As we’ve been sipping on our coffee and enjoying the seemingly endless stream of cafes that are popping up all over the city, we’ve also noticed that there seems to be a surprisingly small number of them operated by women.
While the gents are doing a great job, we decided to hunt down some of the ladies making their mark on the cafe scene in Sydney to find out if it’s really a boys club out there, and if so, how that affects their respective businesses.
Hazel de los Reyes - owner and coffee roaster, Coffee Alchemy, Marrickville
Hazel de los Reyes has been in the coffee business for a many a year. She’s risen to the top of the Australian coffee industry, earning awards and recognition, also running her own cafe in Marrickville, where you can find her roasting the beans that have made Coffee Alchemy a staple across Sydney. “In the coffee business it’s mainly men,” says de los Reyes. “There just weren’t any women for me to talk to or associate with [when I started out]. So there was no one for mentoring and advice.” But that didn’t stop her. “The coffee just came first. It didn’t bother me who else was in the sandbox, I just had get in there and play. That was how it was.”
For de los Reyes (who took women’s studies at university) there is plenty of male managerial discourse in hospitality. But despite feeling that there have been times when her opinion has been overlooked (or granted weight only when voiced by a male colleague), she maintains that when women do take the reins they bring with them a specific managerial style. “It’s in the way we multitask,” says the coffee roaster. “And we’re sensitive to personalities and individual strengths. I think in terms of effectively coming up with self managing systems, I find women are effective at that.”
But a little bit of gender reversal still makes her smile. “I love it that I fix my machines and roast and the guys come and ask my why the grinder isn’t working…I just have to ask them, have you switched it on?”
Sarah Glover, owner and bikkie baker - Bondi Bikkies, Bondi Beach
Sarah Glover, head biscuit baker and owner at Bondi Bikkies, agrees that a woman’s touch brings its own flare to the art of creating cafe atmosphere. “I think we bring the homely touch…we can make that relaxed atmosphere, instead of a pumped-up, high turnover cafe where boys are driving it.”
Glover believes that it’s this relaxed atmosphere that speaks to her largely female clientele. “They certainly enjoy and relax in our service. It’s just the feel of our place,” she says of her currently all-female staff.
Glover has been in the industry for the last 16 years and she notes that it can be a bit of an unintentional boys club. “I don’t think I was intimidated by that. But it’s there when you’re getting into doing coffee. With a lot of boys, that’s their jam you know? They have their own lingo and everything. It can be intimidating, but you have to ask the questions – especially when it comes to the science.”
But she believes that a change is on the way. “I think we’ll see a rise in [the female-owned cafe] trend in Australia. In New York, there are already quite a few women in the business with that ‘can do’ attitude and I think in Australia women are looking for career options that offer more ownership…but I think it’ll be more specialised.”
Sophie Zetterberg, Linda Stanes and Diana Chirilas, owners - Fika Swedish Kitchen, Manly
For the three ladies behind Fika Swedish Kitchen in Manly, having a female team simply grew out of an appreciation of their individual skill sets. “We had spoken about opening a Swedish cafe ever since we moved here six years ago,” says Diana Chirilas. “We’re all passionate about food, constantly exploring new cafes and restaurants. With Linda being a hospitality guru, Sophie and myself working in design, we realised how we could all contribute to a start-up in different ways,” she continues, noting that their native Swedish culture strives for male/female equality.
“Women are great at fulfilling business requirements while still being compassionate. It's sometimes a fine balance as a manager not to be seen as too soft or too bitchy, but there are many different ways of gaining respect from your peers.”
Again, the team points out that a female managerial style is distinctly different. “I must say we're quite good at finding creative solutions to the many challenges that have come our way so far. It's all about questioning procedures and ensuring they are as effective as they can be in a small business.”
“Many women are shy and don't realise their potential,” adds Stanes, before Zetterberg points out that it will only take a few for the tide to turn.
“I think it is like a domino effect. If a few women would start their own businesses, more women would follow.”
Nadine Ingram, owner and baker - Flour & Stone, Woolloomooloo
Nadine Ingram owner and baker behind Woolloomooloo’s Flour & Stone can cite some very clear experiences in her hospitality career that have been shaped by her gender. “I did an apprenticeship as a chef in a combination of hotels and restaurants, but was always put in the pastry section because I was a girl. Then I went to London and trained in pastry at some Michelin starred restaurants and decided that I actually quite liked baking.”
For Ingram, opening a cafe space was about bringing a physical presence to her baking skills. “It was about making myself visible. I was operating a wholesale business that wasn't recognised because the customer couldn't see us or touch us. Sydney has always been about being seen. The idea of a woman baking cookies from home is a romantic idea, but not one that was going to gain me credibility as a professional. I knew I needed a retail space where the customer could come and buy an exceptional piece of cake, drink it with a well-made tea or coffee and walk out with change in their pocket.”
For Ingram it’s the female knack of evolving with a business and listening to staff and customers that is an advantage. But does it take a certain kind of woman to open a cafe in Sydney? “I think it makes it easier if you have a craft like baking or coffee roasting. These are pretty gritty professions that require a lot of hard work. If you've succeeded in these fields and made it past having children (or decided they aren't for you) then a cafe is natural progression.”