There is no hint of food snob or barista cool about Nigel Oakey. No real surprises there; the chain of Dome cafes over which he presides is hardly hipster central.
“God forbid,” he says cheerfully, casting his eye around the colonial-style surrounds of the Maylands Dome, nary an ironic beard-wearer troubling its Bentwood chairs. “We’re in the community hall business. We’re the place where you don’t have to put on any airs and graces, you can just be yourself.”
Oakey’s grasp on the Dome brand – providing a place of welcome and comfort – is Steve Jobs-like. But there’s nothing predictably “franchise” about Dome’s managing director.
The 47-year-old has a philosophy degree. He’s warm and likeable, but he’s not a networker. He doesn’t generally talk to the media. His holiday pad is not in Margaret River, but in Woodanilling – a tiny dot in farming country where he regularly spends time with his wife and three children. He has an eye for old buildings and loves a ripping yarn. He worries about urban planning, and laments the loss of the old High Street.
He brings these sensibilities to Dome, where he’s spent 18 years guiding the brand from its late-’80s origins as an exclusive Western suburbs cafe – the notion of founders Phil Sexton, Patria Jafferies and Phil May – to its present incarnation. Oakey envisaged a more democratised offering for the company he bought into. “I saw the potential to make it a broad church, where all the generations can come and meet.”
It’s now a substantial franchise, but a cookie-cutter approach was never going to be Oakey’s style. Not in the fit-outs, certainly. Of the 65 Dome cafes in Western Australia (plus roughly the same number of Australia-wide and overseas iterations) 19 are in heritage buildings. Others are bold, architectural builds, and some are in places of natural heritage. In Byford, where suburban sprawl has arrived, Dome bought the last remaining bush block with a view to saving its 76 gum trees. The imminent Dome cafe will sit among them, largely glass and surrounded by a Japanese-style timber screen offering views of the trees.
“We’re about place-making,” says Hong Kong-raised Oakey, whose constant concern is staying untainted by the “chain” brush. “Caring about that takes more money and more creativity. It means we do fewer projects, but each one is bespoke, each one is very carefully crafted.”
Those principles certainly informed Dome’s entry into the hotel business. When its Premier Mill Hotel opened in Katanning in April last year, it was clear plenty of care and lots of money had been sunk into the venture. The town’s significant industrial heritage building, the Premier Roller Flour Mill, was thoughtfully restored into a 22-room boutique hotel. Many original heritage features were retained, adding character to the modern flair: quality linen, Aesop body products, Bang & Olufsen speakers.
Unexpected? Not for Oakey, who sees the shift into hotels as a natural evolution of what Dome does. Many customers spend several hours a day at a Dome, he says. They might sit on one cup of coffee or even just a glass of water, and Oakey is fine with that. It means people are comfortable. And the idea got his brain ticking.
“How can we turn that into an overnight experience?’ he wondered.
Not with something called “Dome Hotels”, he was sure. Dome cafes feature in all the proposed hotels (Northam and Narrogin projects are underway), but each hotel has its own identity. “There’s no Dome aesthetic creeping into the hotel rooms,” says Oakey wryly. “Just because people like to spend three or four hours in a Dome cafe doesn’t mean they need to sleep in that aesthetic. Each hotel will be bespoke to the story of that place.”
Telling stories is a big part of what Oakey sees as Dome’s remit (he employs a social historian and a writer). He’s evangelical about the stories that come with Katanning’s old mill, which have been compiled into a substantial book. The same is planned in Northam, where the colonial Shamrock Hotel is being restored to the original Farmer’s Home Hotel (slated to open this spring), and in Narrogin, where the post-Federation Hordern Hotel is set for a makeover.
Once an employee of Shell’s retail division, Oakey knew early in his career that he didn’t want to be a senior executive of a multinational company. He’s more philosophically aligned with a business that makes a social impact on a local level. In Dome cafes, he sees the engine room that makes altruistic projects possible. They’re also the basis of many people’s daily happiness.
“We’re like the old friend,” he says of the cafe group founded 30 years ago. “We’ve always been there, we don’t try to pretend to be something we’re not to you. Your old friend is someone you can rely on, and be yourself with.”
Among other things, that means never claiming to make the best vegan pattie with activated sprouts and zero food miles served with a cold-drip single-origin coffee. And that’s proved no deterrent for customers – not even Heston Blumenthal.
Oakey was working at a nearby table at Dome in Perth’s CBD when he saw the UK’s superstar chef whiling away several hours and getting through multiple coffees without interruption. When the managing director eventually introduced himself, Blumenthal told him he’d never before sat in a coffee shop for hours on end feeling so totally at ease.
“I don’t quite know what it is you’re doing here,” Blumenthal told him. “But just keep doing it.”
A nice endorsement, but Oakey would probably argue that it’s the one he gets daily from Dome’s regulars that really matters. He feels as agnostic about groovier cafes as he does about bland hotels. They’re not what Dome does.
“I feel very confident about our place in the world, and constantly benchmarking myself against some notional competition doesn’t make any sense to me,” he says.
“I love having interesting food experiences. I’m sure a lot of our customers go off and have those experiences as well. But when it’s time to meet grandma with the grandkids on a Sunday, they’ll come here.”
The Premier Mill Hotel
Corner Clive Street and Austral Terrace, Katanning