If you’ve been down Bondi Road in Bondi, you might recognise The Critical Slide Society (TCSS) as the surf shop that looks like a cafe. Yes, the surfboards in the window betray its true nature. But there’s also tables and chairs on the footpath, wooden benches and plants inside, a coffee menu and gleaming chrome coffee machine looming through the on-street window.
This accounts for all the people.
“Coffee has been a real foundation for us,” says TCSS co-founder Sam Coombes, who opened the shop with his brother in October 2018. “We get a really good, loyal group of regular customers into the store. The part of Bondi where we are is actually quite suburban and community orientated, so everyone’s connected by schools, surf clubs, or like, the guys that work at the Stuffed Beaver down the street – they all come up and get their coffee and hang out. You know their kids’ names and their coffee order and you know a lot about them, in all honesty.”
With the coffee luring them in, some of those people inevitably purchase a pair of boardshorts or even a surfboard from the shop itself. “You walk down Bondi Road and you definitely see a bit of Critical Slide getting around,” says Coombes. “And on the weekends you get a lot of people travelling in to come and visit the store or Bondi. But mid-week it’s very much it’s the local support that really gets us through.”
Coombes is well-versed in the importance of community – and the power of good coffee to deliver it.
Growing up on the Central Coast, Coombes landed a gig at iconic fashion label Mambo. So when he moved to Sydney in the mid-2000s to take up a role in marketing and communications with MTV, he stayed in contact with friend and Central Coast freelance artist Jim Mitchell to keep a foot in surf fashion. The pair hatched TCSS as a daydreaming side-hustle, one that emphasised fun over the seriousness they saw permeating the surf industry of the time. Soon they were making colourful, floral-printed board shorts and t-shirts.
Three years later the pair moved operations to Bondi and went full-time. Not long after, their ethos was vindicated. “We got picked up in the US by Urban Outfitters,” says Coombes. “They placed a big opening order and wanted to celebrate what we were doing. So that was a pretty significant shift for us. It was a trigger that made us think, ‘Shit, maybe we’re onto something here’.”
He was also onto coffee. As TCSS grew, Coombes parlayed his marketing and communications experience into a partnership with Vittoria and co-founded the Will & Co. brand with his brother. Though no longer involved in the brand these days, it taught Coombes the value of integrating coffee into not just TCSS, but any business tied to a community.
“Because of my background in coffee, it seemed like a natural thing to do at TCSS, even if it was just to ensure that if I needed a coffee I could grab one from the shop,” says Coombes. “Coffee is one of those things where the better job you do, the more the market builds for it, the busier it becomes and the more coffees you sell. So for us it was all about how coffee was the thing that brought people in on a day-to-day basis – it allowed us to build a relationship and community. I thought it was really important. As a retail business too, it just helps to even out the week.”
It also helps that the core business of surf fashion is taking off, with TCSS regularly recognised for their contemporary take on a classic 1970s and 1980s surf vibe. In 2014, 2015 and 2017 it won Stab Magazine’s Best Boardshorts competition against names like Billabong and Rip Curl, and there will soon be a new collection featuring the works of iconic Australian photographer Rennie Ellis, an environmentally-focused collaboration with filmmaker Stefan Hunt called No Surf On Mars … and something a little hush-hush with big-time film director Taika Waititi.
“He’s actually a regular in at the store on Bondi Road,” says Coombes. “For us he really appreciates the more flamboyant stuff we do. He recently got papped on a Sunday or a Saturday morning and he was decked out in Critical Slide gear. And he drinks a long black.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Will & Co.