Dressed to impress: making café design memorable

Australia is known for its coffee quality, but our café design is equally idolised around the world. We explore what it takes to be memorable, and whether money really talks.

Some of Australia’s most impressive café experiences are not because they serve the latest Cup of Excellence-winning coffee, or Instagram-worthy smashed avos and smoothie bowls, but because of their impressive design.

In Melbourne, there’s Brother Baba Budan with its iconic chairs stuck to the ceiling, Au79 with no expense spared on the gold trimmings, St Ali with its casual industrial look, Higher Ground’s massive hotel-like attraction in an ex-power station, and in Sydney the Grounds of Alexandria revolutionised what a café space could be, complete with flower market, roastery, and wedding reception.

Jacqui Senior, Senior Associate and Hospitality Sector Leader at Woods Bagot in Sydney, knows what it takes to stand out from the crowd. She was involved in Campos Coffee’s award-winning Barangaroo site in Sydney and says in this instance, it was the location that inspired the café’s now-iconic jewelry box shape.

“Campos Barangaroo is a beautiful statement piece that’s designed to be intentionally special,” Jacqui says. “Located in a lobby with a huge volume of space around it, we knew we had to create something that shied away from the stereotypical ‘lobby café’.”

Jacqui says an office building café is usually fraught with the challenge of reduced foot traffic and poor signage to show people what lies beyond revolving doors, but if the coffee and service are good and the design appealing, then the people will come. Neighbouring office workers now walk out of their own buildings and make a beeline for Tower 3.

With extensive design experience in London, Europe and on home soil, Jacqui says the key to any good design project is collaboration and a brief from the client on what they want to achieve.

“There needs to be a clear understanding about achieving design, service, and operational requirements from the very beginning. Beauty can get you in the door but if the café doesn’t work operationally, there’s no point. There needs to be balance,” Jacqui says. “Educated operators know exactly what they need from layout, storage, back of house, and how the brew bar will be managed, so in that case I’ll always take the lead from them.”

Understanding the needs of the customers is crucial. In the case of most CBD venues and for Campos Barangaroo, the location is full of office workers flying in and out. As such there’s no dine-in seats, just fast-paced takeaway service. The Campos cube might be tiny, but there’s still an orderly transition from the order line, waiting area, and delivery bar to make service seamless.

Jean-Paul Ghougassian, Director of Ritz & Ghougassian, says respecting the location of the café in respect to the building’s former use is also important.

“I used to push a design aesthetic into a particular space, but now I look at the context of the area first and relate the design and use of materials back to the surrounding suburb,” Jean-Paul says.

He points to Bentwood, his most recent design that’s influenced by the trendy Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. To blend into the neighbourhood, Jean-Paul has utilised the building’s outer red brick and let it seep through to the inside of the café.

“Bentwood has an industrial heritage. Materiality definitely influenced the design here, but also the mood. To be more comforting, we’ve used more natural light than artificial,” he says. “When you’re working on a design that’s located in the outer suburbs, you naturally don’t have the bustling city-traffic to contend with, so it’s our job to create a space that invites people in and becomes a destination.”

Jean-Paul says while café owners are putting more and more coin into lavish designs, money doesn’t always talk.

“Sure, a visually appealing space will get people’s attention, but it’s the coffee, food, and service that will really determine if your customer comes back a second, third, or fourth time,” he says. “I have however seen operators spend in excess of $1 million on a 100-square-metre venue. Money doesn’t necessarily equate to success, but to have a new experience you do have to have the money behind it otherwise all cafés tend to look the same, and it seems Australian customers don’t settle for less.”

Campos Coffee Founder Will Young has opened 10 flagship stores over the years, including the recently opened roaster and kitchen in Salt Lake City in the United States.

He says in his experience the biggest risk for café operators is to over-capitalise on the design and build, and then spend the remaining years of a lease paying off the depreciation.

“Over the last few years, we have seen this happen over and over again. People over spend because they do not want to be seen as underspending by the market, so everything is expensive. So much is invested that depreciation becomes a $100,000-per-annum cost. Depreciation matters,” Will says. “The smartest operators know where the line is on a budget. They know when to put the brakes on spending and when to say ‘no’ to extra ideas and additions outside of the original scope.”

Robin Shepherd, General Manager of Melbourne’s Au79, says café owners can spend millions or tens of thousands of dollars depending on the particular style or image they wish to portray. Budgeting, however, must take into account a café’s core purpose.

“Is the business for a quick sale or building a brand? This is important because it will usually dictate what you spend,” Rob says. “I also think people lose prospective on what they spend and want the best of everything. This can quickly blow any budget out the window. It’s very important to do your homework on your location. If investing in large amounts of money, you really want to make sure you get the return on investment.”

Robin worked with Melbourne-based Mim Design to bring his café concept to life. He says using a design firm is a “very costly exercise” so investing in such a service must satisfy your endgame.

“I think having a plan and sticking to it is very important. Be organised. Get multiple quotes. Do your due diligence on every aspect of the project. It’s very easy to get caught up in the hype and before you realise it, your money is gone,” Rob says.

For Veneziano Coffee Roasters Craig Dickson, going the extra mile to ensure a top-notch design was part of the brand’s “necessary spend”.

“Launching Veneziano’s Richmond café is about creating a destination for customers to understand and experience what Veneziano stands for, and to do that we had to spend the right amount of money on designers. It was a brand positioning statement,” Craig says.

“Transforming an old heritage brick building is challenging and costly when you have to create everything from scratch: you have to dig up concrete, create sewage, plumbing, a functional kitchen, build bathrooms, a freezer, install electricity, it keeps going. Looking at it you probably wouldn’t quantify the value but for us it’s about creating a statement.”

In saying that, Craig knows plenty of other cafés and customers that have achieved great design with minimal spend. “It all depends on your purpose. If you just want to be profitable, a big spend probably isn’t necessary, but for a statement piece, it’s worth getting professional help.”

With café saturation and competition at an all-time high, Woods Bagot’s Jacqui says cafés need to find their X-factor to ensure customers take notice. For some, it could be a unique product offering or a specialised menu, and to others it relates purely to design.

This article appears in the August edition of BeanScene. To read the story in FULL, subscribe now.

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