Why Brisbane needs The Coffee Commune

Phillip Di Bella

Opinion: Phillip Di Bella explains why right now cafes and restaurants need a strong voice and a singular foundation that holds them together.

It may or may not surprise you to know that one in three Australian cafes may not survive 2020.

One in three.

After the March lockdowns forced cafes and restaurants to suspend operations, the rest of the year has been a recovery mission for the industry.

Most suburban cafes have weathered the storm, with takeaways and deliveries being enough to stop them from closing permanently. But cafes in central business districts that rely on office workers have been hit hard. And this is in cities such as Brisbane, which was fortunate enough to side-step a strict lockdown.

Those that have survived have adjusted the way they do business, and those that will survive in the future will need to continue to adapt in order to pull through. The world has changed and one thing is abundantly clear – in order for the cafe and hospitality industry to get through this period, we need to work together to be profitable, efficient and sustainable.

The spotlight COVID-19 has shone on our industry

We’re in the business of bringing joy to coffee lovers. Those among us who truly care about our customers take immense pride in the fact that our products – when presented how they should be – evoke a life-giving feeling when that first sip of coffee is taken each day.

Despite our noble intentions, we have lessons to learn about making that experience a sustainable one. Perhaps the biggest spotlight shone on us all during this pandemic is the need for the industry to find where our efficiency and productivity measures work smarter and harder for us. The hospitality industry has always been quite segmented, with people viewing each other as competition. But a lot of small businesses are hurting and people need to see where the cost savings are in their business.

To turn a blind eye to this is to perish. Remember, one in three.

Micro roasters can no longer afford to keep leasing a building, renting expensive equipment, and paying for someone to stand there and roast coffee. Coffee shops can no longer afford to pay for 80-100 square metres of space – they need smaller footprints. As opening hours are reduced, staff too will be reduced. Menus will change. People will lose work as the industry recalibrates.

And that competition mentality will not help any of us deliver on our passion products and experiences – the reason we all came to this business in the first place.

We need a united voice, we need advocacy

We can all see the lack of advocacy in our industry. The gap it leaves is magnanimous, and that’s something we need to fix – and we can fix it.

When governments make decisions and pass laws that affect us – whether this is increasing wages, planning taxes or handing out benefits to the industry – our views must be taken into consideration.

Take wages for example. Staffing is the biggest cost base for a small hospitality business. When we look at the cost of hiring and training staff, in comparison to what people can charge for a cup of coffee, it’s really difficult for the industry to stay profitable. Wages used to be 30% of turnover, and they’re now 40% of turnover.

But let’s be clear – this is not about lowering wages. It’s about the cost percentage of wages in comparison to what we can charge for product. What drives the economic engine is sustainability, profit and efficiency. We need the industry to think this way, and fast.

Government bodies need to make the right decisions, and they need to hear the voices that can help them get there.

When a law gets passed down, you can see it when the industry has had the opportunity to contribute, or been completely lost in the woods.

Often, it’s left to somebody behind a desk who thought their decision would be best practice. What they don’t see is the filtration of that decision down to the cafe owners, the roasters, the industry suppliers, the workers and, eventually, the customers themselves.

When we lack advocacy, we lack a voice that can speak collectively and give real-life examples. And the decisions made without us pick away at the viability of our businesses and erode the livelihoods of the people within them.

We need a strong body that comes together to educate, support and advocate for our colleagues across the coffee industry.

The answer is in the collective

The Coffee Commune will create an advocacy stronghold where we have government at local, state and federal levels contacting us for our views on what needs to be done.

We are essentially a Coffee Chamber of Commerce.

We’re building an ecosystem where the cafe and hospitality industry can do business together to be sustainable, and to consolidate. Our role will be to connect the dots between green bean suppliers, roasters, cafes and restaurants so they can operate efficiently post COVID.

Otherwise profitability and sustainability cannot happen.

We’ll have roasters connecting with other roasters, so collaboration can happen without compromising the uniqueness of their brand. If you’re a small roaster in Australia, you can save an average of $100k-$150k per year in costs just by consolidating your operations. Everyone can retain what’s truly unique about their business, but can still collaborate.

Cafe owners will come here and get the best price possible, regardless of whether they own one coffee shop or one hundred. Group buying power is key in sustainable thinking.

We’re also creating an academy to train, support and educate our members in all the key elements of coffee production and operation. There is a huge opportunity to train and upskill those in the industry so that they can deliver value.

We’re connecting all the parts, and that has never been done before.

Will it be a challenge? Absolutely. This is an entirely new concept. But what makes The Coffee Commune different from any other independent roasting facility is that we are not a coffee brand. The Coffee Commune does not compete with any coffee company in its own right. Everybody can still be unique but share and learn from each other.

This is something that the industry has been needing, and something that the industry will need even more post COVID-19 and in the future. Not just in Brisbane, but globally. I believe this model can also be replicated overseas, but for now, we need to build the first one right in Brisbane – and get it right.

Business in the cafe and restaurant industry will change as we know it. For coffee roasters, suppliers, and baristas, the landscape will change completely. In 10 years if we are the leading authority in this space, if people believe they have to be part of this so that they get the support, education and advocacy for the industry, then we’ve done our job.

And we can still evoke that life-giving moment when our customers sip their first coffee of the day. That is our success.

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The Coffee Commune opens to the public on March 15, 2021. Learn more about memberships or get in touch with us.

Phillip Di Bella