In sixteenth-century Panama, Spanish colonisers abducted and enslaved Africans to work in the country’s sugar and coffee plantations. A West African man, Bayano, led the largest of Panama’s slave revolts during that period.

Bayano the Rebel is the name of (and muse for) Zak Openstein and Marwin Shaw’s new South Yarra cafe, tucked away off Chapel Street. It’s the third daytime eatery for Shaw, who owns Monk Bodhi Dharma and Admiral Cheng Ho.

“I was drawn to Bayano because my heroes of today do their work in the mountains of Panama, too,” Openstein says. “The coffee producers there are industry leaders in how well they treat their farm workers.”

The pair proudly displays the names of farmers behind daily brews from Panama, as well as Guatemala, Ethiopia and elsewhere, on the counter.

“We want to connect human to human, rather than human to commodity,” says Shaw. “We’ve been hoodwinking the public in the past by not mentioning the farmers and their stories.”

It helps that Openstein and Shaw have met many of these producers, and even brought some of them out to Shaw’s cafes in the past.

In 2017, Openstein travelled to Panama where he stayed with José Alfredo, the farmer behind Ninety Plus’s Lot 227. His beans sell for just over $5000 USD a kilo at auction – at Bayano the Rebel you can try a cup for $150. Part of that price, Openstein explains, stems from the fact farmers at that plantation earn more than twice the standard Panama wage for that kind of work.

Single origin coffee here starts at $4. Almost the entire menu is vegan, including the Rebel’s toastie, with smoky barbeque cauliflower and Damona vegan cream cheese; banana bread with cashew ricotta; and baked goods from Andy Blyth at Monk Bodhi Dharma. Macadamia milk is made on the premises daily.

In Panama today, you’ll find Bayano’s legacy in the names of rivers and caves, and the tiny cafe’s worn concrete walls resemble the latter.

“We want to make this space a little cave that people can escape to,” Openstein says. Shaw built the cafe’s stools and tables with timber and copper pipes; Openstein’s cousin crafted the ceramic cups; a close friend built the sculptural geometric light fixture that snakes along the wall and halos above the Specht coffee machine.

“The human love that has gone into this place wasn’t worth rushing,” says Openstein, who has wanted to run his own cafe for nearly a decade.

“The best thing for us is the people who order the same thing every day, and one day say: ‘I want to try something different’,” says Shaw. “For us, that’s a chance to talk about the journey, from a cherry being picked through to the roasting of the beans. Hopefully we can take people on that journey with us.”

Bayano the Rebel
41 Ellis Street, South Yarra
0438 005 997

Mon to Fri 6.30am–3.30pm
Sat to Sun 7.30am–4.00pm

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