A cup of connection: How Melbourne’s cafes bind us

Here’s a recent cover story I wrote for Domain Review. It was first published here on 29 September, 2021.

By Peter Barrett

Melburnians have shown plenty of mettle during these pandemic times. But when a rumour began circulating that the government was considering banning takeaway coffee as part of new, tighter lockdown restrictions, it seemed our resolve started to wobble. A city that thrives on culture had already given up its restaurants, theatre, live music, and footy to the virus. Surely not our daily takeaway coffee, too?

Fortunately, the rumour lasted only a few hours before Premier Dan Andrews put it in the bin in his Saturday press conference. But the public outcry and anxiousness expressed in the interim made us wonder: beyond the caffeine hit, why are Melbourne cafes so important to us?  

First, Melburnians could be forgiven for taking their daily cup for granted. The kernel of truth hidden in the stereotype of the Melbourne coffee snob is the fact that our coffee scene is actually world-class. Matt Holden, a former editor of The Age Good Cafe Guide, says what began with an influx of Italian migrants and espresso machines in the 1950s (think Pellegrini’s) led to bohemian outposts in the 1980s in Fitzroy and St Kilda (the Black Cat, Mario’s, and The Galleon, respectively). By the 2000s, a combination of wealth, inner-city gentrification, and more sophisticated ideas around provenance and ethical sourcing of ingredients (led by restaurants) gave rise to Melbourne’s so-called “third wave” coffee. 

Typically sold from a smartly refurbished warehouse, it was single-origin, ethically sourced and paired with a next-level food and hospitality experience. Holden says the birth of cafes, such as Auction Rooms in North Melbourne and St Ali in South Melbourne, epitomises this shift. 

But there’s more. Holden suggests that compared to pubs, these cafes suddenly offered a more democratic, open, and accessible place for the public to congregate. “Pubs in Australia have been traditionally pretty male, pretty Anglo kind of spaces and not that welcoming of women or other people,” says Holden. “Maybe cafes are more like that.” He also notes the change towards more flexible work habits has led to more people working in cafes and visiting them during the week as well as weekends. 

And then came the pandemic. Third-wave coffee pioneer Fleur Studd started Melbourne Coffee Merchants with her father Will Studd in 2008 and co-founded coffee roaster and retailer Market Lane at Prahran Market the following year. The business has since grown to six shops with its roasting headquarters in Brunswick East. “The thing that’s unique about cafes and coffee shops is people are visiting them in quite a habitual way,” she says. “So, it’s a daily ritual that is part of everyone’s lives, in a pandemic, and outside of a pandemic. And I feel like the pandemic, in a way, condenses or intensifies that experience.” 

Studd says that with so many people working from home, some customers come to her cafes up to three times a day. “It’s so much more than the beverage that we’re serving to our customers,” she says. “It’s about that relationship with the customer and that connection that the team are building. And I think that’s even more important in times where we’re feeling really isolated.” Indeed, when Prahran Market became a COVID-19 exposure site earlier this year, one customer offered to make lasagne for staff who were self-isolating. “It’s just amazing. It’s definitely a two-way relationship that is really special.” 

In Elsternwick, Carter Lovett owner Mary-Jane Daffy says the pandemic has forced people to slow down, turning her cafe-bistro into something like a country general store where people stop by to get their daily fix of local news. “For a lot of our customers, this is the time that they get out for the day. They have their walk with one other, or with their husband, or with their dog, and they have their 10 minutes while waiting for a coffee, and they interact. So, it’s really important. Particularly for single people, I think.”

Daffy also made arrangements early in the pandemic with other retailers who cannot trade during lockdowns, such as the local florist, to sell products on their behalf without taking a profit. “We’re only as good as the street that we’re on,” she explains. “We need all of the businesses here to draw people to the area.”    

Carter Lovett’s Canadian barista Paul Jagos came to Melbourne five years ago to take his craft to the next level. He’s noticed recently customers lingering for a chat or engaging in philosophical debate (a small but vocal minority just want to argue about masks, frustratingly). Customers have “become more real”, he says, ditching polite chit-chat for more honest exchanges. “I think a lot of people come, and they do get this empathy because we’re like, ‘Yep, we’re all in the same boat here. We do understand how you feel’.”

Living in Kensington, Greens State MP for Melbourne, Ellen Sandell, says businesses like cafes have become integral in fostering community connection in recent months when going out for a walk to get a coffee or takeaway lunch may be the only time you’ll see another person. “Humans fundamentally need that social interaction,” she says. “We can get that at cafes because they’re easily accessible places that anyone can go.” 

Looking ahead, though, Sandell is concerned policymakers need to plan more for bringing vibrancy back to the CBD. “We may not be able to just rely on office workers going into the city every day. We need to think … how does Melbourne become a city where you go for unique experiences?” 

Invested in that dilemma is another third-wave coffee pioneer, Andrew Kelly, who opened Auction Rooms in 2008, sold in 2016, and has since concentrated on his roasting operation, Small Batch. Kelly says he had a Little Lonsdale Street CBD small-footprint cafe-cum-wine-bar with an upstairs kitchen “90 per cent built” in March 2020, but for obvious reasons, he delayed opening.

With a launch now scheduled for January, Kelly is banking on the CBD being okay, despite the recent focus on local neighbourhood cafes. “There’s a broader need for connectedness, which cafes provide outside of your local area,” he says. “And that’s why people want to still go into the office several days a week, even if they never return to five days a week. There’s still that need for collegiality and [community] and other meeting places, other food places. I think the CBD is just too strong a drawcard, ultimately.”

Whether we’ll be lingering for a chat, engaging in philosophical debate, or “being more real” in those new cafes in the future remains to be seen. But we’re unlikely to take them for granted.

This story was first published by Domain Review on 29 September 2021.