What the pandemic taught us about operating our café
The coronavirus pandemic could have spelled doom for Alex Milosevic’s roastery café. Instead, it forced him to wake up and smell the coffee.
Located in an industrial warehouse-style space in Slacks Creek, Extraction Artisan Coffee is known for its single origin coffee beans from around the world, as well as its distinctive ‘Gratitude’ house blend – half Brazilian, half PNG. Chef Chris Fazio is also responsible for an all-day seasonal menu that currently includes a scrumptious Serbian-style soufflé and eggs Benedict Florentine.
At the outset of the year, Alex was considering expanding the popular café’s opening hours into the evening and acquiring a liquor license, with an eye towards hosting events in the space.
“Then COVID happened.” Alex says. “And everything changed within 48 hours.”
Whatever doesn’t kill you…
Alex saw patronage of the café drop off dramatically as fears about the virus spread and restrictions were soon implemented. Like countless other business owners in the hospitality space, he was eventually forced to take action and reduce his casual staff. When JobKeeper was announced, he scraped through by asking staff to take a temporary pay cut until the payment scheme took effect. (He later reimbursed those staff for their lost wages.)
From the time Extraction opened in 2016, takeaway had never been a big component of the business. But when COVID restrictions put the kibosh on on-site dining, the café pivoted – hard.
“We essentially shut down for one day to take stock and retool and opened up the next day as a full-on takeaway business,” Alex says. “Our chef looked at what we had in our larder and came up with a plan.
“He saw we could do things like house-made sausage rolls and quiches; food we could just heat up that customers could eat as they walked off the premises. We had buns and burger meat, so he said, “OK, let’s make a burger pack that you can take home and cook on your own barbecue.’ We basically took our menu and turned it into a DIY menu.
“As COVID restrictions went on, for those six-to-eight weeks that we were locked down, the chef just kept coming up with new ideas for new packs, to keep it fresh and interesting for customers and for us. The great thing about it was the support we got from the community, because they wanted businesses like ours to survive.
“As the business developed, people have come to know us as roasting great coffee but we have also become a real hub for the community, with a thriving café. COVID put us in a position where we had to reevaluate all aspects of our business.
“The community support when it came to buying the beans to take home was great. It showed us there was an easier path to financial security for the business. With the help of some government grants that we got during COVID, we began to develop a marketing strategy for the beans, and we’ll be putting that plan into action in 2021.”
COVID restrictions also helped generate business for Wing, the drone delivery service that Extraction began working with last year, and even pushed the business to begin offering barista classes for locals who wanted to expand on the skills they began developing in lockdown.
“I think we were so involved in running our business on a daily basis, we were actually overlooking potential opportunities,” Alex says. “COVID forced us to look at our business from the inside and ask ourselves what we were doing and what we could be doing better. What could we do that we hadn’t really pursued yet?
“The barista classes were one of those opportunities. We’ve got some of the best baristas in Queensland working here, in my opinion, and it’s good to be able to share their skills and their knowledge with the public.”
The grind continues
Once Extraction was able to re-open for dine-in customers, Alex found that COVID had fundamentally changed the way he looked at his business.
“Before, we were a place where you’d walk up to the counter, order your meal, go grab your seat and we’d bring your meal over to you,” Alex says. “Now we’re a real dine-in business with full table service. Our standards have gone up, and we’re delivering a better customer experience while keeping it COVID Safe.
“In order to maintain social distancing, we haven’t put as many seats back into our café as we had before. But this also creates a better experience, because nobody wants to be in a crowded café. I know I hate being pushed up against someone else, so we’ve actually spread out the seating a lot more.
“We invested a lot of money into infrastructure during COVID as well. We put solar panels on the roof, and we recently opened a deck out the back, which has added another 60 square metres of floor space and provided a different dining experience for our customers.
“Going into the new year, we’re actually taking another look at expanding into evening service and getting our liquor license – not just because we think it’s a good idea, but because we think it’s something that’ll satisfy a demand in the community and have some longevity.
“I think that’s another thing COVID taught us. When we change something, we have to ask ourselves why we’re changing it, what the potential outcomes are, and how prepared we are for those outcomes.”
Alex will be looking to share his learnings from 2020 with an active community of café owners, roasters, baristas, suppliers and coffee lovers when he joins The Coffee Commune. The new collective of coffee industry professionals and enthusiasts, led by coffee industry leader Phillip Di Bella, is set to launch in March 2021.
“It’s going to be a great way to network,” Alex says. “There’s a lot we can learn from one another. Phil is someone I’ve got the greatest respect for … he’s always happy to share his intellect, his marketing know-how and his coffee knowledge, and that’s what the industry needs right now.
“The Coffee Commune is going to bring together a lot of interesting, creative and innovative people to collaborate, and open up doorways that we might never have thought to step through by ourselves.”