During the weekdays, Smithfield, a southwestern suburb of Sydney, is a roaming ground for large trucks that are making pick up and drop off deliveries for nearby industrial business parks. On the weekends, the roads become secluded, but that’s also when Holland House is at its busiest.
Husband and wife John and Anita van Altena have been running Holland House, a Dutch retail store and café in Smithfield for the last 50 years. The façade of the building has been designed to replicate the charm of Dutch architecture with its gambrel style roof and white-framed colonial windows.
Inside, the café has been decorated with Dutch trinkets from posters to hanging pots and pans. It serves up traditional Dutch affair such as croquettes and herring. Meanwhile, the retail is well stocked with Dutch goods from sweets to everyday pantry items including frozen food, as well as furniture.
“It’s a little bit of Holland in Australia,” Anita told Community Table.
Many of the store’s customers, like the owners themselves, are Dutch expats.
At one point during the early days when the store was getting started, it was a reunion point for many.
“We had people from three or four states who came out together on the same ship; we’ve had so many tears rolling as it was so nice for them to see each other after 10 or 15 years,” Anita said. “We’ve had a few nice Christmases here when we were little, but we don’t do it anymore because we’re just too busy.”
When asked whether the pair is still home sick, Anna said after 50 years living in Australia it no longer crosses their mind, but during the first few years it was a little different.
“[Moving to Australia] was more than just a culture shock; in those days Australia was really behind. We looked for a flat — because a flat in Holland are all these big home units — but when we looked here you wouldn’t even put your chickens in there half the time.
“We thought we can’t live here but we eventually found a house; but it wasn’t easy. I could have crawled home the first five years. I also lost my mother six months after I came here so it wasn’t very nice. You just carry on with a very determined husband.”
The couple moved to Australia in 1965 after John decided to remain committed to the five-year contract he had signed with a merchant navy crew.
“If you break that contract then you have to go into the navy, and he did not feel like that so we asked permission to migrate [to Australia]. He wrote me a letter from Singapore to ask if I wanted to go to Australia. I was like, ‘Where the hell is Australia? You’ve heard of it but it was so far away, and 50 years ago it was only a dot on the map,” Anita said.
“I said that’s fine, but let’s get married first because I need a bit of security. John came back, we got married in Holland, and six weeks later we left.”
The decision to first open the store came after the couple noticed there was an opportunity to sell imported furniture from the Netherlands that was being stored in their warehouse – the same building in which the store and café is located today. Their initial sales were made during a Holland festival, which helped cement the idea to open a small shop out front of the warehouse.
“My husband came up with the idea to put a little shop in the front. Everybody said: ‘You’re mad it’s a dead end street. Who is going to come here?’ But we thought it was worth the try because anything was better than nothing,” Anita explained.
She added they lured customers in by setting up a mini coffee shop, initially offering free coffee, and then later charging 75 cents per cup.
“From there things grew and everybody was amazed that we did get people here. There wasn’t as much in the first year, but we weren’t at a loss. We grew very slowly, but there was progress,” she said.
But even after all these years of trading, Anna said they are still learning the tricks of the trade when it comes to importing food items and balancing that with expiration dates.
“We do struggle with out of dates. Sometimes you get a shipment with a week left…and that’s a big problem but that’s something you can’t control,” Anita said.
“It’s hard to pick the right amount, too. Sometimes you think you’ve got it right and you order more and then suddenly no one wants it. After all of these years you still don’t know what you’re doing.”
But what’s on Anita’s mind these days is retirement, but says John, on the other hand, continues to push on.
“I think he will die here. I told him that but he doesn’t believe me,” she smiled.