Ten years ago, a cafe menu without eggs, muesli and toast wouldn’t exist. Now, it’s increasingly the norm.
Sydney’s cafes are experimenting with different cuisines, styles of coffee and concepts. We talked to three leaders in the industry about how this happened and where it’s all going. Russell Beard is the ideas man and owner behind some of Sydney’s most innovative and influential cafes: Paramount Coffee Project, Reuben Hills, Hills Bros and Bondi Hall. Nick Smith is a former stockbroker who now runs the kitchen at Rising Sun, a Japanese-inspired restaurant with a breakfast service entirely absent of poached eggs or pancakes. Anthony Svilicich is one of the first operators to take the inner-city cafe scene out west with Excelsior Jones. Before that he was part of Sydney’s cafe revolution at Le Monde.
Broadsheet: How has the cafe scene in Sydney changed?
Nick Smith: It's reasonable now to expect a restaurant-quality meal in a cafe. That wasn't the case 10 years ago. Then you were hiring sandwich hands as cafe chefs. Now you're hiring guys who've worked in fine-dining restaurants. That's a remarkable difference.
Russell Beard: Sydney has become more interesting. Now when I travel I know I can tell people “Go to this place, this place and this place”. I know they're going to have a good time. Customers now are demanding a certain level. They've got high expectations.
BS: Lots of people talk about cafe cuisine as a single, homogenous thing. But perhaps that doesn't really represent Sydney demographically. What do you think?
NS: We've been cooking European food for a really long time, but I don't think any of our pantries [contain] the food we've been eating out [for breakfast]. Our pantries have shrimp paste and coconut milk and fish sauce and we cook whatever the fuck we want. So we are just trying to cook food reflective of Australia's geographic position. People ask me all the time what I think Australian cuisine is, and it's a mashup.
RB: What happened with us at Hills Bros – we've got a prep kitchen now, and the Indonesian guys working there were cooking themselves lunch. I was like, “That rendang is fucking awesome. It's going on the menu. It's delicious and it's relevant.
BS: If you were to open a new venue, would you feel pressure to serve something different to eggs and bacon? Something completely original?
RB: I would love to have a crack at a concept and just give no fucks. It would be a lot of fun. Am I willing to do that with the financial risks associated with it? No.
Anthony Svilicich: I think what Russ is trying to say – for a business owner it's fun to think of those concepts, but to make them a long-term, viable business is where it becomes difficult – I feel a lot of things that are purely concept based don't last very long. Even if someone throws a million bucks at you, eventually they're going to ask where their return is.
BS: So is the industry fertile for new ideas?
RB: It's the most experimental it's ever been. Some concepts have a bit of a ticking clock. They're a bit flavour of the month.
NS: I think Sydney has a problem and hospitality media is complicit in this problem. This is where there's a double-edged sword. There's a media vehicle, which can get these ideas out to an audience that's hungry for something new. But then we have an audience that’ll flood your venue for the first month and then they're gone.
In Melbourne, customers reward great venues with repeat visits. There are very few neighbourhood stalwarts in Sydney that have any longevity. Ten years is a real rarity. You have to keep being brand new. I want the Sydney audience to support and applaud venues that have been around for years.
BS: What do you think about venues that don't look to foster a regular community? Those destination cafes looking for new customers every week?
AS: How do people even do that? That'd be hard to do.
NS: Well The Grounds of Alexandria is a destination cafe. No one lives [around] there. They're incredibly successful. I can't connect with it in the same way I can't go to Luna Park every day. It's an experience, but then it's gone.
BS: What's going to happen in the future?
NS: People are always going to want an amazing hospitality experience. That I believe, but there's going to be carnage on the way because rent has doubled, wages have doubled and equipment is through the roof, but the cost of food and beverages has hardly changed. The cost of a coffee and a sandwich has really defied inflation.
AS: Yeah, I feel like we're creating a lot of fads and not established businesses, places you're going to go to in five years or 10 years.
RB: What happened to the cronut?
AS: Exactly. Where have they gone? We were getting cronuts when they first came out. We were selling 120 a day on the weekend up until about three or four months ago when we were selling 12.
NS: There's only so much dirty fry-oil one can consume.
BS: So is it all going to crash? Will a lot of places close?
NS: I know a place that has closed their dining room and now they just use their kitchen to do UBER eats so they don't have to pay wait staff. This is me at my darkest, where people don't go out anymore. That's horrible.
RB: I want to say some positive things. We're very fortunate to have the customers we've got. We're very fortunate you can have a place like [Rising Sun] and it’s full. There are cities where you wouldn't survive with this concept. Here our venues are well appreciated.
BS: Will we keep seeing innovation or will creativity be cut down by costs?
RB: I think you'll see a lot more people having a crack themselves and operating businesses themselves [without investors]. Everyone's doing it now.
AS: We have a lot of staff coming in wanting to learn coffee to open their own place. A lot of that is good, they want to learn, they have passion. But once these people open places, they're here to stay. It'll be saturated. It's hard to sustain everybody.
NS: The best places you always go – and we can’t do that here – are the ones that do just two or three things. We don’t seem to do that in the West. We’re too consumerist, we have these huge menus. I think the only way to survive in this economy is just to do less better and be known for something.
RB: There’s a lot of clarity and peace in that.