Castlemaine’s newest café had been open for four days before the second Victorian lockdown came into force. For many owners, it might be the first and final sign that opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic was a mistake, but not for photographer and filmmaker Isabella (Bell) Doherty. Bell co-runs Cream Town – a café, art gallery and social enterprise precinct – with her partner, brother, sister and parents.

Launching a new venture during lockdown isn’t new for Bell, who quickly set up a website selling prints from Australian artists when the news initially hit that galleries would be closed for at least a few months due to coronavirus. Cream Town (a name inspired by the cream that rises to the top of milk) began as a “quick fix” to directly support artists who had been financially impacted by COVID-19.

“We launched on March 19 2020 with 30 artists and by the start of May we had 200 artists,” Bell says. “We’ve now sold $100K worth of art. Lots of artists have expressed numerous times that being part of Cream Town as an art collective has made a huge difference to how they’ve experienced the pandemic. It’s meant they’ve had support and it’s given them something to look forward to and be excited about.”

Although the café component of Cream Town has only recently opened, the idea of the hub has been germinating for many years. “One of my family’s collective dreams has been to create an arts and social enterprise precinct that also reflects the food we eat and the producers we support,” says Bell. It’s this mix that makes Cream Town unique. “For a long time, we’ve been trying to find ways to tie together regenerative agriculture, food education, media and the arts,” Bell says. “I come from a family of musicians, artists and photographers but we have a strong farming background too.”

The menu is prepared by chef Alex Perry from Situation Dining and has a strong focus on ethically-sourced, local and organic produce. “The menu is constantly changing,” says Bell. “Castlemaine and the greater region have an abundance of good food and we are excited to really showcase this region’s beautiful produce.”

Inside, the décor of Cream Town is immediately welcoming – from the light-filled rooms and lush indoor plants to the restored timber furniture. “I know so many people are feeling down at the moment, so I wanted to create a space that is beautiful, fresh and full of life,” says Bell. “For me, being surrounded by plants and beautiful things has a positive impact on my mental health and I hope it can positively affect other people’s mental health too.”

Despite the pandemic and lockdown, Bell is thinking ahead. “My family have lived on Dja Dja Wurung country for 150 years so it’s really important we connect with that,” she says. “We pay the rent so that $5 of every online order goes to Seed Mob and Blaq Mob, and we are working with Nalderun (a Aboriginal service that supports the Aboriginal community) to offer hospitality training once the café is back up and running again at full capacity.” Cream Town also pays 5% of their monthly rent to Nalderun.

Cream Town brings to Castlemaine what Bell calls a DIT (Do It Together) philosophy. “This is a hub for multiple enterprises,” she says. “We support progressive food producers, a regenerative economy and the arts. I feel excited about the future. If you’re going to be at work every day you need to create a place that makes you and others happy.”

And there’s little doubt that Cream Town does that for Bell and the community surrounding her impressive new enterprise.

Words by Lindy Alexander