I'd like to take a minute, just sit right there, I'll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air!
In all seriousness, I am sure that nearly everyone has thought about starting and owning their own business one day. It is a dream that only a few people get to realize and even fewer have success in. I have always known that I would eventually end up owning my own business and working for myself. It has been something that I've always wanted so I'd like to take a minute, just sit right there, I'll tell you how I became the owner of a café called The Grounds of Alexandria!
Like many in the hospitality industry I started out as a dish-hand, washing dishes and cleaning floors. Eventually, I moved up to the front of house and became a barista. I still distinctly remember the day that I was shown how to take a portafilter out of the espresso machine and dose my first coffee. I recall the rawness of the scalding hot espresso machine, the smell of the ground coffee and the feeling of creating something so simple yet so complex. This is when my job became more than a job, it became a passion, something I loved doing for a living. In many ways, that was the defining moment of my love for this industry and the first step of many towards my dream.
My journey started in 2003, when coffee information was not readily available online. YouTube wasn't born until early 2005, so it was difficult to find videos on coffee preparation and there were only a handful of websites that allowed us to share information. In fact, I relied heavily on newsgroups and CoffeeGeek for any queries I had on coffee.
After working in several places here in Sydney, I decided that it was time to broaden my horizon and learn other perspectives on coffee that the Internet didn't provide. I packed up in 2004, when I was only 19, and travelled overseas in search of coffee knowledge. I spent majority of my time in Vancouver, Canada, working at Caffe Artigiano with Sammy and Vince Piccolo (ed.note: the Piccolos are no longer associated with Artigiano; Vince Piccolo currently owns 49th Parallel Coffee and Sammy Piccolo owns Prado Cafe in Vancouver). They were kind enough to offer me a position at their café as trainer for their staff.
During my time at Artigiano I learnt so much about coffee and so much about myself. It really gave me a new perspective on coffee and a different outlook on what it takes to own your own café. The thing that struck me the most was realizing that passion and enthusiasm wasn't enough. It was dedication and persistence that made a business successful and long lasting. Sadly, the majority of people spend their lives working for a company and never experience what it is to be on the other side.
Sammy and Vince gave me insight into what it takes to own your own dream. Without fail, every morning for the year I was there Vince would be standing behind the bar at 8am until 9am and he would be off to another location to do the same, serving customers and ensuring that everything was of the highest quality. There were standards and systems set for everything we did. He expected nothing but the best from his staff and it was truly an inspiration to witness.
Sammy and I trained for months in preparation for his preparation for the World Barista Championships. His relentlessness and persistence meant that almost everyday he was running through his routine. Like most passionate baristas, I really appreciated this level of attention to detail and perfectionism. However, it was his dedication and, again, persistence, which really changed my perception on what it really takes to be your own boss.
In 2007, after many months of my own training and practice, I won the Australian Latte Art Championships and eventually the World Latte Art Championships in the same year at the age of 21. I felt for the first time in a long time that through dedication and persistence I had achieved something.
Of course reaching this point wasn't easy. There were lots of doubters who said: «He's too young!» or «He doesn't have enough experience.» These comments were upsetting at first, however, I soon realized that it actually fuelled me to succeed even more and become even better. This later became a valuable tool in starting my first business.
The new beginning
On the back of the successful competition, I finally took the plunge and started Jack and the Bean Boutique Coffees aiming to supply cafes and espresso bars with my own signature blend of coffee. I figured, as I was still relatively young, I had time on my side. I figured I could afford to start a business and see what I could make of it, as this was always my goal even though to many it would have made more sense to work for someone else.
Having spent all of my savings on competing totalling around $10,000AUD for the purchase of grinders, cups, tools etc., I moved back to my parent's house and began this business in my bedroom. I was back to square one.
After speaking to my roaster and mentor, George Sabados, he agreed to help me and accepted no payment for my first batch of coffee to get started. I gained my first customer and began my new career on the 'other' side. I soon learnt that running a business is like having a funnel as your pocket, everything costs more than you can imagine! This was quite a shock to a 21 year old. I received a lot of publicity and accolades for my achievements as a world champion in the Australian and International media, however, this did not pay the bills nor fund my business. So I bit the bullet and decided to work as a barman at a local nightclub. This gave me the freedom to run my business during the day yet also gave me income to fund whatever I needed to purchase or spend on the business.
Over the course of the next two years, I learnt many things the hard way. There was never the confidence I had when I was behind the espresso machine. No one really taught me how to do this. At times the urge to give up was so great that I had to keep reminding myself that it is dedication and persistence that got me to the World Championships, not giving up when things got tough.
Forward in time
Almost 5 years down the track, I have a reasonably successful business and am about to embark on the biggest and best project of my life. My dream. My own café / roastery / espresso bar.
Is everything rosy? Not quite. So what can I tell you about starting your own café? The first thing is that everything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong. It's a rare occasion when something goes right!
The Location «Location, location, location» is the age-old saying that everyone knows. It is so true. Finding the best location for the café wasn't easy, in fact, it was probably the hardest thing to do. It took almost a year of searching to find the best location.
The Design As this was something that I'd worked for all my life, I wanted the design of my café to look and feel amazing for both my customers and myself. After hours of research, countless late nights of finding inspiration and putting images together with my business partner we finally end up with a concept and a design direction for our design team.
To give you an idea of the volume of work, by the end of the design process we had gathered over 2,500 images. We sourced a lot of unique items such as lights, custom-made espresso machines, and decorations from all over the world. Some might say that this is over the top and unnecessary, as the products you serve should speak for itself. I agree with this, however, having an emotional attachment to something that I'd worked so hard towards meant that I didn't simply want to do the bare minimum.
The Build The start of the building process all began the moment we'd decided on the design. This meant that a lot of customization to the current site had to be done in order to build what we wanted. These included everything from knocking down walls to cutting up slabs of concrete. By the end of the build I became a concrete expert. I knew all there was to know about cement and aggregate.
In Australia, as in many other countries, we have stringent building laws. In order to build safely and be compliant with these laws we needed to be approved by the local government. This process is certainly a royal pain in the backside. The amount of bureaucracy that is involved in building is unbelievable! We must have submitted our plans and designs 3 or 4 times before being approved. These were mind numbingly mundane things such as; the egress (passage) must be at 1000mm (roughly 39inches). At one stage we were rejected because our egress was at 996mm and not 1000mm. Yep, seriously.
The Fit Out Fitting out is the fun part! This is the culmination of everything coming together and generally takes little time to complete. These include the installation of our roasters, the joining of joinery and woodworks, the tiling and fitting of lights. This is where it all starts form into something that was started at the very beginning! As the fit out concludes, I suddenly realize that the dream I had many years a go is finally about to begin.
I am writing this article about 3 weeks prior to the opening. For almost 10 years I have been building towards this. I've sacrificed a lot of personal joys to reach this point. I wanted to share some of these intimate details of how I reached where I am today: through persistence, never taking «no» for an answer. As someone who started at the very bottom and worked their way up, I want anyone in the same position that I was years ago to know that you will get to where you want to be eventually. Although I encourage everyone and anyone to start their own business, I want to make it clear that it won't be easy. If you persist and dedicate yourself there is nothing you won't be able to achieve.
Here's a photo montage of Grounds of Alexandria:
Second Bar, looking out at main room The second bar area from the side, looking out over the main room.
Main Bar and room A view of the main bar and Clover station from the main seating room.
Roast Works The roasting room with glass panels.
The Terrace The terrace seating area.
Intimate, communal seating A side seating area for a small group or communal use.
Neon Light Neon lighting in the roasting room
In my future articles I look forward to discussing a topic close to my heart: the rise of the micro roaster here in Sydney as well as in Melbourne. Stay tuned!