12 February 2024

Slice of Walla Walla history to be lost as business is forced to close to make way for new development

| Vanessa Hayden
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Two women sit at a table

Lorna Thistle and Virginia Scholz are putting on brave faces despite the well-known Thistle Cafe and Walla Wares being forced to close this month. Photo: Vanessa Hayden.

Disappointment with a touch of anger is not what two Walla Walla hospitality and retail businesswomen expected to have on their menu for 2024.

In a “kick in the guts” for the small farming town, Lorna Thistle is now in the final phase of the forced closure of her successful coffee shop and antique gift store in the town’s main street, after four years of successful trading.

With Virginia Scholz by her side, her friend who first established Walla Wares as a pop-up shop in 2019 before handing over the reins to Lorna, it’s time to sell up everything, right down to the last teacup.

According to both women, Walla Walla’s retail and cafe offering has been slashed by 50 per cent “in the sweep of a pen” as a result of their premises being sold last year to make way for a new development.

Thistle Cafe and Walla Wares will have their final day of operation on 24 February as a result of not having their leases renewed, nor garnering the support they were hoping for from their local shire.

Despite a gallant effort to stay, they say it’s time to hang up the aprons and thank the patrons.

Woman stands holding two coffee cups in cafe

Lorna Thistle says it’s time to hang up the apron and thank the patrons as she prepares to sell everything in the business, right down to the last teacup. Photo: Vanessa Hayden.

“We are really disappointed and most of all feel as though we’ll be letting down all of the customers who come from far and wide,” Virginia said.

“You’d be surprised where people come from for a day out on the weekend. Although Walla Walla is on a bit of a road to nowhere, we’ve started to attract people here and we want to thank everyone for coming out.

“We’ve built up a great following and have people coming from as far as Griffith, Young, Wagga Wagga and places like Beechworth and Yackandandah who love to come here, look at our new water tower mural and Morgan’s Lookout and have a peaceful cup of tea or coffee while they are here.

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“I’m sad and angry at the same time.”

Lorna has been operating the cafe since November 2020 and said it had become a “wellbeing hub” for locals in the region: for company, a friendly chat and to connect with others.

“Our customers are in shock, and also angry when they find out we are closing. They can’t believe it,” she said.

“Some think we’ve decided to close voluntarily but that’s not the case, the business was successful and I would have kept it going for another two years before hoping to sell it on.

“Now I’m left with virtually nothing, and to be honest, I’ll be thousands of dollars out of pocket with not a sniff of compensation in the wind for having to do something I never wanted to do.”

Lorna admits that although she’s sad for her cafe customers, she thinks her teenage children might be happy when she locks the cafe doors for the last time and they have mum home a bit more often.

“It’s time to look forward,” she said. ”There’s a few things on my plate, no pun intended, and I’ll be refocusing my energy on other things.”

The pair’s troubles began when the building owner’s circumstances changed in 2023 and the 4000-square-metre block, which housed the two businesses, was sold.

Woman stands in front of historic bread oven

Despite the building having unique historical value to the local community, it is set to be demolished to make way for a new development. Photo: Vanessa Hayden.

Located within what was known historically as Schirmer’s Bakery, and with the Metters & Co bread oven still intact at the rear of the building, it was hoped its old-world values would be recognised.

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According to Virginia, the new owner saw value in utilising the large block for a service station and supermarket, and a development application (DA) was put before Greater Hume Shire Council.

“There’s definitely a need for Walla Walla to have a supermarket, there is no denying that,” she said.

“In considering the DA, we were hoping council might have been able to take on board our vision of keeping this building and its character values as part of the new plan, but unfortunately for us it was decided it would be more appropriate to allow it to be demolished.

“There was a lot of community push-back.

“We had a lot of people come forward to help us to keep trading, and we thank them for that. As a result, we ended up with a petition with 900 signatures essentially asking that the new development in Walla’s heritage conservation area not go ahead.”

She said although it was discussed, the DA was approved by six votes to four by the council.

“I would have thought that with a block this big – bigger than what the Jindera supermarket and its other shops sit on – that there might have been scope to retain some of its character, but I was wrong,” Virginia said.

“It’s such a shame.”

The block has since been purchased by a commercial developer from Albury.

In the meantime, Lorna, with Virginia’s help, is in the midst of a ”fire sale” as “everything must go”.

“Right down to our last teacup,” Lorna said. ”We are selling things for 50 to 75 per cent off, so the least we can do is hope some of our customers can come and nab a bargain in our last few days of operating.

“We just want to say thank you to those who have supported us over the years and who tried to keep us operating.”

Thistle Cafe and Walla Wares are open Thursday to Sunday from 8 am to 3 pm, closing for the final time at midday on Saturday, 24 February.

Note: Please continue to visit Walla Walla! The Walla Food Mill is another cafe that is open weekdays as well as Saturdays from 7 am to 2 pm and Sundays from 8 am to 2 pm.

Historic photo of bakery

The original Schirmer’s Bakery. Photo: Walla Wares.

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