It was a passion for cycling and a love of the country that led Eric Bittner and his wife Lauren to a cute corner building in the regional Victorian centre of Wangaratta. It was 2002 and Eric had offloaded his bike from the Melbourne to Albury train and saw the 1954 brick façade of the old Railway Café. ‘It had been closed for 15 years and all that was left was a small sink, dust and cobwebs,’ says the successful café operator smiling as he reminisces. He and Lauren made the tree change, bought the building and made it their home. ‘It was perfect,’ he says. ‘We were working in the ski fields and needed a base. It was close to the snow, school and hospitals and I knew that this was going to be a destinational café,’ he says. ‘But success of a hospitality business is in owning the freehold and being able to make changes and respond to a changing environment. So we bought the building.’
Eric did not jump into the café business prematurely. He first completed a small business course that gave him a broad swathe of skills from accounting to staff management. He then completed a Certificate III in cooking that allowed him to train his own apprentices. ‘I work with great chefs, but I never want to be beholden to them,’ says Eric. ‘Getting the business straight was imperative.’ He also worked with some of the best chef owners in the region including Michael Ryan at Provenance in Beechworth. In 2010 Eric hand built a barista bar in what was their living room and used Laminex tables and retro chairs to furnish the café for just $13,000. A very nervous Eric opened the doors. ‘It was nail-biting but within four weeks I knew we were onto a winner.’ Derailleur became popular with locals and tourists alike, including fellow bike enthusiasts coming off the train to ride the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail. Over the following few years Eric reinvested into the business replacing the domestic kitchen out the back with a professional set up.
Eric followed his ideals and found local growers to supply him with produce, so he could put real, seasonal and local Wangaratta food on the table. ‘I went and saw people like Jack Herry who grows my basil I make into pesto and Dominic Torcaso who produces amazing leafy greens,’ he says. ‘Most of my customers are professionals working in law, medicine or education and they are very healthy eaters and appreciate that we can put great fresh food on the menu. It’s a growing trend.’
The food at Café Derailleur is beyond the usual smashed avocado. It is thoughtful, inventive and delicious, with a range of variety and healthy options so you can eat there every day. Breakfast could be a Vietnamese duck omelette filled with slices of duck meat with lashings of pickled carrots, bean shoots and spiced plum sauce. Lunch could be a bowl of pillow-like hand rolled gnocchi with a seasonal Italian sauce or local goat ragout. There could be house-baked brioche-style buns filled with slow braised pulled pork flesh, hand chopped slaw with a hot sweet soy dressing and real egg mayonnaise.
There is real passion in the food at Derailleur. Eric is now focusing that passion on sustainable local food production and is working on a new social enterprise farm, producing food for the people of Wangaratta. This means he needs to pass on the baton. Derailleur is for sale. ‘I would love someone who loves good food and wants to be part of the community to take over Derailleur from me,’ says Eric. ‘They’d be buying not just a business but becoming part of an amazing community. Put it this way. Half the tables and chairs that have arrived in the last five years come from customers who say things like, ‘this used to be grandad’s but we’d like you to have it, so we come and have a cup of tea and know it’s being looked after’, says Eric. ‘That’s the sort of wonderful community we have here.’
Café Derailleur is for sale with an option to buy the freehold. For more information contact Peter Street at Ray White, Wodonga on 0437 978 974.
38 Norton Street, Wangaratta, Victoria
Tel 03 5722 9589