November 30, 2012

Not a One Hit Wonder

Cowbell 808, Bourke Street, Surry Hills

Memories long forgotten can be brought back in an instant when you see, smell or hear something from your distant past. Cowbell 808, a café Design Portfolio (DP) recently completed in Surry Hills, can reactivate the memory bank, taking you back to a time like none other – the 1980s.

Walking in the front door, you just may want to whip out your hair crimper, dust off your double denim, choose a record and relive a little.

Sean and Lennie, the owners of Cowbell 808, had this mind when they approached DP to help design the ‘80s themed café. They were drawn to the era because of the happy teenage memories it evoked and their love of ‘80s music.

“It was just a really creative time,” says Lennie.

Having a strong concept or theme can be important to the success of a café, helping to differentiate it from the competition. For several years, new cafés have gone for an industrial look – especially in Melbourne and Sydney inner city zones.

By “industrial”, I mean a simple palette of materials – concrete, recycled brick, a bit of plywood – then throw in a few second-hand chairs, a couple of factory pendant shades and you’ve got a warm, inviting interior.

Unfortunately, when everyone’s doing something, even a fresh idea grows stale, and the now ubiquitous is fast approaching its   use-by date. Cowbell 808 cleverly develops the industrial aesthetic, retaining elements so the design feels familiar, but drawing a layer of ‘80s references over the top.

This essentially only worked because the part of the decade Sean and Lennie are drawn to is the culture of ‘80s New York – grafittied subway trains, Hip Hop and street culture. It had a very raw, urban and edgy feel that melds well with the industrial look.

A major reference for how the design should look and feel was the cult ‘80s TV show 21 Jump St, which was about a bunch of cops that took over a church and turned it into their office. Cowbell 808 is similar, except it’s a couple of café owners who took over an old convenience store and turned it into a café, with the feel of a New York subway.

The first thing people see when entering the café is the graffiti mural. Painted in the style of the time, it’s very New York Hip Hop and quickly sets the scene, along with the subway tiles used on the walls. Apart from hearing the ‘80s music in the space, there are musical references everywhere. The front counter is lined with a shelf of Sean’s ever growing record collection, and space has been allocated on the walls for vintage boom boxes. To further create an ‘80s vibe, DP incorporated a wallpaper patterned with lightning bolts – a shape synonymous with the decade. All these elements make the space interesting and stand out.

The café opened in early August and customer reaction has been really positive, with people coming in just to “check out how cool it is”. Importantly, people are interacting with the space, choosing records to be played and sometimes even bringing their children in just to show them what a vinyl record looks like.

The space is also full of objects you can pick up and interact with, so each time there’s something new for customers to notice, whether it’s lego, the smurfs or the basketball hoop attached to a pole in the centre of the café.

“We didn’t choose [these bits of memorabilia] because they were cool; we chose them because we liked them,” says Lennie. “They are from our era and we relate to them, and the people who come in relate to them also.”

Interestingly, the café is proving to appeal to a wide range of clientele, from locals, business people and like-minded ‘80s drum machine fanatics, who understand where the name Cowbell 808 came from, to teenagers who weren’t even born in the ‘80s, but love the place’s energy.

The theme has also created a lot of buzz and media interest, with write ups on the café appearing on foodie blogs and a mention in The Sydney Morning Herald’s short black column in its first week.

While there are a lot of café and restaurant trends at the moment (particularly the one for South American street food that just won’t go away), Lennie insists they didn’t pick the 1980s because it was trendy.

“We did it because it was our love and passion,” she says. Having a strong concept or theme can be important to the success of a café, helping to differentiate it from the competition.

This would be evident to anyone who’s spent time in Cowbell and really helps make the experience real. When you’re there, you can feel that sense of fun, which is really what the ‘80s was all about. Hang out in Cowbell at the weekend, and the busy space will be crammed with an assorted crowd, enjoying the friendly atmosphere, familiar tunes on the record player and delicious smells wafting across from the open-plan kitchen and the coffee machine.

The real difference is that they aren’t jumping on a bandwagon; they’ve created something they really believe in and the customers seem to really respond to that.

When Lennie and Sean were scouting for a café location, they had three vital criteria.

“We wanted it to be within a suburb that had a culture and would appreciate what we had to offer,” says Lennie. “We also wanted a suburb where we could be part of a community.”

Being part of a community is essential for Cowbell, as it has helped word of mouth spread and engendered repeat visits.

“We love the fact that we have lots of people coming back over and over again,” says Lennie. “And then they bring their friends back, they bring their parents back, their brothers back and we get to know about their lives.”

The 1980s theme has helped them achieve this, because it so unique that people want to share the experience with others. Being part of a community has allowed the theme and the café’s reputation to travel more extensively by word of mouth.

So if you were to run with a strong theme or concept for your café, what would you go with? There are a lot of options to choose from, but to narrow it down, Lennie offers some great advice.

“If you are really passionate about something and it’s coming from the heart, then go with that,” says Lennie. “That’s what brings heart to a place and people often say they like coming here because there’s no attitude and there’s a great energy. You can’t buy that in a paint bucket. That comes when you really care about something.”

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