Spotlight on the Sydney coffee scene: Toby's Estate

Concluding our series of spotlight articles on some of the leading lights in Sydney’s coffee scene, we speak with Nich Rae, Head of Coffee, Toby’s Estate. Here Rae discusses how Covid-19 has shifted the city's coffee consumption patterns and why quality is still king.

Nich Rae, Head of Coffee, Toby’s Estate pictured at the brand's flagship roastery in Sydney | Photo credits: Photos courtesy of Toby’s Estate

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.

Covid-19 has shifted Sydney's coffee consumption

Sydney’s café trade was decimated when Covid-19 hit. The effect of lockdown and more people working from home meant many operators’ volumes were reduced from 100-200kg of coffee a week to six or 12kg – it was unbelievable.

Despite these major changes to daily routines, we found that people didn’t stop drinking coffee, they just drank in different areas and suburban cafés were booming. As Covid-19 hit, many of our suburban cafés saw volumes rise 20-30%, and some even more. The goal for us has been to help these suburban cafés maintain those volumes.

It’s happening slowly, but the CBD is well and truly recovering. Some of our bigger city accounts are now reporting anywhere between 80-90% of pre-Covid-19 volumes. Today, there is a feeling of optimism in Sydney.

Covid-19 has also presented logistics headaches for our coffee sourcing. On average there have been 4-5 weeks of delays importing coffee, so we’ve had to factor that into our operations and organise contracts accordingly to get coffee here on time. It’s been such a big process. On top of that, Colombia has been experiencing huge rains and flooding, which has added to delays.

Cash flow has been another major concern for cafés during the pandemic. We’ve supported our partners by extending credit, but also by offering a more diverse range of coffees that will excite the market, make accounts more interesting, and ultimately sell more coffee.

"People in Sydney want their coffee quick and they want it done well"

In December 2020, we launched our first ‘flavour focus’ blend as a part of our Flavour Savour series. We make these coffees to be specifically paired with milk as that is how most of our most of our customers take their coffee. Our first release was butterscotch pudding, which performed well, and we’ve recently launched our Watermelon Cake blend with really interesting flavours, such as rose petal and crème brûlée, and of course, watermelon (Rossyln in London are actually stocking it at the moment).

The coffee scene in Sydney, and Australia in general, is very milk-driven and alternative milks are beginning to have a big impact. Soy was huge for a long time, but as different products have arrived on the market people have shifted to those . Around 18 months ago, people started getting excited about oat milk and we’re also selling big volumes of almond milk because the flavour is unintrusive and pairs very well with coffee.

Quality is still king

First and foremost, successful cafés in Sydney need to offer a great product. Customers need to have a good reason to spend $5 as opposed to going next door – there are so many cafés to choose from.

The person behind the bar needs to be able to read the room and understand each customers’ needs. It’s about customer service, making people comfortable when they walk in the door, understanding whether they want to chat that day or not.

These important skills sometimes get overshadowed when cafés start taking shortcuts. We find that customers are willing to wait if they know they’re going to get bang for their buck. Word spreads when you’re serving the best coffee and the vibe is amazing, there’s a trickle-down effect from that.

Toby’s Estate flagship café,Chippendale, Sydney

However, when cafés start doing solid volumes it becomes more difficult to achieve consistency. There is so much effort that goes into making a great cup of coffee. I just hope all those cafés thinking about opening their own roasteries have thought about that.

Sydney or Melbourne?

I think everyone does an incredible job. I don’t think you can compare; they’re two very different markets. Overall, Sydney is a more stable market where you need to provide a consistent product. Melbourne flows more with trends – one year the coffee will be on the lighter side and six months later and everyone’s trending a little bit darker.

I regularly seek out coffees from Melbourne, where there are more single origins being produced, for example. Sydney’s just different – you can’t come to Sydney and expect a Melbourne-style café vibe, or vice-versa.

You’ll go to Melbourne and have the best breakfast of your life, guaranteed. If I could choose to have a breakfast anywhere in the world for the rest of my life, it would be Melbourne, that’s for sure.

Personally, I love that Sydney is a bit grungier. It’s a bit grimy, there’s more hustle and bustle. I love that people in Sydney want their coffee quick and they want it done well.
For more from Nich Rae, Jenny Willits and Melinda Evans on the impact of Covid-19 on Sydney’s coffee scene, tune in to our podcast episode here.

This interview was conducted in April 2021 and first published in Issue 7 of 5THWAVE magazine

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