Rawlings shoe shop in Ipswich shuts after 120 years. A photo of the shop in the 1980's.
Rawlings shoe shop in Ipswich shuts after 120 years. A photo of the shop in the 1980's.

Death of the old-fashioned family business

HERE was once a man named "Nev" who, for 37 years, sold meat pies to southbound motorists along Mackay's Nebo Rd.

He maintained a steady rhythm for hours a day as he fetched pies out of a wood burning stove he'd installed in the back of a panel van, slicing the top off with a knife and slapping on the mushy green peas his wife Nellie made, and which always simmered in a billy can on the van's open tail gate.

Nev traded banter with customers, talked easily with the local sugar cane farmers (he once cut cane by hand) and, when his customer was female, almost reflexively recalibrated both his language and his demeanour, showing the respect for women almost innate to many men of his generation.

And he always had a swift, comic and magnificently dismissive come back for young men who would often test his boundaries after they'd downed too many beers at the Palace Hotel.

Ageing locals still reminisce fondly about the night a young man became angry at a classic Nev retort and threw a pie which splattered across Nev's shoulder.

Not missing a beat of that pie-fetching, pea-slapping rhythm, Nev declared: "I don't care what you blokes do with 'em, as long as you pay for 'em."

Little by little Nev Burston - who died in 2010, aged 84 - became legendary.

Both he and his little business venture wove themselves tightly into the fabric of life in the north Queensland city, becoming as much part of the district as the Forgan Smith Bridge crossing the Pioneer River, the horse racing at Ooralea Racecourse or the Eimeo pub which has stood on a cliff overlooking the blue Pacific for a century.

Penny Gibson and Rhondell Byrne at Byrne’s Pies
Penny Gibson and Rhondell Byrne at Byrne’s Pies

The business that provided Nev with pies was known locally as simply "Byrne's".

The history of Byrne's Pie Factory went back beyond Nev's pie van all the way to the Great Depression and 1932 when Marion Byrne opened a pie shop.

In 1940, just as World War II was beginning and American servicemen were swarming in, sparking a mini-economic boom, Marion died and left the shop in the capable hands of husband Alfred "Snowy" Byrne.

Snowy and Marion had a son, Mervyn John (also "Snowy") in 1926 and when Snowy Snr died in 1955, Snowy Jr continued the tradition with his kids Harold and Rhondell.

Harold went to Brisbane as a young man and refined his skills at the McDonald Bakery in the Brisbane Valley, mastering the art of the apple turnover which he introduced to Mackay on his return, wowing customers with the exotic offering.

When Snowy Jr died in 1997 Harold and Rhondell continued the family tradition all the way until September 9 last year when Harold died and Rhondell was left to carry on alone, until she decided she couldn't.

"It is so sad when you see old customers coming in and bringing their grandchildren with them for the first time," she tells Insight.

"But I just can't do it anymore, the competition these days is intense. I just hope to pass it on to someone else who can continue with it."

Passing Byrne's on to someone else is possible, but improbable.

Byrne’s Pies in its heyday
Byrne’s Pies in its heyday

Pies may have been a takeaway staple for Australians for two centuries but competition for the fast food dollar means the Big Mac and countless other offerings have fractured the takeaway dollar into a multitude of possibilities.

The Byrne's factory is built on a large parcel of land just up from the CBD in Mackay's Brisbane St. An upswing in mining reigniting the Mackay economy means the factory could easily be replaced by light industry, ending an 86-year-old commercial venture whose proprietors' lives were deeply entwined with the life of the city.

To thousands of people born and raised in Mackay in the 20th century "Byrne's" and "Nev's" served as a sort of community adhesive.

They threaded their way through the rhythms of life via their presence at the annual agricultural show or the rugby league grand final, providing a comforting familiarity which spoke of a steady reliability, authenticity and trustworthiness.

Today, eye-watering advertising budgets attempt to confect the same reputations overnight in branding exercises for multinationals which have utterly no claim to the emotional intimacy a business must establish with a community to have won that reputation in the first place.

The Byrnes' story has been repeated time and time again across Queensland regional cities over the past few decades.

Businesses which shaped community culture and underwrote regional economies have fallen in the face of the shopping mall to which the automobile gave birth in post-war America, and which, in turn, germinated the chain store.

The Bolands Centre in Cairns represents the ghost of one of that city's most successful department stores, started in 1912 by Irish immigrant Michael Boland and which became a key feature of far north Queensland commercial life through the 20th century.

Stuarts in the centre of Rockhampton played the same role for central Queenslanders while in Bundaberg it was the haberdashers, Reddan and Mellor, which not only provided the premier Saturday morning "shopping experience", but was a chief employer before shutting its doors in 1986.

Andy Rawlings at Ipswich’s Rawlings Shoes and Menswear, which has folded after 120 years. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Andy Rawlings at Ipswich’s Rawlings Shoes and Menswear, which has folded after 120 years. Picture: Mark Cranitch

In the past few weeks a flurry of family business closures has provided a reminder that, under our current economic model, the trend will only accelerate.

In Ipswich, Rawlings Shoes and Menswear which provided shoes for Ipswich residents for more than 120 years has folded.

Perry's Fruit and Vegetable Shop, part of life in Wynnum for 60 years, will trade for the last time next Saturday.

Dr Sarel Gronum, a lecturer at the School of Business at the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Queensland, is fascinated by the fading away of our "artisanal industries" - that ancient way of commerce where local artisans entwined themselves with community life.

If you ignore the sentimentality and examine the equation in hard economic terms, the past half-century of retail has been extraordinarily positive for consumers.

Byrne's and their legendary retail arm (Nev's) have been left in the dust by everything from McDonald's burgers to Domino's Pizzas providing cost-competitive alternatives to a meat pie.

But Gronum, widely published in areas of innovation and business model design, says there is no argument the accelerated loss of "artisanal industry" comes at both a cultural and economic cost.

The old artisans, whether meat pie makers or cabinet makers, had a familiarity with their customers, making them far more responsive to needs.

Their proximity to their market also ensured reliability and trustworthiness because business and customer were engaged in the collaborative venture of community life, rising and falling together.

And more importantly, the artisans sourced not merely labour locally, but local materials and produce, and provided a platform on which local skills could be built.

"What was so interesting to me a few years ago in Brisbane was that bakeries were actually going to France to find trained pastry makers - the trade had simply died away here in Queensland," Gronum says.

Rawlings in the 1980s
Rawlings in the 1980s

Encouragingly, Gronum says there is a global move back towards artisanal industry in some sectors.

It has been reported that up to 800 new foods in the US labelled themselves "artisanal" between 2007 and 2012.

The growing global middle class is also fascinated by the food "provenance" often detailed in those little stories on packaging outlining heritage and origin - stories which "Nev the Pieman" is tailor-made for, should any future Byrne's Pies owner want to go global.

But food provenance, much like artisanal food, organic food and "slow food" is of little relevance to the majority of working Australians who will swiftly distil it all down to an option of paying $5 for an avocado or getting four avocados for $5 at Coles - in other words, a no-brainer.

A local furniture manufacturer will always struggle to draw customers away from A-Mart, as will an Ipswich shoe shop trying to lure customers out of Kmart.

Andy Rawlings, walking away from a business tradition began by an ancestor in 1898, doesn't sound even remotely bitter about the closure of Rawlings Shoes and Menswear which he took over in 1970.

He's got a farm near Byron Bay to while away his retirement years.

Rawlings abruptly refutes suggestions that the popular villain - internet shopping - destroyed his business.

"Internet shopping has nothing to do with it," he says.

Woolworths, Coles and the whole supermarket system represented by that fast moving check-out knocked him out of the retail game, he says.

Rawlings says the changing face of retail is a reality he simply accepts, but he does note how it has changed the trajectory of the local business dollar.

"When I earned a dollar I spent it in town on things I bought, or I spent it socialising and that helped build a strong, vibrant community," he says.

"When you spend a dollar in Woolworths or Coles it goes straight down to Melbourne."

As Gronum points out, it's not so much Woolworths, Coles or Kmart which sealed the fate of Rawlings Shoes and Menswear, Byrne's Pies or even Bolands - the ex-shopping emporium whose facade still gazes imperiously over Lake and Spence streets in Cairns.

Just as we, "the people", get the governments we deserve, we also get the retail climate we ourselves create.

"It is people who decide if they will support a business," Gronum says.

"Ultimately, these matters are in the hands of the consumer."




Cairns’ Bolands centre
Cairns’ Bolands centre