THE STORY OF THE CROOKED CARROT really begins with a straight carrot. Well, many straight carrots, for that’s one of the vegetables the Castros produce on their local farm. They take pride in their carrots, which are always brilliantly orange, brimming with nutrition—and straight as an arrow.
Joe Castro bought the farm in Myalup back in 1990. His parents were farmers down Donnybrook way so he had a great background in how to run a commercial farm. He married Sonia, whose parents were farmers in Slovenia who operated a 5-acre market garden after migrating to Perth.
Things were going well in the farming business, so in 1996 the Castros purchased an adjacent property from the Marshalls, which just happened to be raising emus and had a small café near the highway. The Castros agreed to lease the famous Myalup road stop to the Marshall family, who continued to run it for two decades, supplying local residents and travellers with their quintessentially Aussie emu pies, along with some local produce and fresh-squeezed orange juice straight from the orchards in nearby Harvey.
Once the lease expired in June 2015, the Castros didn’t really have a clue what to do with the roadside effigy, until Sonia started dreaming up an idea for a small café. A chance meeting with Kirk Foster, who would become the first café manager, and a chef recommendation from friends, drove the project from dream to reality. Even with nearby roadhouses at Settler’s and Myalup, the new team decided to give it a crack and do something uniquely different. They brainstormed ideas, originally coming up with a veggie shop café theme, that would eventually evolve into its present day café function venue.
With her gift for design and a zesty—ok, let’s call it crooked—creative streak, Sonia transformed the simple farm-stand into a small café, which opened its doors in 2015. An avid vintage collector, she spruced up the café interior with some pretty quirky bits and pieces from her shed full of old things: tractor seats became bar stools, rusty buckets served as bathroom sinks, watering cans became overhead lighting. She enlisted Joe and a few farmhands to haul their collection of old farm tractors and line them up along the back fence where they stood as a picturesque foreground to their adjacent fields.
For locals, it didn’t take long for the highway café to gain a robust notoriety—the carpark always seemed full and tourist buses soon began arriving. They could sense the dynamism building around the café—every week new features: a bush tucker garden, outdoor tables and chairs with a view towards the soaring gum trees and rolling farm fields, and so on. Sonia’s whimsical market of locally grown produce, including a collection of quality conserves and bushfood products, evolved and this energy seemed to just keep attracting more. It was nice to have the ‘buzz’ back in Myalup.
For Sonia, it didn’t take long for the café to take on a life of its own. Sure, she managed the fledgling business, along with Kirk, the original manager, and later, Chef Kieran, who cooked up innovative ‘bush tucker’ along with sumptuous adaptations of some old Aussie favourites. But the ideas just didn’t stop coming to Sonia for what they could do to transform the sprawling three-acre property into something with a ‘point of difference’. All she had to do was keep up with the inspiration—and manage a growing staff of employees and contractors. Life became a bit busy.
But that didn’t stop Sonia. One day while surfing the internet—she’s a self-proclaimed eBay junkie—she came across a tram, a rather decrepit vintage Melbourne one, ca. 1927. It really was a sight for sore eyes, but Sonia just couldn’t help herself: she salvages old things like others rescue stray cats. She got it for a bargain, but then there was the cost of having it shipped out west, which pretty much dented the fun of getting such a good deal. But never mind. This tram was going to be the showpiece of her new enterprise!
Taken out of service in 1986, the iconic trolley was used as a burger stand for a few years before it was left to decompose in someone’s back lot outside of Melbourne. Major rust, a leaking canvas roof, mouldy interior and a wood floor half-eaten by white ants—it was a big ask to find someone willing to take on the adventure of bringing this aging beauty back to life.
The local grapevine eventually led her to a retired handyman Johan, a Dutchman with just enough spunk and an eye for the absurd to take up the challenge of reviving a seemingly irredeemable outcast. Months spent quietly working away in the Castros’ farmshed eventually paid off as the former beauty queen emerged out of the rusty ashes of her demise. The Melbourne grand dame was reborn.
The tram now sits on the grounds of the Crooked Carrot’s bustling outdoor café. Encircled by an impressive wood deck, the reconditioned tram serves as a spectacular centerpiece for small intimate functions and special events. Plans to use it for a quirky twist on traditional Victorian high teas are in the making.
In the meantime, Sonia and her crew were busy creating an imaginative nature playground for kids of all ages (even the adult-kind!). A friend drew up an impressive landscape design replete with trails, log-hopping, stone creeks, a two-storey fort with a climbing wall and net, hopscotches and giant chess boards, an array of musical instruments made out of—you guessed it—old farm tools, plus a tiny tots area with wooden trains to sit on and a sandbox circled by a mischievous green dragon sporting flaming red wings.
As the Crooked Carrot’s reputation continued to grow Sonia continued to generate a dream list of ideas to expand its appeal. With her success at creating a family and pet friendly environment secured, her focus turned to opening the venue to functions—a fulfillment of her vision for the Crooked Carrot to be a destination rather than a passing point. Already, there’s been some well-attended art-and-crafts festivals, a summer evening blues concert and public Easter Egg Hunt, with the first wedding reception taking place Spring of 2018.
Will her creativity binge ever end? Maybe, Sonia muses, once she gets the ‘little oasis looking like a showpiece’—though she still wants to renovate the bush tucker garden and maybe even start a local news source—(friends suggest calling it the “Crooked Times” but Sonia suspects the “Crooked Carrot Times” might be a safer bet).
For now, the Castro Farm’s Crooked Carrot Café stands as a mascot to innovation and invention—a best bet for a capital meal and an entertaining break, whether you’re a local or just passing through. And times will continue to change—watch this space!