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Who and Why We Are

29th February, 2016

I often get asked the question, “Where does the name Clever Polly’s come from?”. Or, more frequently, as I’m pouring a glass of wine, “so… you’re Polly, right?” to which I reply “No but I can tell you the story if you’d like?”. Invariably this offer is met with an affirmative answer – I can only think of one occasion where someone said no and I’m not sure that they heard me correctly.

It’s a real source of fascination for a lot of people I guess, because the story behind the name is not obvious when you first hear it. And you come into this place and often get served by a chick who looks a lot like the face on the business card so it seems obvious that this must be Polly and it’s her place…right?

Not so. I’m Lou and the other owners of Clever Polly’s are Rohan, my brother, and Anita, his wife.

Polly is a little girl in a book called Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf that the name was inspired by. The premise of the book is that there is a big bad wolf that’s trying to eat Polly and she manages to outsmart the wolf every time. It’s a collection of stories really, written by Catherine Storr for her daughter, Polly, and pays homage to Little Red Riding Hood. We wanted a name that would indirectly reference our decision to support small producers doing smart, interesting things, ahead of the big industry players. So it became an obvious choice for us, especially as we liked the humour in the stories and the way that the name rolls off the tongue.

Long before Clever Polly’s was conceived though, I had had the idea of doing something along these lines- a small, community-minded place with a focus on excellent, crafted, wine, food, and beer. I had a particular place that I loved in mind when dreaming of this but the question always was, “What could I do better? If it was mine, what would I improve on?” the answer to which was always to focus on the product and the service- but I absolutely loved the casual, friendly vibe. To me, it always felt like being in someone else’s house and that is absolutely what I wanted to re-create when dreaming up Clever Polly’s, a place where you could relax and discover new things, either by yourself or with friends and family.

A few years passed. I finished my degree, then had to make a choice between working as a scientist or continuing with hospitality. Hospitality had been my bread and butter since I moved out of home at 16. Having been working in the industry that long, I guess it kind of got under my skin. I couldn’t stand the thought of being stuck in a lab or an office away from people, so I started to ask myself how I could have the best of both worlds- people, coffee, food, and wine, plus the opportunity to use my education to (hopefully) make the world a better place. At the same time, I was managing a café and putting together my first wine list, wine having been an interest of mine for a few years that I had never seriously pursued. But I had so much fun writing the list and meeting winemakers, hearing their stories and then sharing them with staff and customers that I started to think, hey! what if I got to do this as a part of my full time job?

And that’s how Clever Polly’s was born.

We all grew up in agriculture. Rohan’s and my parents moved to the country when I was born, Anita’s parents worked as consultants- so we all grew up on the land and around people who farmed it. Rohan always knew that he would be in agriculture one way or another so he studied agribusiness, Anita also studied agribusiness which is how they met. I, however, resisted the pull of the land for a long time, with my sights set on a journalism career when I first went to University. I told myself that I didn’t want to follow in my parents footsteps. They were both scientists who decided in the early 80’s to pursue a sea change and move to the country to become farmers.

Journalism didn’t last long for me though- within my first year I’d resigned myself to the fact that I’d been brought up to think like a scientist, so that’s what I pursued when I moved to Melbourne. However, I wanted to do something that was a little more encompassing of some of the bigger sustainability issues that were already on my mind, so I enrolled in Environmental Science at Monash.

And, wouldn’t you know it, but I ended up focusing on agricultural sustainability for my honours thesis.

Doing interviews for my thesis, I met some amazing, interesting, and inspiring people who I dearly wanted to help in any way that I could. Perhaps my most incredible discovery was how much people would give up for something they believed in especially farmers. When you’re young, I think it feels a little scary to give up things that are considered the norm, but then I think that your ideas and your focus grow, it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice anymore, simply a way of life.

There were two overwhelming problems that I found in regard to my thesis, one being that there was no consistent view in the industry about what sustainability meant. The second was that there was a real feeling of disconnect between the industry and the end consumer- particularly for producers. Me being me, I thought ok, I’ve found two major problems, now how do I fix them?

I think that education is the answer to the first problem- having conversations, debates, steering people towards good reading material or even just asking them questions that might make them think about what true sustainability means.

But I feel that the disconnect between producer and consumer is an even greater issue, and one that in fact feeds the lack of knowledge or thought that goes into sustainability issues amongst the general public and those in positions of power. If you don’t see that your food is produced by a real person, on a real farm, with a real family, how could you possibly realise that in order for their life to be sustainable (because agriculture is a way of living, not just a production system), there are a range of factors that need to be taken into consideration? I think this is all just common sense really- sustainability is all about finding that natural balance in life and applying it across the board to many different things, but when we talk about it in science or geography, we talk about the three pillars- environmental, social, and cultural factors. Perhaps a little basic but a concept that I think more people should be exposed to- one system cannot exist harmoniously without balance in the other.

Having talked about these issues with Rohan and then Anita, we discovered that we were on the same page and would all like to do something to bridge the gap between the concept of sustainable agriculture and the reality of agriculture in Australia.

Clever Polly’s is that bridge. One of the biggest problems that we feel agriculture in Australia faces is the level of control that two large companies have over the industry at both the production and the consumption level. Rohan and Anita returned to our family farm after a few years working elsewhere when they finished their respective degrees so feel the squeeze of the supermarket duopoly on a daily basis. Our first thought was to try to counteract this somehow.

The answer seemed to be to focus on small producers, who were doing interesting things, making unique and interesting things, with the long-term future in mind. Perhaps if we could share their story, people would become engaged with theirs and would give them support, pay better prices for food when they saw what it costs these tiny producers to make real produce with flavour and integrity?

So that’s what we do- we support small, artisan producers, who do amazing, wonderful things. We seek out people who work hard to improve the land and the community, with integrity and purpose. This is pertinent not only to wine but also to food.

When I started out with this project, I felt confident that I was doing something good with all our knowledge and experience with agriculture and sustainability, with the right motivations in mind. But in all other ways, I felt sorely under-equipped. I thought I didn’t know enough about wine, didn’t know the right people in the food industry, I had very few direct connections with food or wine producers in Victoria. I know that my business partners maybe felt the same for themselves but they put their trust in me to make it work.

In the last two and a half years, since I first started writing the wine list and approaching food wholesalers or producers, this has changed completely. We now have amazing relationships with many of the wine producers in Australia whose wines we stock. We’ve made friends of importers, distributors, other sommeliers and chefs. And of course our regulars and locals, many of whom I and our staff know on a first-name basis, plus all the people from all over the world who come to visit – Clever Polly’s now has a rocking community that grows a little bit bigger and better every day.
In my mind, when I dreamt it up Clever Polly’s, it was a little tiny wine bar that served modest food and wines that I loved to a local crowd. We most certainly do that and will continue to do that, but somewhere along the line, it seems to have grown into something more- I think it kind of stands for something that people can easily recognise, a little bastion of joy and hope, where we can dream and aspire and create. It’s a place where anything and everything is possible- there are no limitations to what we can achieve.

It hasn’t been an easy two years- there have been lots of changes as we’ve redefined our concept and scope but Clever Polly’s is here to stay. We now know who we are and what we can do. We hold regular tastings in the store. We have excellent, dedicated staff who love that their job requires them to think and engage with produce, where it comes from and how it’s made and then share this with our guests. We run workshops on a monthly basis, which we would love to see children involved in. Since we opened, I’ve always made a point of encouraging our staff- from sommeliers and chefs right through to kitchen hands- to visit wineries with me, get to know producers, understand who they are and what’s special about them. This year, our head chef and I will collaborate with other chefs and winemakers overseas.

We’ve also started making our own wines this year, and have committed to managing our own vineyard in the Yarra Valley (more on this in a later post). Gradually, we’ll start growing our own produce, curing our own meats, making our own cheese, even rearing our own livestock. We will continue to supplement this with products from small, local producers. We’ll make more wines, continue to dream, travel overseas together and be inspired, learn. Our greatest hope is that Clever Polly’s will make the world a better place through all that it is and becomes- now and in the long-term.

By Lou