Customers spill out of the narrow cafe. They perch on stools and queue for takeaways, willing to wait for the top-notch coffee. It is a scene familiar in inner-city suburbs, only this cafe isn’t in Surry Hills. It’s Circa Specialty Coffee, western Sydney’s first laneway cafe.
When owners Aykut Sayan and Tony Sleiman opened Circa in Parramatta five years ago, it was a different scene. “A lot of people looked at us and laughed,” says Sayan. “People thought we were a joke.”
These days, Circa is acknowledged to be one of the best cafes not just in Parramatta, but in the whole of Sydney. It’s a hard-won position. Parramatta is not typically associated with specialty coffee, says Sayan. “That’s been quite challenging for us over the past five years. We’re accepted now as a specialty-coffee place throughout Sydney, but it did take a lot of work.”
Now coffee-industry players, from bean suppliers to roasters, regularly make the trip to Parramatta to visit the cafe. Among those coffee pilgrims are Aaron and Sophia Bernecki, who run Penrith’s first specialty-coffee cafe, Henri Marc. “Aaron and I frequently go to Circa in Parramatta – we really love it,” says Sophia. “That was definitely the first for that area.”
When the Berneckis relocated from the city to Penrith to open Henri Marc two years ago, they also met with opposition. “Everyone had an opinion,” says Sophia, from builders to suppliers. “We wanted to do six-ounce coffees, and everyone said, ‘You can’t do that in Penrith’. Reuben Hills is quite a light roast; people were saying, ‘You can’t serve that kind of coffee, no one is going to like it’.”
The pair stayed true to their vision, encouraged by support from allies such as Reuben Hills’ Russell Beard, and now the split between customers ordering the six-ounce and larger cups is even.
Despite their detractors, both Henri Marc and Circa have flourished in their western Sydney neighbourhoods. Their success shows that there is a strong demand for quality hospitality outfits in the west.
Western Sydney’s evolving coffee culture can be explained by another factor: the expansion of the inner west. Rising house prices have pushed traditional inner-west types further west, and they’ve taken their cafe culture with them.
Anthony Svilicich moved with his partner and their two young sons to Ashfield three-and-a-half years ago. A year later he took a long lease on an old corner store in the suburb and opened Excelsior Jones with co-owner James Naylor.
“When we initially looked at the site, [we thought] ‘This may work really well or it may go really pear-shaped’. I thought it was worth the risk,” says Svilicich. “Meeting a lot of local young families who said, ‘There’s nowhere to go around here, we have to travel further inner west’, helped pushed me along to make that decision to open.”
The loyalty of locals has helped make Excelsior Jones a community hub. The cafe regularly gives to fundraisers such as trivia nights and school events. “We contribute vouchers to anyone who will ask us because I think it’s good to give back to the community,” he says. Locals have rewarded Excelsior Jones’ support in kind, backing the cafe in its two-and-a-half year stoush with council over outdoor seating. “We had a petition going with 5000 local signatures, so they really got behind us to support us on that, and in the end we got it.”
Like Circa and Henri Marc, Excelsior Jones has also become a destination cafe, with weekend customers regularly making the trip from as far as Bexley, Campsie and Canterbury. It raises the question of why there aren’t more quality cafes opening in these areas in Sydney when the demand is clearly there.
In Sayan’s view, a lack of expertise is slowing the spread of specialty coffee in the west. Running a cafe such as Circa, “Takes a lot of focus, a lot of energy, a lot of hard work, and it also takes a lot of knowledge and skill,” he says. “From an operator’s point of view, the specialty people who come in and operate – we don’t have those people yet.”
Directly addressing that skills shortage is the new Sydney Coffee Academy, located on the TAFE campus in Ryde. “We have just launched an exciting nine-week advanced Professional Barista course,” says Patrick Beckitt, course director at the academy. “It is run by baristas for baristas.”
Beckitt is unsurprisingly upbeat about coffee culture in the west. “Western Sydney is giving Sydney a run for its money, as interest and customer knowledge is spreading and shifting,” he says, citing venues such as Circa, Smith and Three Ropes in Parramatta, The Baron in Castle Hill, Zokoko in Emu Heights, the Pablo and Rusty’s outpost in Olympic Park and Henri Marc. “They have created venues that the dedicated coffee lover will happily spend their weekend driving to for their next great coffee experience.”
More evidence of change is the arrival of artisanal vendors in Parramatta, such as Bourke Street Bakery and Gelato Messina. More will inevitably follow, lured by a growing economy set to benefit from investment in projects such as the redevelopment of Civic Place into the $2 billion Parramatta Square, crowned by the 306-metre Aspire Tower.
Sophia is confident the coffee culture she exported from Surry Hills will eventually spread through western Sydney. “There is so much emphasis on coffee now,” she says. “I think it will happen pretty naturally.” Her sentiments are echoed by Svilicich. “We’re such a cafe-based society now, no matter where you go,” he says, whether it’s Surry Hills, Marrickville, or Penrith.