Nathan Toleman’s Mulberry Group has sold its three popular Melbourne cafes Higher Ground, Top Paddock and Kettle Black to the Darling Group, another hospitality partnership that owns Darling Café, Bambu, and Dundas and Faussett.

Higher Ground, Top Paddock and Kettle Black have been some of Melbourne’s most iconic and groundbreaking cafes, and the Mulberry Group – Toleman, Ben Clark and Diamond Rozakeas – one of the city’s most-watched hospitality operators.

“As hard as it was for us to step out, it’s the right thing for us,” Toleman tells Broadsheet. “We felt like we’ve been in that space for a while. We wanted to grow and evolve, and it’s hard to do that when you’re in a space you’re already in, and you’re comfortable. You need to let go to grow.”

Toleman and senior members of his team told staff about the sale last week. There was a little bit of shock and lots of hugs.

“Everyone was really understanding and supportive. They understand that we want to keep evolving,” Toleman says. “We are so grateful to all our amazing staff and the amazing journey. It feels hard because we’re letting go of something we love.”

“We are self-funded so have to make these hard decisions – what are we willing to give up to do something new? For us to be able to focus on [new projects] and be invested we can’t be involved in everything.”

Toleman, Clark and Rozakeas opened Richmond’s perennially packed Top Paddock in 2013, redefining Melbourne’s breakfast scene. They followed that up with relaxed but refined daytime diner The Kettle Black in South Melbourne. At the time, we felt it wasn’t quite right to call the venue a cafe but rather a “breakfast restaurant” because of its highly considered aesthetic and menu (house-fermented yoghurt, King Island crayfish and Flinders Island wallaby). Higher Ground arrived in 2016, pushing the boundaries of what a “cafe" could be yet again. It shared aspects of a moody restaurant, sexy hotel lounge and sleek coffee bar inside a cavernous former power station transformed by Design Office.

“We’ve never been into scaling our brands,” Toleman says. “For us, while that might be profitable, it was never what inspired or motivated us. It’s about creating unique, standalone venues.”

“We always felt like we created these spaces we could never beat.”

The venues’ new owners will take over from today supported by a six-week handover from the Mulberry Group. There are currently no changes planned in the kitchen or front of house.

Toleman says he and his partners want to focus more on sustainable farming and produce going forward, noting that it’s easier to “start from the beginning to take it to that next level as opposed to retrofitting things”.

One of their new projects includes the recently announced Liminal, an ambitious cafe, wine shop, market and event space to open on Collins Street in April next year.

The group is also at work on The Beach House Geelong which takes over the former Eastern Beach restaurant. The site is a heritage-listed landmark that dates back to the 1930s.

“It feels like the end of an era,” Toleman says. “It’s time to leave that legacy and start a new one.”