It’s 8am and tucked into the ground floor of a building on Little Bourke Street, Bowen Holden and his team of baristas at Patricia Coffee Brewers have hit peak hour. In a small daytime bar built around a simple concept: good coffee – black, white or filter – serving little more than that, and with no seats, this cafe often feels more like a setting you’d find at the other end of the day, only patrons would be drinking wine, not long macchiatos.
After working on the machines at coffee institution Seven Seeds for many years, Holden opened his standing room only CBD coffee bar early in 2012, with a very streamlined coffee concept that was almost unknown in Melbourne at the time. “We figured out that when you don’t have seats, it has this nice even ground between you and your customers, and it creates a really nice environment,” says Holden. “When you are all standing up, you’re all in it together, there’s not as much of a barrier between you the customers.”
From 7am until 4pm, Holden and his team are making coffee and chatting to people, creating a convivial interaction as customers perch against a bar, down a coffee and keep moving. Since Patricia opened, we’ve seen a bunch of new venues open in spaces often too small for sitting, drawing in a customer that doesn’t want to anyway. They’re likely on their way somewhere, with little time to stop.
Over on King Street, Sbriga is a Roman inspired espresso bar that ‘aims to give you the best 15 minutes of your day’ in its seat-less setting, with a bar running right through the centre of the room and around the walls to lean against while you drink your latte.
Owned by Italians Mario Simone and his brother Severino, Mario believes that people feel much more comfortable breaking into spontaneous conversation with the people next to them when they’re standing. “The whole premise of going to a place where you stand and consume your coffee and a small bite to eat has a beautiful informality about it that encourages engagement,” he says. At Sbriga, their business model is built on an average customer visit of 15 minutes, though it can range from 30 minutes to less than 30 seconds. “We have one customer who literally comes in every day for 15 seconds. We see him coming down the road, we pop his espresso up on the bar, and by the time he arrives he throws it down his neck, he says ‘bongiorno’ to everyone, he pays and he leaves – it’s just beautiful.”
Melbourne University student Thomas Kelly opened his stand up coffee venue in Union House, citing a lack of decent coffee and cake offerings on campus. Standing Room (as its name suggests) was the best way he could make use of the limited space he had, and most efficient way to cater for fellow students on their way to and from class.
“People are time poor at uni,” Kelly explains, “they’re generally grabbing a coffee between lectures, so as much as they’d like to sit down, they’d have to be wagging a class to do so.” And though people are likely to stay on a few minutes to knock back an espresso, he agrees that there is less of a barrier with your barista than when you’re sitting down. “Customers are genuinely interested in where the beans are coming from and the set up you’re using, so conversation is easy.”
Over on the other side of the city, just off Bourke on Crossley Street – the newest venture from the team at Seven Seeds – Traveller is also getting people on their feet. A tiny space of just 28 square metres, tucked into the busy laneway shared with institutions such as Pellegrini’s and Becco, jeweller Lucy Folk, Charles Edward shirts and the designer archives of Madam Virtue & Co, Traveller has slipped right in with a similar nostalgic feel as that of its neighbours. With curved wood and vinyl laminate bench tops evoking the warmth of the old American Airstream caravans and a takeaway coffee window, Traveller is a welcoming stop for workers on the move. “We’re trying to break down barriers between the barista and patron, so people can come past, have a chat, drink great coffee and keep going,” says cafe manager Jos Turner. “It’s rare in a busy environment that you can talk to a barista; they’re often flat out and hidden away behind the coffee machine. But here people are coming in and having a nice yarn.”
With this egalitarian mindset, other venues such as Dukes Coffee Roasters on Flinders Lane, and soon the guys from Auctions Rooms in North Melbourne (who are about to open a new venue, Counter, across the road), are also scaling back on seating and their menus, serving little more than a coffee, and maybe a pastry, and harking back to classic European espresso bars at the base of apartment buildings where locals simply drop in for a quick drink. It offers people “a little oasis from the hustle and bustle, a place to come and unplug from the world, just for a moment,” says Mario Simone.
It encourages customers to take some time out from their day, and standing means they interact with the person making their coffee, or with someone else at the bar, or even just read the paper.
“Any time of the day you can just walk up to the bar, and people have this really nice open conversation with you and you can really draw other people in,” says Bowen Holden.
“You might come in not knowing anyone, but you might leave knowing a couple of people, all over a cup of coffee.”