Ricardoes Tomatoes’ farm gate enterprise looks deceptively simple. Behind the scenes there’s experience, hard work – and big plans ahead, as co-owner Anthony Sarks reveals.
I’ve won a quiet hour of Anthony Sarks’s time, a big victory where a dynamo who prefers energetic activity is concerned: planting tomato, strawberry seedlings at dawn; plucking, sorting, packing fruit; running supplies to retailers from Kempsey to Laurieton; consulting chefs about jams, sauces and relishes; inventorying fresh food for Café Red; supervising menus; despatching consignments to Sydney, Newcastle; pitching farmers’ markets stands; calling growers of pumpkins and other vegies for his produce store; checking crop nutrients, foliage and greenhouse temperatures; ordering packing boxes and stock; assigning staff, hiring pickers, fixing cool rooms, greeting customers, running tours and so on. I’m across the table from an Eveready Bunny on ‘roids. Another rare occasion when Sarks hit Pause was for wife Carol’s birthday dinner, here last Saturday. But he was active behind the scenes: in cahoots with restaurateur Lou Perri, he secretly got the Sarks kids, Lydia, 22, and Anthony, 21, up from Sydney and smuggled them in through the kitchen as a surprise.
Ricardoes is owned and run jointly by Sarks and his brother Richard, the eponymous “Ricardo” of the company’s now widely-known brand. The pair’s worked happily together for near 30 years now, each bringing to a range of business enterprises his own complementary skills. Unassuming Anthony gives the impression of a knockabout bushie living on his wits but in fact had a classical education: boarding at Joey’s, then an ag science degree from Sydney Uni. Brought up on the land on his dad’s cattle, sheep and wheat property in western NSW, this man knows farming. There’ve been five Anthony Sarks so far. The second came to Australia from Lebanon, storekeeping in Coonabarabran in the State’s west. His son Anthony, Sarks’s dad, was born out west, married Mary and established a farm at Gulargambone, and a family of seven. It was a big change for Mary “and she remembers it well!” laughs Sarks. “A real Rose Bay, eastern suburbs, girl. Fell in love with Dad, married him, moved to the farm: no electricity! It was four or five years later the electricity came on.” Then: Amanda, first born, and Elizabeth (both married western NSW farmers), Anthony, Felicity, (married locally to Claude Cassegrain), Danny, Richard and Damian (a Sydney teacher, married a farmer’s daughter). Sadly, Danny died in a road accident in 1990.
“We all went to Gulargambone Convent [school],” Sarks recalls now, “the old St Joseph Sisters; they were the real nuns!” Real nuns? Yeah, you know, Sarks frames his hands as blinkers at each side of his face and peers out: “with the black habit”.
“It was a 45-minute bus trip to town; we lived a fair way out: typical farm kids, mustering sheep, working in the sheds, on the wheat harvest. Then we all went away to school; boys to Joeys, girls to Loreto Normanhurst. The family sold the farm and moved into a pub in Nevertire – the beginning of our life in hospitality! We all loved the pub, you’re resilient as a teenager … picking up glasses and sweeping floors.” After school: “Dad had had a farm accident so Mum and I ran the pub for 12 months – in at the deep end,” he reflects. Next came uni, living and working part-time in family pubs – no longer in the bush but Sydney’s Belmore Hotel and Paddington’s Bellevue. Sarks started work as a stock reporter on The Land newspaper “calling agents, getting the prices of bulls and steers”. After four years, including three in Dubbo covering the entire western region – crops, cattle, field days, picnic races – he decided the job wasn’t for him. “Couldn’t stand the deadlines!”. He’d met Carol – today teaching secondary school art – then a young teacher in Dubbo. It was 1982, the family had taken over the Macquarie Hotel here and bought 160ha at Blackmans Point. The newlyweds moved in to “a small rundown house on the land, all overgrown; you could hardly see it!”
It was the beginning of a lifetime in the Hastings that has many fascinating chapters, way too many for this page. In concert with his dad and Richard there were the pubs – also at Brunswick Heads and Laurieton, Lachlan’s nightclub and Benedict’s Restaurant. There was race horse breeding – “we had 18 at one stage” – syndicated among pub patrons, “racing locally mostly, but we were blessed with our fair share of winners. They were cheap, but winners! That was a lot of fun.” One favourite was Raised On Beer. True to name, the horse was fed the purple pill potion from the pub’s drip trays, decanted into flagons and mixed into his feed, and thrived on the malty diet. Next: a move into wildflowers, flannel flowers and Christmas bells and the ti-tree industry. While Sarks managed an adjacent plantation, his dad and brother raised more than eight million seedlings at Blackmans Point. The organic oil was highly sought after; thousands of litres a year were extracted and exported to Germany, Canada, Ireland, England. When that project finished, “we were left with our obsolete tunnel igloos” [the wavy white domes seen at the farm today]. They planted tomatoes, hung a sign, put out an honesty (“sometimes dishonesty“) box. “We picked some tomatoes – they tasted pretty damn good!” Word spread; soon they had 5600 plants; Fredo’s became the first customer “and the business sort of took off! Before long, demand exceeded supply”. But it was a crude operation. The brothers invested research and capital to achieve climate control and crop continuity. Now they hand-pick a million hydroponic vine-ripened tomatoes a year, voted NSW’s best at this year’s Sydney Show, and have expanded into U-pick strawberries, produce and souvenir store, Café Red, award-winning preserves and free farm tours. But, stand by, this enthusiastic entrepreneur can’t rest:
“Visitors want something else to do after they pick strawberries, so we’re putting in baby spinach, lettuce, bok choy and so on, so you can pick your own salad and Asian greens. By October school holidays we’ll have free range eggs and chooks – you know how toddlers love feeding chooks and running after chickens? It’s extending our See Touch Taste theme. Longer term we’ll plant fruit and nut trees, citrus, avocado, mango, blueberries, passionfruit, olives. We’ll offer visitors baskets and a golf-type buggy; they can cruise the orchard and pick whatever’s in season …”
Out to Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.
Story by Susie Boswell