From humble beginnings and a single store front, Grinders Coffee has grown into an iconic Australian brand thanks to Giancarlo Giusti and his vision of having Melbourne drinking better coffee.
Giancarlo Giusti knows Lygon Street in Melbourne like the back of his hand. It’s the street he lived in, the street he opened his first coffee shop in, and the street he continues to frequent every single day.
“This street is a part of my history and my heart,” Giancarlo Giusti tells BeanScene. “I come to Lygon Street every day for a coffee. The people in these streets are my friends. I still see old customers and I know everybody, and everybody knows me.”
He’s not wrong. On meeting the 89-year-old down Lygon Street, dressed impeccably with a farmer’s flap cap, Giancarlo walks into one of the street’s iconic Italian coffee shops, waving at the baristas. He charms the waitress and two espressos arrive promptly for “Signor Giusti”.
“I’m Italian, coffee runs through my veins. Always one cappuccino first thing in the morning, then un caffè (espresso) and I’m done,” he says.
The street, affectionately known as “Little Italy” is reminiscent of Italian migration to Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s. Giancarlo migrated to Melbourne from Albaredo d’Adige, a village in the Province of Verona in the Italian region of Veneto in April 1960.
Before this life-changing transition, Giancarlo would frequently ask his father for money to help sustain his “young vibrant lifestyle”– taking girls on dates, going to the movies, eating out, and going to local fairs and dances. In response, his father, a “hard working Italian” up at 6am every morning to run the family grocery shop until the day he died in 1968, would tell Giancarlo: “If you want more money, go and open a business in a country where you can do something and be somebody.”
And he did. After 30 days at sea, the ship docked the day before Easter and Giancarlo was the last passenger to disembark at the Melbourne port, aged 29.
“I came to Australia for work, but I also had friends here and my cousin who worked for the Italian government,” he says.
Giancarlo lived in the Melbourne suburb of Altona for two weeks before moving to a house in the laneway behind the pub on the corner of Lygon and Elgin Street in Carlton, then called Percy’s Bar and Bistro, where he stayed for four years.
Giancarlo got a job at General Motors, working in an assembly line making distributors, before he moved to the countryside to work at a place specialising in canned fruit. But it wasn’t his true calling. Instead, Giancarlo turned to his father’s profession, selling produce to Italian restaurants before working for Mocopan Coffee as a sales rep. However, he still wanted more.
It was in 1962 when Giancarlo decided to open a shop with business partner Rino Benassi serving what Italians knew best – coffee.
One pound purchased the shop’s first grinder. Unlike the other delicatessens on Lygon Street at the time that served coffee, Giancarlo’s business model was different. He served coffee and only coffee.
“It was a novelty. People were curious and would ask me, ‘but what does your shop do?’ It was strange to them to have a shop selling roasted coffee in whole beans, ground, and equipment to make coffee at home,” he says.
That shop, called Grinders Coffee, went on to have a strong following in the area.
“Melbourne accepted my coffee, but before that they accepted me,” he says.
Giancarlo temporarily went back to Italy before returning and buying a roaster in 1969 thanks to money borrowed from a friend. He started supplying coffee to cafés throughout Melbourne, selling 200 kilograms per week, keeping his competitors on their toes in the likes of Coffex Coffee, Coffee Mio, and Mocopan Coffee.
Giancarlo’s coffee knowledge grew through education and experience. He had a minimum of six coffees available to blend at any one time, from Papua New Guinea to Costa Rica, Colombia to northern Australia. At night, he would brew the coffee, taste it, then leave it overnight and taste it again in the morning to assess the different flavours.
“A good espresso blend is best developed by individual assessment of the beans, and then putting the best beans together to create a balanced blend,” he says.
“When I started out my customers would ask me for half a pound of coffee. Gradually their requests changed. Then they asked me for a good coffee, and eventually for a particular origin. My customers learned about quality and could identify what they like and what they didn’t. I’m happy that I’ve helped people not just drink more coffee, but good coffee.”
With Melbourne now saturated with roasters, Giancarlo says it’s a strange scenario to observe compared to his early days roasting when there were just a handful of competitors. The ones that will ensure longevity, he says, are those that value the quality of their product.
“Roasting isn’t easy. Many people think they can start up their own roastery and cut corners around price, but a sustainable, long-term business will be one that values quality over quantity. To have a good business you must have a good product. I bought the best beans and never worried about the cost. People who value your product will pay, and it’s the same for good wine and good food,” Giancarlo says.
“There’s a saying in Italian that says: ‘It takes the same amount of time to make something good as something bad, so why not make something for the better?’”
In 2005, Giancarlo was in Italy for the summer holidays when he received a phone call from his accountant telling him Coca-Cola Amatil were interested in buying his business. At first, Giancarlo thought it was a joke. He accepted the offer and became the first small business in the world to be bought by one of the largest bottlers of non-alcoholic ready-to-drink beverages in the Asia-Pacific.
“The acquisition made international headlines. The newspaper in Italy even published the news,” Giancarlo says.
Giancarlo is content with how he left his business. He grew the company to have more than 48 employees, an established roasting factory and increased the sale of whole beans from 50 kilograms per week to more than 20 tonnes.
“I am happy with what I’ve achieved. I played my role. I learnt to do something that was good for me economically and financially, and I had fun along the way,” he says.
“Coffee has given me everything. It’s only on reflection that I accept how I’ve helped improve the city’s coffee culture and educated people to appreciate coffee. Nowadays, Australians drink more coffee than Italians. They are sophisticated coffee drinkers.”
Giancarlo has no doubt the coffee industry will continue to thrive and bounce back strong from the recent slump during coronavirus restrictions. If anything, Giancarlo has been a loyal customer to the cafés of Lygon Street throughout the pandemic, and over the past 58 years.
Since Coca-Cola Amatil’s acquisition of Grinders Coffee, Giancarlo spends three months of the year in Italy and still travels to industry trade shows such as HostMilano.
He pulls out his business card to show two addresses – one of his Melbourne home and the other in Verona. On his return, Giancarlo would spend a day in the family’s delicatessen in Albaredo d’Adige, “just for fun” to connect with his local community.
The other joy in his life – apart from coffee – is his love for the Italian opera. Each year when Giancarlo returns to Verona, he attends the famous Arena di Verona – of which he pulls another card out to prove his membership to the illustrious club. Not surprising, Giancarlo is friends with the opera singers, whom he meets upon touring to Melbourne.
“There’s something magical about sitting in the audience in the open-air cinema on a balmy summer evening in Verona, watching Aida, the best opera of all,” he says.
He adds that quality coffee can now be found throughout Italy, with the emergence of some specialty coffee shops, and a significant rise of local consumption.
“The country is still dominated by big roaster companies, but like Melbourne, you can also find many local roasters in Verona,” he says.
For now, Giancarlo continues to enjoy his retirement. During the mornings he can be found catching up with friends in Lygon Street for coffee, and on Friday evenings down at Jimmy Watson’s wine bar for dinner and a few vinos.
Giancarlo is already planning his 90th birthday party in December, hoping to accommodate a crowd of family and friends for the occasion, and celebrate “being young in heart and in mind”.
As Giancarlo gets up to leave the interview, he puts his hat on, says “ciao” to the baristas, and walks proudly down Lygon Street into the distance. On a final glance he’s already stopped to greet another friend he’s spotted.
This is a man who helped bring the espresso culture to Melbourne. He was one of the first to turn coffee into a business and put his name and passion to a brand that is etched in Melbourne’s historical coffee scene.
“When I see the Grinders name on a bag of coffee or a delivery van passing by, I think to myself, ‘Giancarlo, you did good,’” he says.
This article appears in the August 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.