With exceptional results on the world coffee stage over the past 10-15 years, Australia has come of age and is now known worldwide for its café culture. and It’s not just the southern states that are naming and claiming the rights for this new generation of café owners.
So Nick, how did you become involved in the café industry?
I’ve always been into food and hospitality, without knowing I was going to get into it professionally. I used to love cooking at home … having dinner parties. So, after school I took a gap year, and I took a barista course in Melbourne. I wanted to work in restaurants and get the skills that I needed to eventually have my own restaurant. But when I started with coffee, I became really intrigued by it and thought there was more to it. I got into contact with the winner of the Victorian Barista competition, Jesse Hyde, and worked in a café for him. Firstly I just washed dishes, but eventually he let me make coffees, and then I ran the coffee cart for a little while.
Do you think working for Jesse Hyde sparked your interest in owning a café?
The main reason I moved into hospitality is because I hated being in an office, and working at the café helped. I kept a diary while I was there and noted down every single thing I learnt, even if it was just cashing up tills. I knew that eventually I wanted to do my own thing, so I tried to understand the process of running a café. I asked heaps of questions.
Why did you choose to locate your café on the Gold Coast?
I was looking for a job on the Gold Coast when I moved up from Melbourne, and I couldn’t find a good café to work in that suited me. There were a couple of good single operators; however, they weren’t looking for people. If I wanted a good coffee, I’d drive all the way to Brisbane to this place called Cup Coffee Roasters. So, I started looking for a spot and noticed that there was never anywhere cool at uni to hang out. So I thought, “Why not Varsity?” I started enquiring about it, then it became a bit more real. That was January 2010.
How have you gone about expanding the business?
Things evolved for me. Once my first café succeeded, I felt confident in opening in other areas and presenting different experiences for my customers. Now I have Blackboard, Blackboard Coffee Roasters and ESPL Coffee Brewers. They’re all very unique. They each have an individual identity – a different feel. Each one reflects the identity of the staff – mainly the chefs and the managers.
Why did you call this particular café Blackboard?
The reason behind the name, Blackboard, is a forever changing clean slate. The business prides itself on knowing where things come from. I think that quality and sustainability is key. It is so important to know the provenance of your food, and taking pride in where it comes from is really important. You know how your food is being treated and how it is being looked after. It means better quality of the food. And that way, you are able to support the local community.
Do you feel that food is more important than coffee in today’s cafés?
Probably equally. Food is obviously more involved. It is difficult to source everything locally, but the benefits are great. I think the most important thing is being able to present a meal that tastes amazing. The product and the service and the environment really make an impact on the customer. It is beneficial for us to do the locally sourced ingredients, but the experience still needs to be there.
What is the most important thing for you about coffee?
Freshness. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about seasonality. The coffee knowledge I received from the people down in Melbourne was to treat coffee as an ingredient. Around the world, there are different areas where coffee is in season, and big coffee companies tend to have 2-3 years’ worth of stock in their warehouse. But specialty coffee roasters like us constantly buy coffee throughout the year from different places where it is in season. That means there is high sugar content coming from the fruit, which makes the coffee taste so sweet and fresh when you roast it. It is extremely flavoursome.
Where do you see the industry going?
It’s not just about the coffee anymore. It is about the holistic experience of cafés: the staff, the food and the coffee, and the story behind it. Social media is also having a definite impact on the industry. For example, we did dinners for a while and we posted it up on Instagram, and as soon as we posted it, we were booked out. It really does have a direct impact. We use Instagram to market our cafés. It is really important for social media to relate to exactly the experience that you get in the café. The floor manager does the Instagram for the day. That way, they are posting something specific to the day.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
I would love to expand the wholesale side. There is still growth in the market for cafés, particularly on the Gold Coast. We can see opportunities to assist others with the tools they need to open up cafés.
Finally, Nick, what is your favourite coffee?
It depends on my mood. I either drink a flat white, an espresso or a filter coffee.