In her 20 years of living in Australia Claudia Ait-Touati has never had to travel far to see the country. Instead, it has come to her.

Truck drivers, work commuters, intrepid travellers — they all stop at her Waffles & Jaffles shop on the Dukes Highway connecting Adelaide and Melbourne.

It is hard to miss the shop with its red, yellow and black flags, bicycle decor and the Belgian-Dutch infused Aussie slang coming from behind the counter.

While Coonalpyn may seem like an unusual location to find authentic Liege waffles, Ms Ait-Touati, who moved from Belgium, insists there was plenty to attract her young family back in 2007.

“When you first move in here you wouldn’t think it’s very accepting,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

Claudia Ait-Touati has been selling waffles from this shop for the past six years.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

They had been living in Brisbane for six years when visa issues forced the Ait-Touatis to relocate to South Australia under a state sponsorship.

They settled in Coonalpyn, a dusty town of 350-odd people with “all the facilities”; a school, a pool, and — back then — broadband internet.

It is here Claudia and her husband, Rachid, have raised their family, an unexpected waffle empire and a therapy snail farm to assist Australians living with dementia and disability.

Accidental success

If there was any business plan for the waffle “business” it was to help their son, Chabane Ait-Touati, buy a laptop.

Challenged by the limited income opportunities for 12-year-olds, his parents suggested he start a stall selling waffles, like the ones from his dad’s hometown of Liege.

Mr Ait-Touati had himself found success selling oliebollena Dutch doughnut popular on New Year’s Eve — at school fetes in Brisbane after all.

“So we bought a waffle iron and just started at markets first and then a little stall on the highway,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

Chabane first sold waffles with his dad, Rachid, in 2011 and managed to save enough money for a laptop, and an overseas holiday.(Supplied: Claudia Ait-Touati)

The stall quickly went from a weekend gig to a four-day-a-week affair. Three years after that first stall they bought the shopfront they still work out of today.

With the business growing so quickly, they had to adapt fast.

“We had to learn so many new skills and put systems in place to make it work for us, like finding the right POS [Point of Sale] system … or finding the right equipment or ingredients at the right price,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

On a busy day the shop can see a few hundred people stop by for a waffle or jaffle along the Dukes Highway.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

With every challenge has come a love for the shop.

“We get all sorts of interesting stories,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

This week she had a customer who expressed his keenness to bring his Belgian business partner to the shop. Turns out he was a regular at the pub Ms Ait-Touati managed for 10 years in Belgium.

The shop has been a welcome surprise for the many Dutch — and non-Dutch — speakers that have stumbled on authentic Liege waffles “in the middle of nowhere”.

Not just refreshments, the shop acts as a rest spot for the popular stretch of highway between Adelaide and Melbourne.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Crafting the perfect waffle

It took the Ait-Touatis a whole year to recreate the waffles they had come to miss so much.

“There’s a lot of recipes floating online, so we started with that but weren’t really satisfied,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

“It had to be exactly how we remember it.”

Crunchy on the outside and soft inside.

It took Claudia and Rachid Ait-Touati a whole year to come up with the right waffle recipe.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“Some people think it’s dry because it’s crunchy, but it needs to have that crunch because of that sugar,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

While they offer an array of toppings for the largely Australian crowd, the Ait-Touatis normally go plain.

“[In Liege], you go to the train station and you pick up a waffle from the food van … you just eat it from your hand,” she said.

The couple have introduced jaffles, toasted sandwiches for those who want a savoury option.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

‘The opportunities here are massive’

Growing up watching the television series, Skippy, and hearing stories from her two uncles who lived in Victoria, Claudia “always” wanted to live in Australia.

So when it came to finding a home for her own family, she and Rachid made the move.

Even after running a pub and second-hand furniture store, the Ait-Touatis were faced with limited employment opportunities back home.

“If you didn’t have a degree and 20 years of experience or were 20 years old … it was quite hard to get a foot in the door,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

Claudia Ait-Touati managed a Belgian pub for 10 years.(Supplied: Claudia Ait-Touati)

More than work opportunities, they yearned for wide-open spaces to raise their two boys, then 10 months and six years old.

“It was more a change in lifestyle, to give the kids an opportunity to build their own life, to own a house, have space … we’ve got that here,” she said.

“It would be good to have more people here sometimes, or more businesses, but it’s an awesome community.”

Just 60 kilometres from nearby Tailem Bend, Coonalpyn is home to about 350 people.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

When they moved to Australia, Ms Ait-Touati continued to work as a freelance translator, but her husband — a handyman — was unemployed.

“[But] once we moved there, work opportunities basically came knocking on our door,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

“As long as you want to work there is a lot of work available, you shouldn’t be picky.”

In his 14 years in the town, Mr Ait-Touatis has worked as the Coonalpyn Primary School bus driver and groundsmen, as well as a swimming pool operator and the local caravan park manager.

Cultivating a care farm

The Ait-Touatis have also spent the past several years establishing a small snail farm for people living with disability and dementia.

“It’s a concept which is really big in Europe … if you have social care needs you can come to a care farm and work within the farm team to do all the jobs that need to be done,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

Claudia Ait-Touati (left) with visitors at her snail care farm in Coonalpyn in 2017.(ABC: Laura Waldhuter)

Inspired by her own dad’s journey with Alzheimer’s, and his transformation through a care farm in Holland, Ms Ait-Touatis hopes they can help others in a similar way.

“He was sitting there in his home just looking outside and being very depressed,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

“Then he went to the farm and completely changed, he was the happiest I’ve ever seen him.”

Ms Ait-Touati spends any free time she has studying for her Bachelors in Dementia Care from the University of Tasmania.

Part of the proceeds from Claudia Ait-Touati’s waffle shop go towards the care farm.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“The study kind of helps almost with the feeling of guilt,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

The next step

The couple are currently working out how to progress with the care farm while managing the demands of a continuously growing business.

“It’s just trying to work out how we somehow get funding, from the government or somewhere, to put a manager on the farm or something like that,” Ms Ait-Touati said.

But — like adjusting to challenges with the business — they are not too worried.