Axil Coffee Founder David Makin talks to BeanScene about his entrepreneurial drive, the realities of business ownership, and the buy-in model that’s allowing the brand to reach new heights.
David Makin is best known as a two-time Australian Barista Champion and the owner of Axil Coffee Roasters, but as he can attest, success is a journey, not a destination.
“Back in the early 2000s, I had two very different stories going on in my life. To most, I was having all this success on the barista competition stage, but at the same time, I was losing loads of money. My restaurant and bar in Finders Lane [in Melbourne] was going broke,” David says. “I sold the bar in 2004, lost $450,000, and moved back home with mum and dad at age 30. That was a bitter pill to swallow.”
It took David four years to recover what he’d lost. Working for Veneziano Coffee Roasters at the time as a sales representative, it was suggested David get a credit card for $25,000 with 16 per cent interest and invest into a café with company co-founder Rocky Veneziano. He did, and together they opened a little espresso bar called Bibita in Melbourne Central.
“I worked damn hard. During the weekdays I worked as a sales rep, and on the weekends I worked behind the bar,” David says. “What got me through was a strong work ethic, which my parents had always instilled in me. They always said: ‘if you’re going to be a barista, be the best barista you possibly can be.’”
Straight out of high school, David set about chasing his dream job as a hotel general manager. He studied a business degree in catering and hotel management, and in the third year of his university degree, David went to the United States on an internship at the Hyatt Hotel on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. There, he learned the practical and theoretical side of the business, working in different departments including room service, the poolside bar, the café, and the nightclub. David discovered the “stern structure” of hotels wasn’t for him and steered his focus towards restaurants. He returned to Australia a year later and put his newfound skills to use, running the family burger restaurant, Johnny Rockets, in Adelaide.
It was 1997 when David moved back to Melbourne, finished his degree, and got a job with Spotless Catering. In his first week, he made a fleeting acquaintance with a guy named Craig Dickson, now CEO of Veneziano Coffee Roasters. In the same week, David was asked to make coffee for a man who sent it straight back saying how terrible it was. That was Peter Wolff, now Owner of Wolff Coffee Roasters. Peter went on to teach David a lot about coffee and the broader coffee industry.
Six months later, David got a call from a recruitment agent who said: “I’ve got a job with your name all over it.” It was a sales position for Sara Lee, then owner of Jacob Douwe Egberts and Piazza d’Oro. It was in the second-round interview that David was “grilled” by Lance Brown, now Black Bag Coffee Roasters General Manager.
“I got the job. No-one told me at the time, but I was taking over Rocky Veneziano’s position who had since left the company,” David says. “Then, as luck would have it, on my first day I saw the familiar face of Craig Dickson again, who was finishing this job and moving to the Netherlands to work at Douwe Egbert’s head office.
“Now when I look back, each of those four people I met in the early years of my career – Craig, Lance, Peter, and Rocky – were all influential in my coffee development and business experience. I always made an effort to network. It’s those experiences and chance meetings that give you opportunities.”
Another instrumental figure was Piazza d’Oro’s Sydney Sales Manager, the late Maico LaPenna, whom David credits for introducing him to the barista competition world. Maico trained David to compete in Victoria’s first barista competition in 2004, and he won. It secured his position in the Australian Barista Championship but on that occasion, David placed last, hundreds of points behind Maico, the winner.
It was after David’s competition loss that he went to work for the newly formed Veneziano Coffee Roasters as a sales rep. David stayed for the next five years, in which time he became a five-time Victorian Barista Champion, two-time Australian Barista Champion, and 2008 World Barista Champion runner-up, missing out on the grand title by a mere five points.
Along the way David met Zoe, a fellow barista and coffee roaster, and his now wife. The pair decided to start their own roasting business in 2010, called Axil Coffee Roasters. They started roasting out of Coffee Supreme in Abbotsford and selling wholesale. A year later in May 2011, David and Zoe opened their first café in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn.
For the next three years, Zoe and David worked hard to build up their wholesale accounts before opening their second store, a 22-square-metre coffee bar in Flinder’s Lane in May 2014 – the first day of the 2014 Melbourne International Coffee Expo.
“That’s when it dawned on us that maintaining coffee quality between two venues was going to be hard. I looked back at the business model I learned from Craig and Rocky at Veneziano,” David says. “They had sold me a percentage of a café and I was really invested in it. I knew we could give the same opportunity to others and expand at the same time, so I applied the theory to our third store in Southern Cross Lane. We had five Axil staff buy in 10 per cent each, and we retained 50 per cent of the store.”
That was the start of Axil’s “buy in” model, which has incidentally become an employment magnet for the brand.
“I was always told ‘you’re better off to own 50 per cent of a rockstar than 100 per cent of a lemon’. Ultimately, hospitality is all about the people standing in the store. I can’t physically be in two places at once, so the only way to do it was to have passionate partners in each store. We now have 17 staff that own shares in Axil,” David says.
David’s management team even takes the burden of paperwork off its store owners’ hands, managing the pay roll, supplier payments, and data entry from a central office, so they can focus solely on running the business.
“Café ownership is challenging, with all the levels of permits, compliance, and paperwork needed, plus the cost of equipment, it makes it prohibitive for people to start on their own,” David says.
There are currently 15 Axil-branded stores in Melbourne – 11 CBD-based and four suburban locations. This includes Chadstone Shopping Centre and Melbourne Airport, the latter of which opened six weeks before COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, reducing turnover by 90 per cent in a matter of days.
For David, securing the right store location has always been about finding places with high foot traffic, which ideally converts into sales.
“Thirty million people a year go to Chadstone, and the volume of travellers at the airport pre-lockdown exceeds that number. Everyone wants a decent cup of coffee. In places like Chadstone and the airport, rent is high, but so is foot traffic,” David says. “Our other model – which was good in theory before COVID – was to open Monday to Friday in the CBD. You avoid weekend penalty rates and it’s a more appealing lifestyle for staff.”
While the coronavirus has put a spanner in the works for many business owners, David is confident he has the structure and team to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. He’s even optimistic about opening four inner-city Melbourne venues in the coming months: Collins Arch, Flinders Gate, Richmond, and Wesley Place.
“I think we can do more stores. There’s space in the market for more. How many is too many? Well, it’s a big city. Five million people are looking for good quality coffee,” David says.
While some roasters choose to grow under different-named venues, David is proud to display the Axil name as the brand continues to grow, as long as product quality is maintained.
“To be honest, it was great when Zoe and I roasted and delivered the coffee. We had more personal contact with customers, but over the years, our quality has improved as we have grown,” David says. “We have a lot more resources committed to Axil now.”
While there is never one correct career path to successful business ownership, constant learning and development are essential. For David, he says his competition career and business dealings have given him the skills and experience to become a better businessman.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without experiencing the WBC in terms of meeting coffee farmers and developing connections. Equally, I wouldn’t have been able to grow Axil into a multi-site business unless I had done a business degree with an understanding of HR and lease negotiation. The two have complemented each other,” he says.
David insists he is still capable of jumping behind a coffee machine when required, but is content with the work-life balance the growth of Axil Coffee has afforded him, which includes spending more time with Zoe and daughters Raina and Milla.
“[On reflection], competition has always been part of my daily life, from racing go karts when I was a kid, to barista competitions or building a coffee roasting brand, it’s something that drives me,” he says. “But ultimately, it’s what I enjoy.”
This article appears in the October 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.