Melbourne Coffee Merchants and Market Lane Coffee Co-Founder Fleur Studd talks to BeanScene about the power of storytelling, a year of innovating and making coffee for the city that loves to drink it.
There’s often a place or memory that provides inspiration for a bigger purpose, and for Fleur Studd, that was a visit to Monmouth Coffee Roasters in London’s Borough Market.
“I started drinking coffee in high school but I didn’t think of it as a differentiated beverage. I thought all coffee was the same. That was until I went to London in 2003 and was introduced to Monmouth Coffee,” Fleur recalls.
“Monmouth has an awesome line-up of diverse coffees, and their staff are experts at explaining how they taste and what makes them special. I was blown away as I began to appreciate how things like the variety, origin, or processing could impact the cup.”
When Fleur briefly returned to Australia at the start of 2008, she visited the St Ali café and roastery to see the venue Mark Dundon had just opened.
“Mark is a true pioneer. His café was one of the first to roast on site and talk about the provenance of coffees. We got chatting and I learnt that, at the time, Mark was finding it difficult to source traceable, high-quality, and fresh green beans,” Fleur says. “The scene was very different back then. Australian importers focused on commercial-grade coffee and things like traceability and seasonality weren’t valued. I told Mark about this amazing coffee shop in London bringing in their own coffee, and suggested we find out more about their sourcing.”
Fleur returned to the United Kingdom and started talking with Monmouth owner Anita Leroy. She learnt that they worked with UK importer Mercanta to source their coffee and arranged for a mixed pallet of green beans to be sent to Melbourne.
“We had no idea if the coffee would clear customs or how long it would take,” Fleur says. “We hoped that people would taste the difference and get excited. As it turns out, they did. Mark ordered coffee, and other roasters came on board, including Mecca and Coffee Alchemy. Local roasters and coffee friends tasted our coffees and liked them. They told their coffee friends and slowly our volumes grew, until we were able to bring our first full container from origin – then another and another.”
That was the start of Fleur’s coffee importing journey. Around the same time she quit her job in marketing and began to learn as much about coffee as she could. Fleur signed up to every course available at the London School of Coffee to learn how to brew, roast and cup coffee. She also worked at Monmouth for six months. Owner Anita allowed Fleur to see all parts of the business, from roasting and packing coffee to working in the shop. It was behind the bean counter where Fleur experienced her own “coffee breakthrough”.
“I fell in love with coffee at that point. I loved talking to people about coffee, tasting it with them, and seeing them get excited about it,” Fleur says. “I also began to understand why building a market and appreciation for specialty coffee was so important and necessary to ensure better and more sustainable prices were paid to the producer.”
Fleur returned home to Australia in November 2008 and established Melbourne Coffee Merchants (MCM).
“I was so lucky to be embraced by the coffee community in Australia, and to gain their trust so quickly. The specialty coffee industry was in its infancy and very open, curious, and eager to learn. It was an exciting time to work in coffee, and to play a part in redefining what coffee was and could be,” Fleur says.
A year later, she opened Market Lane Coffee with Jason Scheltus, who had also worked at Monmouth.
“Jason and I shared a vision for what we wanted Market Lane to be, and our values were aligned. We wanted to set a very high standard for coffee in Melbourne and, at the same time, make specialty coffee accessible and easy to understand and enjoy,” Fleur says.
“One of the first things we did was introduce a Seasonal Espresso blend. This was fairly novel – most roasters didn’t provide transparency about what was in their blends because they believed the consumer would be worried about variation and mostly just wanted consistency. We wanted to celebrate this seasonality in coffee, and to use it as a tool for helping educate people about coffee.”
Fleur and Jason decided to open their first coffee shop at Prahran Market. Similar to Monmouth, the market location provided the perfect opportunity for the Market Lane team to connect with a community of shoppers who were seeking out quality produce, and cared about seasonality and provenance. These days, Fleur, Jason, and Jenni Bryant co-own Market Lane, which has six coffee shops across Melbourne, as well as an office and roastery space.
Fleur had an appreciation for quality produce from an early age. Her father, Will Studd, is a specialty cheese importer and writer, and has worked hard to educate people about the provenance of high-quality cheese.
“His work had a massive influence on my direction with coffee. There are a lot of parallels you can make. We both focused on building a market for high quality, artisanal produce, and are passionate about agitating for positive change in our respective industries,” Fleur says.
Quality, transparency, and sustainability are core values for both MCM and Market Lane. Helping to educate the industry and the consumer has also been central to each business’s mission. “The more demand there is for quality coffee, the better off the producers will be, and the more sustainable the coffee supply chain will become,” Fleur says.
MCM and Market Lane now partner directly with producers and passionate exporters on the ground at origin. Fleur’s commitment to producers and ability to maintain buying volumes year on year were her first concerns when COVID-19 made its presence felt in Australia.
At first, she went into “panic mode”. She felt terrified for the future of the businesses and staff, and perhaps most crucially, the producers she works with. Thankfully, as most coffee shops and roasteries were able to trade through the pandemic, the entire team has remained employed, and commitments to producers have not changed.
“We’ve been extremely lucky to remain open during this period, and had incredible support from our suppliers and customers alike,” Fleur says. “Market Lane’s shop staff had to adapt to often rapidly-changing rules and protocols during 2020, and always managed to do so with awe-inspiring grace, warmth, professionalism, and care for both their customers and each other.”
Fleur recalls a “magical moment” post-lockdown talking to a customer who thanked her for having a place to come each day.
“She told me she lived and worked alone and that coming to our shop was the one way she could connect with another human during the day,” Fleur says. “Our processes had to change, and we relied a lot more on online orders and postal delivery, but I’m so grateful that even in deep lockdown, people could maintain the small, consistent pleasure of a coffee ritual.”
Over at origin, many producers got inventive with the way they sold their coffee and communicated with buyers, setting up Zoom calls and even webcams so that Fleur and the team could watch the coffee being processed, dried on patios, and cupped.
Despite the odd container delay, Fleur says the business has thankfully come out of the pandemic remarkably well, however she is deeply concerned about the impact on the communities overseas who have been hit hard by lockdowns and unemployment.
Fleur is desperate to travel and connect with producers in person again, but appreciates that last year’s travel ban allowed more of the team to participate in the buying process.
“Usually, it would be one or two of us going to buy coffee, but in 2020, eight of us stood – socially distanced – around a table, buying coffee together, which was actually meaningful for our team,” she says.
“Still, we miss connecting with producers on the ground. It’s easy to sit around a cupping table and assign a coffee with a score and tasting notes, but you’re not talking to the farmer about the challenges of labour or weather or seeing the improvements they’ve made on the farm. Zoom has been a great way to stay connected, but we gain a more intimate understanding of the complexities, challenges, and opportunities when we are able to travel to origin.”
The tumultuous year has further cemented what Fleur and her business partners are most grateful for: its long-standing relationships.
“We have been lucky to work with many of the same producers year after year. These producers are like family, and their dedication, hard work and unwavering commitment to quality – and to supporting their local communities – blows us away every time we visit them and reinforces all the reasons why we do what we do,” Fleur says.
“It makes us even more determined to celebrate and showcase their coffees, and continue to share their stories. Across both businesses, we know we’re doing our job when a customer gets excited to see a specific coffee available, or asks us when it will be back.”
It’s been a year of consolidation and reflection in all sectors of the businesses, from sustainability goals, including the installation of solar panels on the roastery, to searching for ways to further reduce packaging. Fleur hopes 2021 will be about maintaining “the new norm” and keeping a sense of community and culture within the MCM and Market Lane families.
“The thing I appreciate most in this journey is the people and the relationships that have been formed through both of our businesses,” Fleur says. “Those relationships are so precious, and the friendships and community we’ve built is something I will always cherish, whether we are socially distanced or – hopefully soon – connecting over our shared passion for coffee together, both in Australia and abroad.”
This article appears in the February 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.
Image credit: Kristopher Paulsen