Melburnians take great pride in identifying as coffee lovers. In a city where coffee is a cornerstone, no one has had a greater influence on how we drink, serve, source and roast than Mark Dundon.
He was the man behind the oft-imitated Brunswick originator Ray and the original owner of South Melbourne’s St ALi. Working alongside his long-term business partner Bridget Amor, he’s the driving force behind thriving cafe and coffee roasting business Seven Seeds in Carlton, tiny city espresso bar Brother Baba Budan and green coffee importing operation Silo. Dundon alumni (most of whom will recall his nickname, ‘The Dude’, for his stature, waft of hair and laidback dude-like approach) have gone on to open and run their own successful businesses.
Indeed, Patricia in the city, The Premises in Kensington and Everyday Coffee in Collingwood are all the work of former Dundon staffers. Since opening the doors to his first coffee venture nearly 13 years ago, there are few pockets of the specialty coffee and cafe scene in Melbourne that have not – directly or otherwise – been subject to Dundon’s influence and reach.
While much has been written about Dundon’s achievements and influence, little is known about the man himself. Having known Dundon for over a decade and worked for him sporadically, I know that the reality is this: Dundon is, by his own admission, unemployable. He flits from idea to idea in a way he describes as “scatty” and refuses to do things that don’t interest him. He has a staggeringly low tolerance for bullshit and is driven by the self-imposed question “why not?”, all of which results in the constant re-evaluation of the status quo.
“Dude, if the status quo just held, we’d all be fucked,” he contends at one point. “We’d all be drinking VB and Jim Beam.”
Melbourne’s coffee culture has developed in ‘waves’: the first wave connotes that of low quality, mass-produced tinned coffee; the second being the Italian immigrant influence, with brands like Lavazza and Genovese supplying Arabica espresso to cafes; and the third being specialty coffee, which is where Dundon comes onto the scene. Dundon emerged at a time when Melbourne was dominated by a small handful of big brand, old-school, Italian-inspired coffee roasters and dark-roasted, untraceable, commodity-grade beans filled espresso grinder hoppers around town. Widely considered a pioneer of the third wave, his dedication to high quality beans, their provenance, local roasting and different styles and methods of coffee brewing (think siphon, pour over, cold drip and so on), helped define a new coffee experience in which quality is key, the barista is a celebrated and being the judge of a good latte is a part of our daily routine. The roll-on effect has seen Melbourne become one of the world’s coffee capitals and certainly a great deal of this progress can be attributed to Dundon’s dedication to pushing the boundaries and taking risks where others hadn’t.
Today, a great many of the most favoured cafes in the city are out sourcing beans and roasting for themselves (or at least contemplating the shift) and coffee offerings in stores often showcase both a variety of producing countries and multiple small scale Melbourne coffee roasters. Had he not taken a chance in a then backwater location 13 years ago, would we be where we are today? While Dundon is far removed from the archetypal self-promoting entrepreneur or cafe owner, Melbourne’s coffee community – and international reputation – is all the richer for his work.
Bowen Holden of Patricia in the CBD worked closely with Dundon during St ALi’s early days before continuing on to manage his other cafes such as Seven Seeds, Brother Baba Budan and De Clieu. “Mark has such a wealth of knowledge of coffee,” he says. “Everyone wanted to work with him, so he had a really good team because everyone was so passionate.
“He has inspired people to open places that aren’t standard [coffee houses]. Places in backstreets roasting their own beans were unheard of before he started doing it.”
His independent spirit can be traced back to his childhood in Mentone. Spending much of his spare time surfing, his mother used to push him and his friends out of the house at 8.30am, not allowing them back in until the streetlights came on. “It doesn’t really happen now,” he contends. “It was a different time, I suppose. We were more independent back then than kids are today.”
At the insistence of his parents, he studied applied science, but after four years he realised that it just wasn’t for him. He moved to the city, enrolled to study fine art and began working in hospitality. It was a significant moment. “There was this really great thing happening,” he recalls. “It was very social, with lots of interesting things going on.” Together with his wife Lisa and some artist friends, Dundon opened the city bar Troika in 2000. It was here – on a less-than-ideal espresso machine – that his interest in coffee was first piqued.
With their plans to start a family not tallying particularly well with working late nights at the bar, a year later the Dundons sold their share in Troika and used the meagre proceeds to open Ray, a small coffee-centric cafe located on a desolate stretch of Victoria Street in Brunswick, well away from the foot traffic of Sydney Road. With $400 in the bank and a month-old son at home, Dundon would work 80-hour weeks for next nine months. The location and the approach were both big gambles, but after a slow start, Ray was soon a bustling business and Dundon was exploring coffee preparation techniques and tweaking brewing equipment to improve the quality of his coffee.
After three years in Brunswick, Dundon’s perpetually curious nature got the better of him and it was time to move on. He sold Ray and used the proceeds to build South Melbourne cafe and roastery St ALi.
At the time, a cafe roasting its own coffee was all but unheard of. “It was basically a situation where I really wanted to change what was happening because I felt that the product was a lot bigger and a lot more interesting than what I’d ever imagined,” he says. “It was something that just really fitted with me. It felt boring to sit and listen to everyone else and what they were saying and not explore it myself.”
Again, an out-of-the-way location and an idea that defied the typical approach brought with it loyal customers and St ALi soon became the kind of place where you had to queue to secure a table (well before it was a usual occurrence in Melbourne). While the business was doing well, as time passed Dundon began to recognise areas in which he could improve, especially in his roasting set-up and green coffee storage. Wanting to start again with fresh approach, Dundon sold St ALi in 2008 and headed back north of the river to Carlton to build and open Seven Seeds, the business he still runs today and describes as “the engine room” of his wider activities.
With its fishbowl-style tasting room in the centre of the space and expansive rain water tanks lining one wall, a coffee roastery at the back and busy cafe at the front, Seven Seeds was architecturally, aesthetically and operationally the next step up from St ALi. And it would need to be. Having also opened two more drastically different cafes – the small, hectic espresso bar Brother Baba Budan in 2006 and the sleek, refined De Clieu in 2010 (which he sold in February this year) – Dundon found himself at the helm of an operation employing over 70 staff. In addition to supplying his own stores, the team was roasting for and supporting an increasingly vigorous wholesale business. Add to this a more recent foray into green coffee importing and on-selling through a joint venture called Silo and it’s a fair assertion that, when it comes to coffee, Dundon has the whole thing figured out.
But he doesn’t see it that way. “People call him The Godfather and he just laughs,” says Charlotte Devereux of Cheerio in Richmond, who worked with Dundon at Seven Seeds for years and whose partner Chris Handley started with him back at Ray. “He’s not a quiet achiever, but he’s not out there blowing his own trumpet.”
He’s happy to talk about the how and why of each endeavour, but things constantly come back to a central idea: that he found them interesting. For Dundon, each business and its subsequent sale are just points on a journey. Troika led to Ray, Ray to St ALi, and so the stone kept rolling. Refreshingly, in an industry that’s as much about turf as it is quality or service, the growth of Dundon’s businesses seems to come as a mere by-product of his curiosity and exploration, instead of being the driving ideology. There is no master plan. Rather, it’s about being genuine, taking risks and pursuing a challenge.
“One thing to recognise is that he and Bridget (Amor) are an amazing team,” says Holden. “They are really similar and really different, but they have a good sense of humour and like to have a good time.
“They found importance in making you enjoy your job and not getting caught up in the stress of it…business can be harsh and you come across a lot of people whose values aren’t what they seem. The biggest thing I learnt is that you can be genuine and still be in business. You don’t have to go around marching orders. That was massive for me.”
Alex Anderson of The Premises started working with Dundon at Ray back in 2002. “That was when I started my love affair with specialty coffee,” he recalls. With fond memories of Dundon as a very hands-on business operator, he too went on to work with him again at St ALi and Seven Seeds. “He was always very inspirational and always had a very natural way of bringing the best out in people. He attracted a good worth ethic…has a keen eye for aesthetics and design…and is constantly searching for new ideas, pushing this forward.” Looking at some of the other cafes that have spawned off the back of Dundon’s coffee empire, Anderson cites Patricia, A Little Bird Told Me, Cheerio and his own operations as cafes motivated by a start with Dundon. “We all use his coffee now…but he never pushed anyone to use his product. It comes from a natural respect for it. I do think it’s the best and wouldn’t use anything else.”
But what does Dundon make of a burgeoning coffee scene that is witnessing new ‘specialty coffee’ cafes opening by the handful almost weekly? He seems drawn between two responses. On the one hand there’s a genuine excitement and interest in young operators getting started and “having a go”. But Dundon’s take is tempered by a number of frustrations. He singles out the industry’s ongoing fetishisation of the most expensive equipment as the primary killer of spontaneity and entry-to-market for new businesses. “We started Ray with a second hand, two-group Wega. Today you need a 25 grand machine on the counter and another 75 grand for fit-out or kit,” he laments. He worries that to be taken seriously in today’s cafe scene, the only real requirement is money.
Dundon also feels that recent years have seen too much of a focus on the barista – coupled with the hype surrounding exclusive, expensive coffees – and too little on what the customer actually wants. “We’ve got these baristas saying ‘Today we have this stunning Geisha at $20 a cup, which you must have’, while customers are saying ‘Just give me a fucking good coffee and get out of my face’.” It’s an attitude that extends to his new Melbourne cafe, which he intends to be something of a response to what he sees as the beginnings of a backlash from customers against over-designed, intimidating and alienating cafes.
Situated on Crossley Street, just off the top end of Bourke Street (and not too far from Pellegrini’s, a stalwart of a different era in Melbourne's coffee history), work is underway on Dundon’s new, as yet unnamed, 18-seat cafe. It’s to be a stripped-back and simplified space, dominated by a solitary bar top accommodating stools as the only seating, with the food offering being prepared offsite at his Carlton cafe. Plans are for all drink preparation to take place on the rear counters, with the bar left clear, clean and open, as a means to help foster a more connected barista-to-customer experience.
Speculating on the physical and conversational gulf that exists between today’s customer and barista, often necessitated by table service in larger spaces, Dundon laments that too many baristas fail to have the opportunity to interact with and receive face-to-face feedback directly from their customers – something he felt was formative and crucial to his own development when making drinks. Baristas will continue to do better and to try harder, when they have a more personal connection to the people they’re making drinks for, or so the theory seems to run. With plans to be open by July, it won’t be long before we know how such a notion plays out.
Simultaneously, building works are already underway on a collaborative cafe space in Sydney, with Dundon working alongside Paul Geshos of Mecca and Russell Beard of Reuben Hills to create a showcase for interesting coffee. Despite admitting that there’s an ingrained, “kicking and screaming” reluctance to operating in Sydney, the opportunity to be one third of an experimental cafe concept, working alongside two friends, was simply too interesting to bypass. Harkening back to his desire to foster and encourage the entrepreneurial spirit, this northern collaboration is set to see the provision of space and staff, handed over to a curating manager, selected to push the boundaries with coffee service.
“We’ll give different people the chance to run it for six or 12 months at a time; ideally someone who wants to try interesting and fun stuff. For the everyday customer getting a takeaway latte, it’ll be a normal, high-quality place, but alongside it we want to bring in coffee producers, or give the same coffee to four different roasters and showcase that.” It’s a way to both hand on the baton and provide an incubator for breaking new ground. Crucially, the plans involve a profit-sharing opportunity and accommodation for the curating manager, giving them the option to “really live the project” for the duration of their stay and then to take the basis of a start-up fund to go on and open their own place.
As if building, opening and managing two new venues – in addition to running his existing outfits – wasn’t enough to keep him interested, Dundon has recently taken a 50 per cent stake in a coffee farm in Honduras. Finca Santa Lucia is on the other side of the lake from the venerable Honduras producing region, Santa Barbara, and was fairly rundown when a friend approached Dundon to take a share in its purchase. At 135 acres and producing around 1000 70-kilogram bags of coffee per year, the real work is only just beginning with four years’ worth of replanting to take place.
“We’re really starting at square one,” says Dundon. “We’ll run a few experiments there and plant it out with some different varieties and see what happens.” Excited by the opportunity to run experiments and test ideas at a farm level, without burdening often already cash-strapped farmers with the consequences of experiments gone wrong, the purchase seemed like an ideal next point in the journey. When I first heard that Dundon had purchased a stake in Finca Santa Lucia, I had the same two thoughts that so many people have had about him and his choices over the years. Initially, of course, it seems a great idea, but secondly, why hasn’t someone thought of it before?
It’s an experiment and it’s a gamble, and as with so many of his previous ventures, there’s no clear plan or agenda. But that’s what makes it interesting and fun and what may ultimately unlock another layer of complexity to Melbourne’s coffee scene. Sure, the current wave of speciality coffee can come across as a pretentious, exclusive and as all too much of an exact science, but Dundon is showing us otherwise.
It’s not just about gleaming coffee machines, tattooed baristas and countertop theatrics – it’s a work in progress. Only by travelling, experimenting and getting his hands dirty can Dundon find ways of doing things better. And that he does.
Tim Willams worked with Mark Dundon at Ray and St ALi before moving to London to run Workshop Coffee in Clerkenwell.