Noosa News article with Rohan Schneider and Jane Stephenson pictured, owners of Tric Tracs restaurant, 1988.
Noosa News article with Rohan Schneider and Jane Stephenson pictured, owners of Tric Tracs restaurant, 1988.

Pilot's unlikely purchase became a Cooroy landmark

HE was looking for a hundred acres with a shack on it, but Rohan Schneider ended up with a derelict butter factory in the middle of Cooroy.

It was 1985 and Rohan, a pilot who worked in Papua New Guinea, was looking for "somewhere to hide” when he wasn't at work.

But after six months touring the region with real estate agent Harry Roach on weekends, he hadn't found anything he liked.

The old Cooroy Butter Factory was for sale, and on a whim Harry took Rohan there.

It had an abandoned feel to it, and only had two tenants, Rohan said, but something about it caught his imagination.

It was right in the centre of Cooroy, and had a railway line running right to it.

The Sunshine Coast was once serviced well by railway, and many dairy farmers dropped their milk to the nearest depot for transport to the butter factory.

The Wide Bay Dairy Co-op, which established the factory in 1915 for local dairy farmers, closed in 1975.

Rohan had seen restaurant trains before and could imagine old wooden train carriages here, spilling people and the smell of good food into the night air.

Cooroy Butter Factory, as purchased by Rohan Schneider in 1985
Cooroy Butter Factory, as purchased by Rohan Schneider in 1985 Rohan Schneider

His partner at the time, Jane Stephenson, was a chef and while Rohan was no restaurateur, she was keen to get an eatery going if he could find carriages and fix them and the rest of the place up.

"I thought, if I got the restaurant project going up front and got the butter factory going with some different tenants, or more tenants, I could probably make it all pay for itself,” he said.

He and Jane bought it for $110,000, records on the Butter Factory Arts Centre website show.

Rohan said locals had been suspicious of "who this outsider was”, but being from a small town in Victoria himself, he delighted in "stirring the pot”.

"I used to just make up stories,” he said. "The more bizarre the better.”

He told people he was planning to test a new form of gunpowder at the site, and "all manner of other fibs”.

Soon after the purchase, as he was starting to wonder where to find some carriages to use, Rohan overhead a man at the old Eumundi Tea House talking about a railway carriage he'd bought from Queensland Rail.

"They were burning the bl--dy things down in Ipswich - Redbank,” he said.

Rohan and his mum went to the Queensland Rail yard at Redbank and among "acres and acres of carriages” found about 10 to buy for the new restaurant, which he and Jane called Tric Tracs when it opened 18 months later.

The train carriages cost him $15,000, and Queensland Rail reluctantly agreed to construct a special train and transport them to Cooroy in the middle of winter.

They arrived to much fanfare, Rohan said, with the community interested in what was to become of the landmark butter factory.

"We all arranged to get on the train at Eumundi and I think half of Cooroy went down there to get on board on this winter's morning,” Rohan said.

"We rode it up the range and into Cooroy.

"I think Cooroy had never seen anything like this circus that rolled into town - we had TV cameras, radio guys, all the local newspapers.

"Then we offloaded the carriages ... and the work started.”

He used four carriages for the restaurant and the rest were dismantled for parts to restore the others.

Rohan Schneider, pilot and former owner of the Cooroy Butter Factory
Rohan Schneider, pilot and former owner of the Cooroy Butter Factory

Tric Tracs offered a fixed menu, a five-course meal usually starting with locally caught fish.

While the restaurant only lasted a few years, first under Jane and his management as Tric Tracs, and then under tenants Brian Jackson and Rob Rolfe as Passengers, Rohan looks back on the period fondly.

"People came from around the Coast,” he said.

"Food critics and newspaper writers were pretty friendly towards us.”

People would remember the theatre nights, he said, where diners dressed up and joined in for ad-lib versions of Murder on the Orient Express and other popular films.

A pottery business run by Dick Bradley moved in in 1985 and used most of the old butter factory building, but both the restaurant and the pottery vacated a few years later.

Over time, the poor state of the building was uncovered and in 1990 it was condemned. Rohan said he calculated the cost of repairs needed to satisfy Noosa Council's requests and couldn't afford it. There was a suggestion it should be demolished but he didn't want to do that.

"Someone started a rumour that I was going to demolish it. This little group started a campaign - Save the Butter Factory. It turned into a bit of a firestorm and eventually I guess Noosa Shire took notice.”

Noosa Shire Council bought it in 1991, investing in its repair and establishing it as a gallery, arts and community hub that is now open to the public.

Cooroy Butter Factory now a thriving arts centre

Carol Watkins was in the State Emergency Services for 13 years and it's not her nature to give up.

It's just as well, the chair of Cooroy Butter Factory Arts Centre management committee says, because taking over the space and making it earn its keep has been a tough gig.

Carol and a team of passionate volunteers and paid staff now run the old butter factory, which was handed to her organisation - Cooroy Future Group - in 2015.

Since they reopened it in 2016 the space has broadened its offerings, transforming from a gallery where exhibiting was free to artists to a multi-purpose arts space, community centre, an artisan shop where makers pay to exhibit and sell their wares.

"Everyone said, 'you'll never get anyone to pay' ... and we also had to charge a commission,” Carol said.

But the exhibition spaces are now completely booked out until 2019 and have been booked out a year ahead since the centre reopened.

"We had to commercialise it or it would fall over,” she said.

"We have paid staff.”

The success of the arts centre's commercialisation strategy hinged on the huge growth in visitor numbers, she said.

"Growth has been exponential,” she said. "We're having about 10,000 people through a year, which is pretty good for a little town like Cooroy.”

The arts centre's team is skilled with social media, she said, and grows the centre's following through Instagram, Facebook and other channels.

An artisan store sells wares of 36 local artists, and cash flow also comes from spaces that are rented out, an annual grant from Noosa Shire Council, and membership from the Butter Factory Friends group.

"We take no money, only our staff get money,” she said.

"So we need that money to run the place.”