Continuing our series of interviews with three of the Sydney coffee scene’s leading lights, we speak with Melinda Evans, Operations Manager at Mecca Coffee Roasters
. In this conversation, Evans shares how the pandemic has reshaped Sydney’s café market and the growing consumer demand for ethical and sustainable business practices.
Main image: Mecca Coffee Roasters, Alexandria Café in Sydney, Australia | Inset: Melinda Evans, Operations Manager, Mecca Coffee Roasters | Photos courtesy of Mecca Coffee Roasters
This interview was conducted in April 2021 when cafés across Sydney, and other parts of Australia, were open and thriving. However, Covid-19 is a rapidly changing situation, and upon publication of this article Sydney has entered further Covid-19 lockdowns and trading restrictions.
The pandemic has reshaped Sydney's café market
Sydney has been relatively lucky during the pandemic compared to many other cities globally, with coffee shops now largely trading normally.
That being said, Sydney’s cafés have definitely felt the heat. In early 2020, most coffee businesses shifted to take-away only and many were forced to temporarily close completely. Cafés around the CBD were hit harder than others due to a loss of footfall and, unfortunately, many of those stores shut permanently.
Mecca has two cafés – one on King Street in the CBD, and another in Alexandria connected to our roastery. Our King Street store definitely bore the brunt of the lockdown but we’re now seeing customers return as many offices reopen.
However, where customers are returning to the CBD, we’ve seen a shift in footfall. Monday and Friday used to be the busy days with people either starting the working week or getting ready for the weekend. These are now the quieter days as more people work a four-day week. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are now the prime days in the CBD.
Meanwhile, many suburban cafés thrived because they became hubs of ‘normality’ for local residents. Even though they were operating takeaway-only, many suburban stores became the few places within walking distance from homes that made customers feel connected to the outside world.
Online retail coffee sales have surges
Before the pandemic hit, we weren’t heavily marketing our retail coffee business. However, while our stores were not fully operational during lockdown, we saw a six-fold increase in online retail coffee sales over the course of the year.
We also saw a significant sales increases from customers seeking to source coffee beans and brewing equipment direct from our roastery-café in Alexandria – but online was where we saw the most growth.
“Operators now need to be more quality-conscious than ever”
Online growth has since steadied, but we are definitely going to invest more in perfecting those systems. At-home coffee is a huge and exciting new market we can really start getting people excited about different brewing equipment, single origins, and even using different roasters to strengthen Sydney’s coffee community.
Consumers became more discerning during lockdown
Consumers have had more time during lockdown to invest in learning about coffee and that has set the quality bar higher in Sydney’s café scene. The city has experienced an influx of smaller roasting companies and cafés openingin recent years and operators now need to be more quality-conscious than ever.
If you’re not hitting the mark almost 100% of the time, it is very easy for customers to go elsewhere. However, we see those businesses that perform well and meet high expectations building significant brand loyalty.
With so much uncertainty still lingering, we need to be very conscious of where we’re investing our time and money. Mecca’s biggest priority has been to make sure we’re always delivering the same level of quality – if not higher – every time.
On the food side, there has certainly been a massive push on the healthy options available in cafés, with customers seeking out amazing fresh sandwiches or salads. Cafés can inspire customers by changing things up with seasonal menus, specials and new recipes. It’s about revamping the basics rather than trying to completely reinvent the wheel.
Staff want a better work-life balance
As a semblance of normality returns to operations after lockdown, many of our staff have realised they want a better work-life balance. In terms of staffing the café, many of our team have asked to work four instead of five days a week and want more flexibility.
The business is also more conscious of health, whether that’s mental or physical wellbeing. I think a lot of people used to push through instead of taking time off if they needed it and we’re actively encouraging staff to be upfront about any challenges they’re facing.
Mecca Coffee Roasters, Alexandria Roastery in Sydney, Australia
Consumers are demanding ethical and sustainable business practices
Sustainability and ethical coffee procurement were founding principles behind Mecca Coffee. In Sydney, and across Australia, our transparent relationships with coffee farmers and telling the narrative behind each variety sourced remains of utmost importance when we work with importers.
We are in a climate crisis and our customers are more conscious than ever about sustainable packaging and local sourcing. We see these issues becoming increasingly important in the broader Sydney scene and customers are ready to question if businesses are not embracing them. We get calls every week from customers asking about the steps we’ve taken to become more sustainable and ethically conscious business.
For example, we’ve switched to recyclable packaging for our 250g, 1kg and 3kg bags of coffee. We use compostable mailers instead of sending plastic out into the world and we use cardboard boxes for larger orders.
For our cafés, we use local suppliers who share our sustainable business ethos. We’re really focused on strengthening communities – our pastries come from local suppliers, we use local bakeries for our bread. We have a sense of responsibility and we’re in a fortunate position to lead that charge.
It’s the little things that we do in the coffee world that collectively have a hugely positive impact. We’re trying to do our part at Mecca, and we’d love to see everyone get on board with these practices.
Sydney or Melbourne?
Whenever I’ve spent time in Melbourne, I’ve never had that fear of walking blindly into a cafés and not knowing what I’m going to get. But my heart lies with Sydney. We’ve got so many amazing small roasters and the city is really paving the way when it comes to growing and adapting to Covid-19.
In the third and final part of this series, we speak with Nich Rae, Head of Coffee, Toby’s Estate, about the shift in Sydney’s coffee consumption and why quality is still king.
This interview was conducted in April 2021 and first published in Issue 7 of 5THWAVE magazine
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