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Kell Bolger – Surrealism and Survival Through Disaster | Podcast and Transcript

Brave Cover Image with Kell Bolger

The BRAVE podcast series is a Townsville Community Information Centre initiative that aims to share the inspiring stories of ordinary people from our local community.

Kell’s Kitchen & Brew Bar was one of the many businesses devastated by the 2019 monsoon event in Townsville and covid. In this episode, our host, Teresa Hudson, speaks to its owner, Kelly Bolger, about the experiences that led her to open the cafe and how she has persevered through the difficulties of the past two years.


Teresa Hudson  00:45

In this episode of Brave, we sit down with Kelly from Kell’s Kitchen and Brew Bar. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Kell now a few times, and I’ve always been in awe of her drive to keep going. Kell is such a forceful, positive person that giving up has never been an option for her. The Community Information Centre acknowledges and pays respects to the Wulgurukaba and Bindal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet for this podcast today.

Kell Bolger  01:19

Hi.

Teresa Hudson  01:20

Thank you for joining us today. I’ve met you a couple of times now.

Kell Bolger  01:24

Yes.

Teresa Hudson  01:24

And every time your story grows and grows because more and more things have happened that you’ve had to come against, and your challenges, and I think you’ve just got such an inspirational story as a result. I’d love to capture it today. Can you start by telling us a bit about you?

Kell Bolger  01:42

So I grew up in Townsville, and we always had property over at Herveys Range. I did nothing but horse riding until I was 23 – I even went over to England and studied under the Olympic dressage coach over there, training. So I was over in England at 21.  I was out of here. As soon as I hit 21, I was gone. I was overseas. I wanted to explore the world.  I wanted to see what was out there, you know. Then coming back here, yeah, I went down to Sydney, mid-20s. I worked hard, played hard, burnt out pretty quick, came back home and slept for about three months at Mum and Dad’s.

Teresa Hudson  02:02

Great, yeah. So what brought you back to Townsville?

Kell Bolger  02:03

I was burnt out. I was just… I was really doing a lot. I was on call a lot. I didn’t have a lot of downtime and holidays, so…

Teresa Hudson  02:24

So you come back home, back to Townsville and you decided to go to uni and study I.T.?

Kell Bolger  02:29

Yes, I did. I like a challenge.

Teresa Hudson  02:32

I’m learning that about you.

Kell Bolger  02:34

One of the hardest things I think I’ve ever done is a degree. Like, that was so consistent. Plus I had to work, so I did it sort of part-time. And it was the first I.T. degree through JCU, so it changed very dramatically over that course of time.

Teresa Hudson  02:47

So, once you graduated, did you utilise that degree here in Townsville?

Kell Bolger  02:50

Yes, I just was a sole trader, just self employed. I started up my own little I.T company, just supporting businesses. And that was really interesting, but, you know, I was in it for about 15 years, and you get sick of people ringing up with a problem, you know? You want to have a happy phone call. So, it does get you down a little bit. I guess I got out of that because of that. I liked the idea of I.T. because I could do that from home, so I did that for a while and the kids were young.

Teresa Hudson 03:22

You’re very versatile in terms of adapting to the different stages that were going on for your life because now you’re a mum with three children. And twins?

Kell Bolger 03:33

Yes, twins. 11 year old twins and a 13 year old.

Teresa Hudson  03:34

Yeah, so that’s busy.

Kell Bolger  03:36

Yes, extremely.

Teresa Hudson  03:38

Yeah, but you continued working with three young children from home, doing your I.T.?

Kell Bolger  03:47

Yes.

Teresa Hudson  03:47

Is it fast forward from there to where your current business was born?

Kell Bolger  03:52

Yes, exactly. I was at home for like eight years until the kids were sort of settled at school, and I was just getting depressed sitting at home and…

Teresa Hudson  03:59

I was gonna say, how isolating was that?

Kell Bolger  04:01

It was very isolating. I didn’t like it. It might be for some people, but it definitely wasn’t for me. I was putting on weight. I was falling in a hole of depression. I had no challenges, so being at home… It was terrible.

Teresa Hudson  04:13

Because listening to your past experiences of the jobs you had prior, they sound like jobs that were surrounded by people, surrounded by… busy?

Kell Bolger  04:22

Yes, I like it. love people. I love people watching. I find everyone is so interesting.  Everyone has a story to tell. And I just really enjoy the company and talking and learning from people and experiences. Everyone’s got a story.

Teresa Hudson  04:35

So you jumped from I.T. into a cafe. How did that happen?

Kell Bolger  04:41

I guess you drink a lot of coffee when you’re in I.T.

Teresa Hudson  04:43

Yeah, true.

Kell Bolger  04:46

I don’t know. I guess I was driven by ‘I want to be with my kids as much as I can.’ I was thinking tuckshops would be ideal, so work in a tuckshop. I knew the contract was coming up, but they were delaying it a bit. And I thought, ‘Well, I still need a kitchen to work out of.’ So, that’s when that corner cafe spot came up. I thought, ‘Perfect, it’s right next to the school. I’ll get a cafe going and then when they make up their mind at the school, I’m right there ready to go.’ You know?

Teresa Hudson  05:14

And that’s how Kell’s Kitchen and Brew Bar was born?

Kell Bolger  05:17

Yeah, exactly. That drives me too. It’s like, everyone else can criticise me, but hey, I’m the one in the ring, you’re sitting up there watching. I don’t care about your opinion, you know what I mean?

Teresa Hudson  05:27

You gotta get down here and fight with me.

Kell Bolger  05:28

Yeah, get down, let’s have a go. Love it.

Teresa Hudson  05:36

Because getting into a small business is scary, right? Was that scary?

Kell Bolger  05:36

I know. It’s like, ‘Wow. This is pretty cool.’ And it all adds a little bit of experience to your belt, so when you go on to your next thing, you’ve got a little bit of understanding of how things work a bit more. That’s what I really like. It was, and it was a challenge, and I loved it. I loved it because I had to jackhammer up all the tiles. I had to refurbish and create that kitchen. It physically challenged me, but it was interesting. I love that sort of thing. Yeah, project managing. That’s what I did in my I.T. business and my consulting was project managing I.T. So, project managing how am I going to install a kitchen in this old retail space? The first step is, let’s just clear it out, see what we’ve got to start with. So, it’s just little steps. Getting through it. It was pretty amazing.

Teresa Hudson 6:09

And then you get to stand back and look at it, and go, ‘Look what I have created.’

Teresa Hudson  06:23

What year did you open?

Kell Bolger  06:25

2016.

Teresa Hudson  06:26

  1. So you were in there for a couple of years before the floods hit. I hear a lot the first couple of years in business is not smooth sailing. How was it for you?

Kell Bolger  06:37

Oh, it was definitely a struggle. I knew it would be. I had no misconceptions about that.  I was head down, butt up working it, paying off the loans and that sort of thing. My idea was the first couple of years will be really tough, and then from then on, you’ll start to see some growth. That was my goal. I knew that it’d be rough, but just as I was coming out of that thinking, ‘All right, we’re going to have some cream this year,’ that’s when the floods hit.

Teresa Hudson  07:04

Let’s go to that night of the floods. What was happening for you in your cafe on that Thursday?

Kell Bolger  07:14

Yeah, so that Thursday night we got broken into. He smashed in the side window, so Friday the rain was coming in sideways in that big front wall window. I couldn’t really trade until we got that done up, but it was really… Rain was just everywhere. It was so intense.

Teresa Hudson  07:34

So your shop was flooded before the flood even really…

Kell Bolger  07:37

It actually was just about, yeah.  Because of the break-in? So, Thursday night was the break-in. Friday was when the water started rising.  Yes.

Teresa Hudson  07:48

Where were you? Were you at the shop cleaning? What was happening?

Kell Bolger  07:51

Well, I was at the shop thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is just a monsoon, you know. This is normal.’ I grew up with it. I remember out at the Bohle going to Bohle School, we couldn’t go some days because the Bohle River would be up, and the teachers couldn’t get across. They used to walk across the railway line then, and we’re like, ‘No, it’s too dangerous. Don’t go,’ you know because we didn’t want to go to school. So, I knew what monsoons were like. You get the floods and all that sort of thing, but this was unbelievable. This was next level. This rain just didn’t stop. It wasn’t just a couple of hours of downpour. This was like days of nonstop downpour, and it wasn’t flood coming up from the ground. It was coming from the sky. It was just heavy, heavy rain.

Teresa Hudson  08:33

Your shop, did it have floodwater through it?

Kell Bolger  08:37

Yes. We had 40 centimetres through the shop. That basically destroyed all my electrical equipment: my fridges, freezers, that sort of stuff. I think the only thing left working was the coffee machine, which was important though. Also my house, which I’m sort of not far from the cafe, I had two metres under the house, so got evacuated on Sunday at lunchtime, thinking that’s enough. The power has gone out, get out while we can before they release the dam.

Teresa Hudson  09:07

So, at this stage, you knew it was more than just a monsoon?

Kell Bolger  09:10

Yes. It was getting a little bit scary because I walked across to Ross River on the Saturday morning when there was really no rain and no water piling up anywhere, and the river was level with the ground. I thought, ‘When that breaks and breaches that bank, which would not be far off, it’s going to just shoot down my street’ because we were in the very low part of Hermit Park. And before I even walked home, that’s what had happened. The water was filling up on the streets as I was walking down the streets going into my house. By the time I got to the front door, it was filling up in the gutter and starting to come up my front driveway. It was so quick, but there was so much rain. It was still coming over my back fence because there’s a little bit of a drop at my back fence. And so it was coming in that way, and within an hour or so it was knee deep, but it was very clear water. It wasn’t all river water. It was just really clear rainwater, just so much. It just wouldn’t stop.

Teresa Hudson  10:04

So you were evacuated with your three children?

Kell Bolger  10:07

Luckily, at that stage, my ex had the three children, but I had the cat and the dog. My partner at the time, we were watching on the Saturday as the rain would break. It started to stop then, but there was still the thigh deep water down under the house. I’m down there trying to anchor down stuff that was floating away. Unbeknownst to me, it would all be gone the next day. So we were just there watching the army come in through the street all the time, just checking on everyone. People were evacuating around the place, and I thought, ‘No.’ We just really had nowhere to go except my mum’s, but with the dog and the cat, I thought, ‘We’ll just stay here.’ But Sunday when we lost power, and then we got the alert from the Council saying that they’re releasing the dam gates more that night, I thought, ‘We got to get out now, or it’s never and we could be on our roof tonight.’ That started to get a little bit scary then. We told the fellow, the army guy walking down the street, that we have rung the number, we’re going to get out.  And he said you won’t get anyone in here for a long time because they’re all over at Aitkenvale door knocking and getting them evacuated. We started to panic then and we’re like, ‘Okay, what do we do? Well, we’re okay. We’re safe. It’s not like there’s any immediate drama.’ And then we rang the SES, and within 20 minutes, the SES boat came floating over the fence and got us out and got our elderly neighbours out, which I was worried about and dropped us up around the corner at the bus stop, where it was fine. No dramas up there.

Teresa Hudson  11:37

Amazing. And our SES are volunteers that were out there risking their lives.

Kell Bolger  11:43

They were, and they were amazing. They were just so settling and they were busy as, so they literally dropped us and ran to another call out.

Teresa Hudson  11:52

So, the water’s gone. It’s now time to go back home and go check out the cafe. What goes through your head?

Kell Bolger  12:02

Oh, I had no expectations. I didn’t know what to think. When we got evacuated, I was trying to get back to the cafe that Sunday afternoon, and of course that was all underwater. The road was closed. The police car got washed away there. I just had no expectations. I was trying to get out to my mum’s place, but she couldn’t drive in. The roads were sort of blocked there, so I had a friend who was in a four wheel drive out getting some stuff, and they called in to the shopping centre carpark where we were stranded, picked us up and took us over to Heatley, and it just kept pouring and pouring and pouring. It was just a scary night. Not even being in the flood zone, you know? And then the next day, Mum came and picked us up and took us out to Bushland Beach and we went into Coles. So, we’re all in the car – dog, cat – stop into Coles on the way to Mum’s and we walk in, and there’s music playing. Everyone’s going around their business, there’s fully stocked shelves and that. We just burst into tears. It was so emotional because these people on this side of the town didn’t know there’s like this massive disaster happening. An emergency over on the other side of the town. It was really surreal.  I don’t know how to explain it. Because we’re…

Teresa Hudson  13:18

The same town, but grey on one side and bright on the other, yep. I get that.

Kell Bolger  13:21

It was just like, everyone’s just walking around getting their veggies. We hadn’t had fresh fruit and veggies for a couple of days – and milk and stuff – on this side of the town, so it was really like a real contrast, and it’s only 20 minutes the other side of town. So, that was a bit of a shock because everyone’s like normal. And here we are in the middle of Coles just bawling our eyes out going, ‘Oh, we survived. We got through it.’ So, then we obviously had to come back. We had to leave it a couple of days for the water to go down and come back in. Look, what could you say, it was just devastation. There was just that silty mud everywhere. Everything had floated to one corner of the shop. It was just what can you do? You just got to start from scratch again, I guess.

Teresa Hudson  14:07

And given the person you are who just seems to get in and get things done, I can imagine… Is that what you did?

Kell Bolger  14:14

Yeah. We had a bit of a plan because the house was all a mess as well. Under my house and my garage and all that and my laundry was all gone, so we had to split up. I had to clean it. You don’t want to let that stuff dry out too much, so we had to split up. My partner did the house with her friends, while I got a lot of the teachers from the school come and helped me, both at the house and at the cafe, which was amazing. Some friends came in. Just the help and the community spirit around was awesome. And even though some people still had damage at their house to clean up, they sort of prioritised us. Parents would drop in and grab some washing from the cafe and go and do it, and other parents were volunteering and staff were volunteering to help gerni out the cafe and stuff like that. So, it was just the community spirit was really good.

Teresa Hudson  15:03

It was very good. So, insurance, what was that like? What were your lessons learned from it?

Kell Bolger  15:14

That was challenging. I don’t know. I don’t know how you could do it any better. I think having people advocate for you when you’re in such a state of mind would be really helpful. When you’re meeting with insurance or put your claim in, and then they go, ‘No, we want to meet with you,’  and I had like, four or five meetings over a period of a month.

Teresa Hudson  15:38

Was your business open by this stage? Were you back open?

Kell Bolger  15:41

No, I was doing coffees through the window for the people that needed that support and stuff and trying to help where I could. Also, I needed something to do. I couldn’t stay at home with the kids and Mum in the one little house with the cat and dog. I had to get out too. I had to get the kids sorted and out.

Teresa Hudson  15:57

And back to some sort of routine?

Kell Bolger  15:57

Back to some normality, yeah. By this stage, the school was open. I think they were only closed for a couple of weeks. We were having to do tuckshop for them, so I had to go and buy another fridge – a little fridge – to keep stuff in. But… I got a fridge in and I got things repaired, and the fridgie’s saying, ‘Yeah, you need to get this replaced. It’s only temporarily repaired.’  Because it was up and running and going, the insurance wouldn’t cover it, so I had that struggle. I lost a lot of… the equipment, some of it’s still going, but I don’t know when it might just pack it in. That’s the thing. That’s the real rip-off I think with insurance. It should have been replaced, but because I wanted to get up and running and I had contracts to meet, I had to get it repaired quickly. You know, six months down the line… I think my insurance settled eight months after the event. I can’t wait eight months closing. I have to get going and you do that, you get up and going, and you hope then insurance are gonna back you and help you, but nah. Less than half of what I required they paid.

Teresa Hudson  15:59

What government assistance or grants did you apply for?

Kell Bolger  16:10

DESBT (Department of Employment, Small Business and Training) and QRIDA (Queensland Rural and Industry Development Authority) were really good. There was an initial $50,000 grant for people that weren’t covered with insurance. I managed to get some of that, but you still have to fill in the forms, take the time, lay everything out. Oh my god, it just does your head in. You know, your focus is not really there as on a normal day before any sort of disastrous event like this. So, that was a real challenge, to be focused and fill in the forms correctly because if you get one thing wrong, they reject it, so you get all that right. Look, the government assistance was really good in that way. And the Small Business Recovery Centre was brilliant in helping out in that way.  And then there were some QRIDA grants coming up. There’s been some mentoring grants happening and marketing grants recently now. It’s good. It’s ongoing, which is what we need. Small businesses need this. Oh, it’s just been so challenging and tough, you know?

Teresa Hudson  18:03

Yeah. So, the floods happened. That was a bit of a crappy time. You kept pushing through. In 2020, COVID hit. What did that mean for you?

Kell Bolger  18:18

Oh, it’s like, ‘Oh, no. Here we go again.’ I think the lesson learned from the flooding was that… Nah. Close it up. Go home. Not even going to try to maintain my business because you know, there’s just no point.

Teresa Hudson  18:36

You were ready to quit.

Kell Bolger  18:37

I was ready to just walk out. You know, I needed a break.

Teresa Hudson  18:39

Which sounds like that’s not you.

Kell Bolger  18:41

No. I was really worn down at that stage. It was like, ‘Oh my god.’ And it was a point of my kids as well. You know, they lost all their toys, all their fishing and camping gear, all their bikes, everything in that flood, and we’re just trying to rebuild again and get some normality, and then that gets just thrown in the air again. You know, there’s certainly no stability there. It was all up in the air what’s going on around the world. I guess…

Teresa Hudson  19:07

It was the completely unknown?

Kell Bolger  19:08

It was, yeah. It’s not something you can plan for. And the rules were changing almost weekly there for a while. And I’m like, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I tried it. I tried to diversify and go this way and that way, and then they said kids have to stay at home. I’m like, ‘Great, okay. Who’s going to teach them because I’m working?’ That was, I guess, the icing on the cake. I just went, ‘No, the cafe is not that important to me at this point in time. I need to get home and settle the kids down and get their education on track again.’

Teresa Hudson  19:36

Yeah. So you closed up?

Kell Bolger  19:38

I did. I closed up for about four months.

Teresa Hudson  19:40

Four months?

Kell Bolger  19:41

Yeah. I was still doing tuckshop when school opened. I was still doing tuckshop, but I had a staff member that I wanted to keep, so I was helping her as much as I could and getting her to run tuckshop.

Teresa Hudson  19:53

Because you’ve got that staff. You’ve got staff that you… Like what does that feel like?

Kell Bolger  19:58

It’s devastating. And I’ve been on that end of it. I’ve not always been a manager. I know how hard it is when you’re living week-to-week paycheck. And, I just had to do what I could for especially this one staff member that had stuck through with me. Basically, she was running the tuckshop for me, while I was home schooling because there were a certain amount of kids that could go. Even though it wasn’t big, we still had to be providing some food. Surprisingly, tuckshop was huge because the parents were in disarray at home as well.

Teresa Hudson  20:06

Yes, they were.

Kell Bolger  20:31

Yeah, so we were supporting, and I’m glad.

Teresa Hudson  20:34

It was tuckshops, I think, that were that incentive to get kids to school sometimes.

Kell Bolger  20:38

Yes. I mean, it worked out. We got it working. Like every other parent doing the same thing with the kids at home, there were meltdowns. There were struggles because you’re thrown in this chaos at home again. Yeah.

Teresa Hudson  20:53

You’re stuck in the four walls of your home again.

Kell Bolger  20:55

Yes, with kids not wanting to do work, but…

Teresa Hudson  21:01

And they need someone to blame, and that person is you. Because they’ve got no one else and at the end of the day, you’re going to be there for them. So that person they can blame is you because no matter what they throw at you, you’re going to keep coming back.

Kell Bolger  21:14

Yeah, we have to be there.

Teresa Hudson  21:16

Oh, to be a mother. When you got to open your business back up again, was it all systems go straight away or have you had to build back up again from scratch?  Build your clientele back? Build your customers up.

Kell Bolger  21:29

Oh, it’s been a build back up again, you know. In that in that hospitality side of it where I am, January’s really quiet. February/March is sort of starting to get your wheels on. By mid-year, you’re sort of running pretty well. Then it dies again over Christmas. That’s just the nature of some of it, you know, and that’s what the pattern was like previously. So, we just get our wheels going, getting momentum, and then we’ve had the floods and then we had COVID, so it’s nice this year to be almost to the middle of the year and I’m actually steaming ahead, but it does take a bit to wind up. It takes a lot of energy to get everything baked up again, get all your orders in, you know? It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re opening and everything’s full.’

Teresa Hudson  22:14

Everyone comes running back.

Kell Bolger 22:16

Yeah. It’s a process of behind the scenes, stocking the cabinets again, which can take weeks to get all that baking up to scratch, and getting your marketing out there, and telling people that you’re open, and these are the hours now. So yeah, it’s a big process.

Teresa Hudson 22:31

Did you go back open straight away to your original business opening hours?

Kell Bolger  22:34

No. We staggered it a little bit because we were still fighting it. You know, not fighting, but there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes, I guess, with home and that. So, I just opened three days a week and then ramped it up from there. I just needed to get coping with it, I guess. And I was fairly burnt out, I gotta say. I was really struggling myself, which is unusual for me because I’ve always had a spring in my step. I’ve always been moving forward, but that was really hammering me down a bit.

Teresa Hudson  23:03

What have you used to get through that? You’ve mentioned a few times that you were nearly at breaking point, and you’re nearly here, but then you keep going and you keep motoring through it. Where do you draw on your resilience from? Where do you draw your strength from?

Kell Bolger  23:16

I think you’ve just got to keep going. There’s no option. People say, ‘I don’t know how you did it with three little kids,’ because I was a single parent when they were 15 months. And it’s like, well, I had no choice. I just had to keep going. I wish I had a choice, but I didn’t, so you just got to get up and you just got to go through the motions until it gets better. I’m a big believer of that 1%, you know. Each day, just do 1%. This is the worst. Tomorrow is going to be a little bit better. And then it’s going to get a little bit better.  So, that’s how I think in terms of long term is that it’s not always going to be like this.  You know, this might be a really shit day, but it’s not going to be a shit week or shit month. I’m going to get out of this, and I’m going to be one foot in front of the other and get that momentum going.

Teresa Hudson  23:55

And only you can pull yourself out of that.

Kell Bolger  23:57

Exactly, yeah. No amount of like… I guess at one stage it was money spending or drinking or whatever because you’re feeling like crap. It’s like, no, you’ve got to sort your shit out. You’ve got to get yourself together, stand up, put your big pants on, and just walk forward. There’s no easy solution for being like that, I guess. I was always brought up with a very positive mindset from my parents. I guess I do think about my parents when I was younger and they were always very driven to do stuff. So, I probably get a bit of that from them. So, seeing other people succeed and that’s like, ‘Why can’t I have that? Why can’t I? I just need to put in the effort.’ And it’s that 1%. Just a little bit each day, you know? You can’t change things dramatically overnight. You’ve just got to keep moving forward.

Teresa Hudson  24:47

Yeah. I think your story’s really cool. Thank you for sharing it.

Kell Bolger  24:54

You’re welcome.

Teresa Hudson  24:56

I think our community’s really lucky that you’re back here and you’ve decided to stay here. Your business is a really great little coffee shop. I’ve been there quite a few times.

Kell Bolger  25:07

Thank you.

Teresa Hudson  25:09

I really hope 2021 continues to be really awesome and on to the future. Thank you.

Kell Bolger  25:20

It’s been fun.

Teresa Hudson  25:21

That’s good.


The BRAVE Podcast is jointly funded by the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA).

This project is produced by Damien Lawardorn.