On the day Spotlight, Officeworks and about half-a-dozen national retailers opened in Albion Park Rail a fortnight ago, excited shoppers could barely find a park.
But there was one shop that was still filled with cardboard boxes and plastic wrap.
Bench 10, the second cafe from Saltwater Kiama owner Gulcin Topel, was meant to be serving coffee and pastries for the grand opening of the long-awaited Park Central in Albion Park Rail.
But when her builder disappeared, after she had paid $90,000 toward the fit out he was contracted to undertake, Ms Topel is now relying on the goodwill of local tradies in a race against the clock to open before Christmas.
A new location
At her busy cafe on Terralong Street, Ms Topel faces the same challenge every year in retaining good staff outside of the peak holiday period.
Particularly after the pandemic, Ms Topel knew she needed another location.
"Summertime is great, I can give lots of shifts, but in winter, I'm losing people," she said.
After being approached by the team leasing Park Central in Albion Park Rail, Ms Topel believed she had found the location she was looking for.
"I was trying to get into Albion Park and Shellharbour and it was also a good deal, with no competition."
With the newly built shop nearly ready to go, all Ms Topel needed to do was a simple fit-out and she could open, retaining the staff she feels are like family.
"The main thing is to give [my staff] more shifts, not to lose any more, because it's too hard to find people, especially in Kiama."
Design and construct
For the fit-out, Ms Topel engaged Wollongong-based commercial interior design and builder Allspace Design, led by Endre Horvath.
Only a few days after emailing the business with an outline of her requirements, Allspace Design and Ms Topel signed on to a $96,000 contract in August.
"Allspace [would carry out] the design, construct, everything."
After the first payment of nearly $10,000 was made, Allspace was meant to start work, but not long after was asking for additional payments to be made.
As a business owner herself, Ms Topel understood how issues with cash flow can hold up a project, and was prepared to pay Allspace additional amounts to get the project moving.
But as the requests continued into September and little progress was being made, Ms Topel began to have a feeling in her gut that something was not right.
"He was just coming saying you have to order, you have to pay me," she said.
By October, Mr Horvath was asking for the balance of the payment to be made, prior to major works beginning on the cafe, Ms Topel said.
This was too much for Ms Topel, who asked for receipts from equipment purchases and other evidence to give her confidence that her project was moving along.
"I emailed him, (asking) can you please provide the breakdown, itemised invoice, what's going on?"
Without this evidence, Ms Topel refused to provide any further payments.
With the project at a stalemate, Ms Topel engaged a lawyer to try to get the project back on track.
But then, Mr Hovath and Allspace Design disappeared.
The company's website went down and the company's social media was scrubbed clean.
Branding on the business's premises on Auburn Street, Coniston had also been removed.
"He's gone," Ms Topel said.
The Mercury attempted to contact Allspace Design and Mr Horvath, but the company's phone line was disconnected and emails to the company address bounced.
Ms Topel is looking for answers.
As Ms Topel's lawyer begins to investigate what can be recovered through the courts, a NSW Police spokesperson said police were investigating an alleged fraud incident and, at the time of publication, inquiries were ongoing.
Having already sunk nearly $90,000 into the fit-out, Ms Topel is determined to open before Christmas.
In a positive twist, a team of plumbers, electricians and hospitality equipment specialists who have seen what has occurred have stepped in to help, completing the work on an IOU basis.
It is this support and the promises she made to staff members that is keeping Ms Topel going, but she knows she won't be the only one in this situation.
"If it's happened to Saltwater, it can happen to anyone else."