is rare these days to find me on the shop floor, my biggest contribution to Kombu is recruitment, a role I continue to be passionate about. Our intention is to create a long-term sustainable workplace for our employees. We have a warm atmosphere within our loyal, hard-working team, that feels supportive and almost family-like, regardless of whether you joined the store six months or six years ago.

In the pipeline, excitingly, we have decided to take a little of our own advice. Inspired by the global ‘unplug’ movement (unplugging from all electronic devices at 5pm Friday afternoon and not plugging in again until 9am Monday morning)  – we do not contact our staff via email during the weekend. 

In keeping with this concept, we have decided to move the Kombu office – currently located at the entrance to the store –  to a more quiet, behind-the-scenes location on site, with the hope that the office admin team will have an improved quality of life during their workdays.

Kombu has been growing since the day we opened. Kevin and I are doing something we are very passionate about and after 15 years we still love it as much (if not more!) than we did on the first day.

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