I remember being 17 when the wave of cafes with ‘specialty coffee’, hanging pot plants and rugged baristas hit. It was then I decided to put down my caramel fudge latte and find out what fabulous coffee actually was. Now, all these years later being completely immersed in the industry, the actual history of it interests me. When did people give-up Nescafe 43 and how did the culture of coffee grow? More importantly, in what direction is our snobbishly die-hard love affair with caffeine heading?
Only one person could answer all of this for me; a man who knows his shit, tells it like it is and has more than just skills to pay the bills. Killer jokes, smooth pick-up lines and a witty sense of humour is also yours at the door. I should probably mention he was also ten minutes late to our interview with the excuse that ‘great hair comes first’.
Meet Tony Overall, cafe owner, boxing trainer, AFL expert and part-time life coach to his staff. They call him ‘Big Daddy’ not just because he’s tall and robust like his coffee, but what other cool dad would blast Aussie Hip-Hop music and rap as they’re dropping their son off to school?
TAKES MORE THAN JUST A TOPKNOT
Along with his wife Kirsten and their lovely business partners Sondra and Simon Hall, Tony established North Bondi’s notorious Bru Coffee and newly opened Nobo Eatery. NoBo is actually the previously established AquaBar, where Tony and Kirsten first met. Fourteen years later and they’re back on old turf, pouring as much love into their businesses as they do their romance.
Tony never initially sort out to make coffee, but he got his hands on the machine at the age of 15 in Adelaide in ‘86. He then continued his hospitality journey through to Sydney where he started making ‘real coffee’ at Aqua Bar in 1997.
“That was then the dynamic of coffee changed in Sydney. That was a ‘cup first, coffee first’ offer where coffee was highly valued. During that period, I met my mate Ed from Jeds and that was the first time I saw coffee made properly. I looked at that and said ‘What the fuck have I been doing’.”
These days Tony will admit the ‘dudes in the topknots’ help our market become more discerning with things like cold drip and single origin. But the real drivers behind the change he says are coffee companies and their training.
“They’ve gotten better, their brands have become stronger, they value their coffee making higher. Grinders Coffee was the first company who were the ‘Allpress/Campos’ at the time. They were the first company who invested in their training. So that’s been a major difference. They really drove a change of habits for everyone.”
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Three decades later and Tony’s developed the kind of skill-set that would make any person in hospitality want to pull up a stool right next to him. He’s done nightclubs, cafes, restaurants and created and owned a Pizza chain. Because besides making great coffee, this guy also see’s the bigger picture. “This is the only industry I know where people will literally stand outside and look at it and go ‘there is not a skill-set required to do that, so I can do it’. No-one looks at mechanics, dentists, accountant and lawyers, fucking pilots and goes ‘oh yeah I could do that’. They all naturally assume that there’s a skill-set in that industry that they don’t have, except this one.”
This also goes for running a business with your partner.
“People would look at Kirsten and I and go ‘fuck what a great lifestyle’. We might get to have a day off, pick up our kid from school and cruise around the cafe – but we earnt it and we paid for that. We sit on a massive skillset, so that’s why we can do those things.”
And as for working alongside his wife, he’s got a few secrets for any couple out there wanting to co-share a business – know your strengths and surrender when they’re not yours.
“My wife’s ability to get her hands into our product and make everything better everytime she get’s to it is incredible and people taste that, then that drives through our whole business. So I step back and know that she fundamentally makes the food for our cafe better than I do, and once you reach that point, of understanding each others strengths, then the rest of the decisions are easy.”
COFFEE IS A 2 WAY STREET
“It’s a really funny one, I’ve evolved right through this industry, but I still love the technical bits of it. A bloke laughed at me once while I was ‘working’ and said ‘what time do you start work’ and I went ‘mate I’m at work now’, and he said ‘mate this isn’t a real job’. I’m a 47 year old man where some days I don’t have a real job, it’s bloody good.”
One thing I love about this guy as a fellow barista is his ability to be upfront when it comes to service. As baristas, we do appreciate every person that walks in the door, but it’s a two-way street.
“I find some people really overrate the value of their $3.70 and what it gets them. You’ve got to please the customer and I totally agree with that, but if people fundamentally hit my business without their manners in, then I’ll gladly tell them to go elsewhere.”
When we discussed the changing nature of Bondi’s food and drink culture, he says it’s the best it’s ever been.
“If you take North Bondi fifteen years ago, there was Doughboys which I owned, Oporto’s and nothing else. Now there’s six thriving food businesses in North Bondi. It’s not only unique to North Bondi, the food and retail on Hall Street (middle Bondi) is what drives that street. All of that energy comes from the food offerings, almost nothing else. As clothing, bike and surf retail vanishes – the coffee, cafe and restaurants will take its place and create great energy.”
DON’T LOSE YOUR COOL
“We’re a boots on the ground business, we’re in the shops we own. I’m really comfortable with that and it’s the way I prefer to do my retailing. The challenges for all business in this space I think is to stay innovative, don’t keep sitting on your offer and think ‘oh good we’re done’. Because once you become irrelevant or lose relevancy, you’re halfway to closed. Your next threat is always just a retail space away, they’re going to open next door, around the corner, across the road.”
So if you want to talk AFL for an hour, get some life-advice or get free babysitting while you enjoy your coffee, then go and greet Big Daddy and get some lovin’.