Lou’s Café and the story of Kempsey’s rebirth

Story – The Nationals Party

There’s something in the coffee in Kempsey and it’s quenching a thirst for rejuvenation. Since the redirection of the Pacific Highway, which used to traverse the main street but now bypasses the town altogether, the place has been undertaking a radical transformation.

As both Councillor and long term café owner, we thought Deputy Mayor Lou Kesby would be the man to provide the inside scoop on Kempsey’s boom post bypass. A local all his life, the owner of Kempsey’s iconic old-Hollywood themed Lou’s Café has seen firsthand the rollercoaster ride Kempsey has endured while the Pacific Highway works were underway, as well as the boost the town is now enjoying.

During the initial stages of the Pacific Highway bypass, Lou estimates business dropped by 20 per cent as the redirection of the traffic meant tourists could avoid the town completely. He reflected on the locals worries pre-bypass:

“Before, we had horrendous traffic going through our main street. And that was the biggest fear – we take that away and we lose everything.”

A report conducted for the Kempsey Shire Council by Transport Consultant Dr Bruno Parolin in February 2014 confirmed a slide in economic growth. Though the town of Kempsey did not experience a loss of trade from overnight visitors, the negative impacts of the bypass was felt most acutely by service stations, food stores and eateries. 68 of the 115 Kempsey businesses involved in the study admitted to having experienced a downturn of sales and turnover.

However, despite an initial loss, Lou is now experiencing a growth of 20 per cent in his business, a growth he believes is occurring across the board:

“People are coming off the highway now because we’re becoming a destination and I think that’s the thing. We’ve made ourselves a destination.”

Though the town went through substantial changes, Lou believes this was a necessary process for the town to be where it is today:

“Kempsey’s starting to buzz again. The bypass put a lot of people on their bums and it built a lot of people up so there were advantages and disadvantages. We’ve gone through the worst of it. We’re now growing into the best of it and the feeling is fantastic. This is from what I hear and I’m in this main street all day, every day.”

According to Lou, the prosperity of the town is largely due to the work of the Kempsey Shire Council, who has invested in a redeveloped main street, has plans for a new cinema complex and has put significant dosh behind marketing the town as a tourist destination. Though he admits there was some negativity during the redevelopments of the main street, it too has been completed with positive feedback from locals. In a survey conducted last December, 35 per cent of the 250 local businesses interviewed found that their revenue was up and 67 per cent were feeling optimistic about the times ahead for Kempsey.

Lou managed the fluctuation of business during the bypass works by reinvesting back into his own business, a tactic mirrored by the Council:

“It’s what you do. You invest back into your business. And its what the Council is doing – they are reinvesting back into the town. And if you invest back into your business and you get out there and have a go it’ll work for you. So Kempsey is starting to feel good again.”

During the initial sting of the bypass, Lou focussed his attention on the local market, but since then, he says people are coming from all over to enjoy his old-Hollywood themed café. Originally from a wholesale pharmaceutical background, Lou opened the café 35 years ago. First, in its original form as a milk bar, the business did its best trade on a Tuesday, coinciding with the local cattle sales. But soon it expanded next door and upstairs to accommodate the herds of locals and visitors. Of his winning formula Lou said:

“I think the success of it is – we open, we trade and we’re always here. People have got to know us over the years and they say we’re a bit of an icon now. And its good to be that because every town needs something that people remember.”

When asked about the quirky theme of the café, Lou narrated Kempsey’s love affair with cinema. Kempsey had three movie theatres prior to Lou opening the milk bar turned café. The last of them was pulled down in the same year of his opening. The theme was an attempt to preserve Kempsey’s love of the cinema. The then milk bar (now Lou’s Café) was the destination for cinemagoers during the intervals of a traditional weekend double billing.

Now, with the prospect of a Big 4 Cinema Complex coming to Kempsey (currently under negotiations between Kempsey Shire Council and commercial investors) – a revival of the cinema culture in the town could be imminent. And the business Lou has grown over the past 35 years will have gone full circle – from capturing the nostalgia of a place once vibrant with the moving image, to being a symbol of a town’s rebirth, with all the colour, movement and vision associated.