"I was so proud of myself having gone through three weeks of Peru with everything going fine.” In characteristic ‘cup-half-full’ style, Andrew Kelly is explaining how he came down with a tummy bug at the very end of a recent family holiday/coffee-sourcing expedition. “I’m so pleased to say I’ve made a remarkable recovery,” he says, before apologising in advance for possibly becoming delirious during our interview. Kelly has hit the ground running, landing in Melbourne and heading straight into back-to-back meetings concerning his ever-growing stable of businesses, including Small Batch roasters, the celebrated North Melbourne cafe Auction Rooms, the recently opened, standing-room only Counter over the road and his about-to open, very ambitious CBD venue, Filter.
As its name suggests, Filter takes a strong position on how it serves its coffee. Instead of sitting alongside the much-loved espresso machine as a sort of novelty, pour-over takes centre stage at Filter, alongside simple, Swedish smorrebrod open sandwiches – a slice of dark rye topped with a mix of fresh meats, cheeses and vegetables. “Even though cafes have been trying to focus on specialty coffee, the message is lost among so many other messages – food, table service, atmosphere,” says Kelly. “This new site will be so much more focused.”
Along with its streamlined coffee offering (espresso is still available, but in a ‘receded’ capacity), Kelly is using Filter as a way to strip back the well-worn Melbourne cafe model, which he feels both operators and customers have grown out of. “People in Melbourne think they’re coffee lovers but in fact they love cafes,” he says, explaining that although Melbourne’s collective taste in coffee has become more sophisticated, our drinking habits remain conservative and misinformation abounds. “We still have people who think that single origin is always better, that it’s a superior alternative to the everyday blend,” says Kelly. “You also have people who think in the old-school Italian way that single origins are by definition lacking because they’re not blended.” The confusion arises from mixed messages being broadcast from our cafes, and Kelly feels the time is right for the debut of a new approach. “Only now, after three or five years since this scene has emerged, are we confident enough that we can open a place like Filter.”
But are Melbourne’s coffee drinkers really in need of a change? Kelly thinks they are – but alternative ways of serving coffee have always felt like a bit of an added sideline to the espresso machine. “I fear there’s a bit of … backlash is too strong a word, but a bit of fatigue, maybe, in specialty coffee,” he says. “There’s also this feeling of, ‘Oh here’s another cafe saying they do specialty coffee. They do filter coffee because that’s what new cafes do these days’.”
“There’s this slight disconnect between what cafes purport to do and what customers want them for,” Kelly continues, on a roll. “Cafes have to sell themselves as these places that are amazingly connected with all their small producers and they do things with care and they use their ingredients wisely and reveal them carefully. But consumers think their coffee is best as a latte and that undermines the whole thing.”
Though it may sound as if he is disparaging of us latte-lovers, Kelly is confident that Melbourne’s third-wave coffee drinkers are sophisticated enough to be offered an alternative – and not have it jammed down their throats with a bunch of rhetoric. “People are willing to be taken to the next level,” says Kelly. “We can take a basic level of engagement for granted now, and try to expand and extend it.” Instead of lecturing customers on the provenance and flavour profile of the coffee they’ve just purchased, baristas at Filter (and Kelly’s other venues) will take a different tack, with an approach of sharing their extensive knowledge with punters that is more akin with a cellar door tasting than a coffee shop. “It’s meaningless to give someone a single cup of coffee, especially if it’s their first cup of filter coffee, then proclaim to them what it is,” explains Kelly. “We’d much rather offer them two cups of filter coffee side by side and compare the characteristics of each.”
His approach with Filter may seem a tad extreme, but it is a calculated move by Kelly, who is intent on pushing the Melbourne coffee scene forward while providing the perfect platform for his Small Batch roaster and in turn, his international roster of small producers who he visits individually every year. “Without wanting to change the world too much, we feel like we have a real responsibility with this coffee-buying business to ensure we’re dealing with a sustainable industry,” he says. “In many cases, the cost of production for these producers is pretty much above what the market price for coffee is right now. We don’t pay according to the market price. We recognise that without people like us, in five years, there won’t be coffee production of quality.”
“Up until these last few years when people like myself have been going across there, there’s never been an opportunity for these producers to know what the hell their final buyers want in the cup,” says Kelly, underlining the importance of establishing face-to-face relationships with each of the farmers he works with. “It’s amazing for them to have someone interested in what they do and for them to hear ‘I’m the guy who’s buying this and I really like this. We’re prepared to pay a premium for coffee that’s had this treatment and we don’t want to buy that average stuff.’ That’s the biggest impact we make when we visit.”
The recent trip to Peru was, ostensibly, a family vacation for Kelly. However, he managed to fit in a round of visits to some of the small producers he works with in his favourite coffee country: Colombia. “There’s so much richness there in terms of the profiles available, there’s so much passion among the producers we talk with and yeah, there is a desire to collaborate closely with a focused few people,” he says. “Every time I return from Colombia I’m inclined to say ‘Right! We’re going to become a Colombian only coffee importer and roaster.’” Kelly has a particular penchant for the Huila region in the south-west of the country, home to a unique mountainous climate that is able to be farmed in such a way that it produces two crops per year, rather than the usual one. “There’s two mountain ranges coming through Huila, and what that means is you have four sides of a mountain in that zone,” explains Kelly. “You’ll have spaces that are sometimes only 25 kilometres apart that are completely different seasonally.”
In mid 2013, Kelly submitted his concept for Filter as an entry in The Keys, a unique collaborative promotion by Broadsheet and Bank of Melbourne. Unlike the TV reality shows with which it seems to share a genetic bloodline, The Keys was only open to existing cafe operators who had a plan to open another venue – making it an altogether more realistic and progressive proposition, for both the participants and the viewers. Instead of watching someone start from scratch, The Keys aimed to document the path of an established business owner as they took the next step – with all its accompanying pitfalls and opportunities.
Along with other finalists, Kelly progressed through a selection process headed by industry mentors, before being selected as the successful applicant. With the guidance of these mentors, he then began working towards opening the venue, a process which is documented through a series of videos and feature articles published by Broadsheet. Kelly explains that while being selected for The Keys was exciting, he would’ve opened Filter either way.
“It hasn’t changed the content at all, but it has given me a greater sense of confidence that we can succeed in this,” says Kelly. Instead of scribbling the shop design on the back of an envelope and building it himself (which is how he, and many others, have approached fitting out their new venues in the past), Kelly employed the assistance of Design Office to create a professional fit-out, as well as a new brand identity by Hungry Workshop. “I suppose it’s a sign of the times – the level of sophistication of consumers now and what we’re trying to achieve – that we really need to get professional.” The finished design of the venue befits its ambitious manifesto, as Kelly explains, “It’s not just design of the physical space, it’s the intersection of the communication and a real solid understanding and grasp of what we’re trying to achieve as operators. It will be able to communicate our message much more clearly and transparently and more effectively than your average cafe.”
Kelly is, however, keen to point out that the partnership with Broadsheet and Bank of Melbourne has not been a financial one, but more an enabling collaboration that gave him access to a range of industry mentors (including Top Paddock’s Nathan Toleman, Chin Chin’s Chris Lucas and Tonka’s Kate Bartholomew). “My fear was that the project would appear to be somehow corporate-sponsored, though I’m in fact not receiving any money,” he says. “I’d also like to say that it’s never really about the money in this business. The success of this project will be measured in terms of exposure for Small Batch and exposure for specialty coffee. That’s enough.”
“The thing is, we’re not just opening up another cafe,” he continues. “This is an opportunity to push a little bit further and harder than one would if they weren’t being supported.” Kelly’s hope is that Filter inspires other cafe operators to push specialty coffee to the forefront of their output, encouraging Melbourne’s legion of coffee fans to put down lattes and explore darker, suitably sophisticated beverages. “I think that’s a win for everyone, including Melbourne in general.” Kelly pauses, before switching back to his default, self-deprecating self. “I’m exaggerating, with a smile on my face.”
Filter is set to open in April 2014.
To follow Andrew Kelly’s path to opening Filter and access a range of small business development advice, check out our series of videos at bankofmelbourne.com.au/thekeys.