Meet the café queen… who can’t cook
She's a straight-shooting country girl so if you ask Ursula Watts her secret to staying sane during the COVID-19 crisis, she doesn't mince words. It's wine and carbs.
"I have long given up on being a size 10," says the co-founder of some of the Gold Coast's most popular cafe-bakeries, venues she operates with husband Ben.
"It's not part of our makeup to think, 'Oh, I won't eat that because I'll put weight on'. I would rather eat food and find that emotional happiness than be, like, stoked on my body.
"There is that meme going around with pre-COVID Barbie and then iso-Barbie and she's super overweight and I'm like, 'Ben, that's going to be you and me', and he's like, 'Mate, now is not the time, we've got way bigger issues', and I'm like, 'Yep, right, I'll have another croissant'."
She's referring to their almond croissant, a cult classic, made the traditional way at their Bam Bam Bakehouse in Mermaid Beach on Bongard equipment, the Rolls-Royce of baking gear from France. The luxuriously flaky pastries are $9.50 a pop and take three days to make.
"Those who try it know it's the best and are happy to pay. I eat it every day it's so good, and now I'm thinking about it, I want one now," Ursula enthuses. "A lot of this is driven by Ben's personality and his 'If you're not going to do it perfectly then don't bother' mentality. He pulls it all together with that finesse."
As well as Bam Bam Bakehouse, the enterprising pair operates Custard Canteen at Tallebudgera and Cubby Bakehouse at Chinderah, the seaside village near Kingscliff in northern New South Wales where they have also made their home.
But it all started with The Paddock Bakery at Burleigh Heads in 2013. Back then, they were total newbies to the hospitality game - Ben, a carpenter and self-taught baker, and Ursula, an interior designer - who turned a broken down 1950s weatherboard cottage into a charming haunt showcasing wood-fired sourdough.
Even Hugh Jackman couldn't resist.
"He rocked up in his board shorts, a wet shirt and a floppy kind of school-looking hat for
a cruffin and avo toast. He'd just come from the beach with his son," Ursula, 32, recalls.
"I explained what a big deal it was to have him at our bakery and would he mind taking a photo. We took a photo and then he put me on the phone to his wife and said, 'Deb, this is Ursula, she's the owner of Paddock …' And I was like, what the f***?
"That went viral and it was such a humbling experience for Ben and I because in small business you put your last dollar into something and then to have something like that happen is what you dream about, and it was part of that momentum that got us up and going."
They sold Paddock in 2017 "when the timing was right", and applied their winning formula to subsequent venues. And now, facing the worst of times in the hospitality business, they are doing all they can to continue serving delicious food and coffee (Marvell Street from Byron Bay, in case you are wondering) to keep their chefs and baristas in jobs. From a pre-COVID team of 89 they now have 59 staff members working across the three venues.
"It has been an emotional rollercoaster, as it has for everyone, but particularly in hospitality. With one food and beverage venue, I probably wouldn't be drinking as much wine but when you have three shops … you are anxious. There are definitely a few more wrinkles."
The hard slog begins at 4am for Ben, 34, with the rest of the day a tag-team effort of managing operations, made slightly easier now that sons Owen, 7, and Bob, 5, are back in school. Homeschooling was such a struggle the couple, quite simply, opted out.
"I tried for the first week and then I said, 'This is too much'. I think all teachers need a pay rise," Ursula says. "Those hours between 9am and 2.30pm are some of my favourites. It's amazing how much you can get done when you're totally focused and know you only have a short window to smash it out."
When not at school, the boys love playing with their red cattle dog Chook and zooming around the family's lush acre block on their Yamaha PeeWee motorbikes. Space to roam was just what Ursula and Ben had in mind when they moved to Chinderah from busy Palm Beach in 2017. They were looking to recreate in some way their own childhoods on acreage at Guanaba in the foothills of Mt Tamborine.
They wanted to give their "wild boys" that same sense of freedom, and found it in the sleepy village on the Tweed River. Cubby Bakehouse opened in Chinderah in December 2018 with a dual purpose - to delight customers, obviously, but also to save Ursula from having to cook.
"I can't cook an egg; that's just how it is. I just can't pull it together. So I said to Ben, 'You'll need to build me a bakery', which sounds really awful.
I probably didn't say it in those words … but it also gives us the opportunity to eat from the customer's perspective and pick up on things that are not quite right or could be better."
Surprisingly, given they grew up in close proximity and attended Somerset College at Mudgeeraba, along with Margot Robbie (more on that later), the two never crossed paths as youngsters. Ursula was 19 when she met Ben at a friend's party. They married in 2012 on a farm near Byron Bay, then owned by Ben's parents.
"It was in this beautiful big barn that Ben had built with his father. They milled the timber themselves. It's pretty special when you can get married in a space that was literally hand-built by Ben and his old man as a bit of a journey process. It was very low-key, just good friends and family."
Journeys have been a recurring theme in their life together. The pair visited France in 2017 so Ben, ahead of the Cubby Bakehouse opening, could learn the art of the baguette from master bakers, and to Portugal in 2019, where Ben learned how to make authentic custard tarts - the centrepiece of the Custard Canteen menu - from a fourth-generation baker in Lisbon.
"Ben is an amazing cook, self-taught, not a chef, but a perfectionist. For him, cooking is like building. You've got foundations and all these bits and pieces to pull it together. He did all the sourdough baking at Paddock - he was the baker for the first 12 months, seven days a week, crushing it."
Ursula first sampled Ben's sourdough on a nine-month camping trip to Far North Queensland and the Northern Territory in 2012. Taking a time-out from work, they packed up their ute, tinny and swags and went exploring. Ben had his own carpentry business at the time and Ursula was working for him - on the tools, like one of the boys - after being made redundant from her job at an interior design firm in Brisbane during the Global Financial Crisis. "It was remote camping, barramundi fishing, full of nature," she recalls.
"Ben grew up with a family who did crazy adventure camping, so for me it was very foreign but very amazing to experience the outback. We asked the question, 'What makes us happy?' And it was not doing carpentry for other people."
What made them happy was baking that bread in the camp oven, good coffee and brunching in cafes. So combining their design and building smarts with their love of food, they took the plunge with Paddock, settled on artisanal sourdough as their concept, and embarked on
a lengthy fit-out led by Ben with Ursula on design.
"The timing was right, the Gold Coast was ready for something different and it exploded. Not because we're any better than anyone else but because of the concept, the position of it, and the way we executed things a little differently. We came in with a fresh perspective."
That success led to the opening of Bam Bam Bakehouse in 2016 and the rest of their empire, but Ursula says it has taken a village - wonderful staff, plus grandparents who have looked after the children "for inappropriately long hours" - to make it happen.
"When you're all on the same wavelength and all together, you just punch through and we are really lucky to have met some great people. It's nice to surround yourself with inspiring people because ultimately it makes you better at what you do."
Among the great and the good has been Margot Robbie, the Somerset College alumni and Hollywood star, who held her hen's party - a pastry workshop - at Bam Bam Bakehouse just before her 2016 nuptials with Tom Ackerley.
"I knew her through mutual friends and she's possibly one of the most down-to-earth people you will ever meet and deserves all the success in the world," Ursula says. "We were stoked to have them there - it was a fun night, we did some great things behind the scenes."
The Watts have been to hell and back to keep their businesses viable during the pandemic. But they also know they are stronger together and the experience has brought them even closer as a couple.
"Positivity was hard to find, but we are there. There's always a silver lining. The good news is I have now perfected my margaritas so I feel like in the kitchen, with Ben being the cook, we are now the perfect pair. I knew something was always missing!"
Originally published as Meet the Gold Coast café queen… who can't cook