“You will soon gain a fresh understanding of an old issue. This will leave you ready and powerful. Expect an eye-opening discovery followed by a heart warming moment.” We’re sitting in the temporary St ALi North office (read: tin shed) and Salvatore Malatesta is reading his horoscope. “Woohoo! I win man! That’s definitely a win,” he hoots throwing the Herald Sun aside and settling in for our chat.
Outside, the sound of hammers, a crackly radio and tradies bantering reminds us that yet another Malatesta business is nearing completion. But before we get to the new venture we have to go back…way back.
It starts in high school. At 15, he’s splitting his time between school and his parent’s pizza and pasta restaurant. “I worked there every night through years eight to 12. My parents couldn’t understand why I wanted time off to study,” he says. At an age when most boys are learning the intricacies of computer games and underage drinking, Malatesta was learning how to run a business, multitask and give customers what they want. Coming from a close-knit Italian family forms a strong part of Malatesta’s identity.
“My family is a real Italian family. We all work together, we die together, everything’s together,” he says. “I always say, ‘If you’re going to go after me, make sure you kill me and all my family, otherwise I’m coming back for you’.”
Jump forward to 1996 and a young Malatesta is studying arts law at Melbourne University. He lives in a seven-bedroom house owned by the church in Brunswick. “Kitty was $10 a week. Rent was something like $36 a week. It was kind of like squatting,” he says. It’s during that year that he opens his first business – a cafe on campus called Caffeine. The business takes off and within a year he buys an apartment in Elwood. Outright.
By the time he leaves uni, Malatesta has 12 active businesses, all within the tertiary space, including Plush Fish, the sushi shop that he credits as the business that made his career. Needless to say, Maletesta has a knack for knowing what the market needs and wants.
By now, he’s living in the Rockman’s Regency (now the Marriott Hotel), ordering room service, partying and generally acting out the rock star lifestyle. Over the next few years, he starts a succession of other businesses including a fashion label and a travel agency called Rhodes Corporate Travel. He learns about capital gain and the tax exemptions that come with it.
“I get most pleasure out of the design and process. Until about the age of 30, I was driven by the creative energy of setting up places rather then keeping them,” he recalls.
He buys, builds, sells, buys, builds, sells until, at 30, he sells the lot.
“First child syndrome,” he says. “I wanted to be a dedicated father.” It’s perhaps a desire heightened by the fact his father hasn’t spoke to him since he left the family business.
For a year, he spends time with his young family, travels and “does lots of fun stuff”, he says. “Life was good.”
But you can’t retire in your thirties “Well, some can,” Malatesta says. “I’m not accustomed to the trust baby lifestyle. I get most of my adrenalin from putting together exciting things that work, rather than living off income streams or whatever. That’s not exciting. There’s only so much food you can eat in a week.”
And so with much gusto, the serial entrepreneur starts to rebuild his stable of businesses. In 2008, after much negotiation, he buys St ALi from Mark Dundan. Until then, Malatesta has been “flying under the radar”. Now he’s on it. He acquires a string of other successful cafes including Cafe Racer and Liar Liar and takes it upon himself to become “an evangelist for the speciality coffee movement”.
With St ALi as his flagship, he continues to buy and sell businesses as new opportunities arise and old ones fade.
The St ALi name is something Malatesta is precious about. And when he talks about St ALi North you can see he’s serious when he says this is to be more than a cafe.
“St ALi North is to be precinct,” he says. “This is an acre of green land, Crown Land, on one of the city’s busiest bike paths. On the border of three very cool suburbs. If this site isn’t busy, I don’t know why. Everything is saying please put a cafe here and please make it really cool.”
To run this dream site, he’s recruited a hospitality dream team including Jesse Gerner (of The Alyesbury) as executive chef, Chris Hamburg as Head Chef, world syphon champion Matt Perger as head barista and Shaun Quade as pastry chef.
They’ve got all the coffee toys you’d expect and more. But what most impressed us was the considered approach to the environment and its residents. Outside, there are veggie gardens, a roaming bike mechanic, a ride-through coffee station and a dehydrator similar to Silo’s, which will turn 100 litres of food scraps into 10 litres of fertiliser.
Before we leave, Malatesta manages to drop that he’s planning three new ventures: a new roastery in West Melbourne, a club in the CBD and a third St ALi in Bondi.
Like most entrepreneurs, his mind never stops ticking, his phone never stops ringing and while he’s juggling a million things at once, you get the feeling that this is when he’s at his best.
When will this cafe obsession stop? “Never. Coffee is drug. Put aside specialty and fetish. If you drink coffee, you are addicted. You don’t stop. You start drinking better coffee, perhaps, but you don’t stop. So I don’t see the coffee obsession ever stopping.”
But what about him? When will he stop? “Not for a long time.”
St ALi North is scheduled to open in December 2012.