DC Specialty Coffee General Manager Rob Stewart speaks to BeanScene about building a brand through creativity, doing things differently, and hitting a 20-year milestone as a result.
When DC Specialty Coffee Roasters’ General Manager Rob Stewart completed his fine arts degree in printmaking in 2002, the same year the Melbourne-based roaster was founded, he had no idea his creative passion would one day help transform the brand’s identity into one of the most recognisable on the market.
Back then, coffee to Rob was simply a “means to an end”, working as a barista at Coffea Coffee at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria market while he searched for his next career move.
“One day the boss said: ‘you need to learn how to roast because I’m taking a holiday,’ and that was that. I took a crash course in how to roast coffee and I ended up doing that for a couple of years,” Rob recalls.
His foray into roasting led to an opportunity to co-found C4 roastery with former university friend Bruno Maiolo, and just two years later in 2007, Rob was given the opportunity to join then-titled Ducale Coffee as a roaster. At the time, Ducale Coffee was producing mainly traditional Italian-style blends. The third-wave coffee movement was starting to trickle in, and the brand was at crossroads as to how it could evolve.
“We decided to restructure to what the customer was looking for. We went from being Ducale Coffee to DC, and we started changing the blends and looking at having a much heavier focus on branding as a catalyst to move forward,” Rob says. “We got to the point where the brand started to have a common narrative with others, so we had to find something different.”
To create that point of distinction, Rob embraced his artistic background and the musical talents of DC’s employees to influence its brand direction. The result was evident through DC’s vibrant packaging range, featuring graphics of pinball machines and b-side cassettes, gaming themes and face-melting figures. Its business cards mirrored collectable football cards, and its industry presence became synonymous with artistic collaborations and live music.
“Maybe some of it was selfish, but it was what we knew, and it made sense to the audience and culture we were surrounded by. Art is a medium to give an experience back to the customer, and that started to make a lot of sense. We pushed away from the space other brands were using. That common narrative of prominence and flavour profile was getting quite crowded,” Rob says. “We needed our own voice and our own identity to be unique – we had fun doing it.”
Those collaborations expanded to left-of-field relationships with professional wrestlers, tattoo artists, musicians, and rappers, like Seth Sentry.
“These people embrace cultures that are the complete opposite to what we do, and we essentially started creating experiences and products for their audiences such as Ready-to-Drink and cold brew products, and particular blend profiles,” Rob says. “We want to create coffee that connects with lots of different cultures, not just one subset or demographic.”
Rob says it was normal to at times question the company’s direction, but it would only take a few customers to affirm their love for the product that gave DC the confidence to stay in its lane.
“Many of us in this industry are guilty of developing things and trying to seek validation from our peers and not from our customers, and that’s where it can go wrong,” Rob says. “Our customers buy our coffee, they enjoy our coffee, and their feedback and engagement what keeps pushing us on. This also means we have to keep finding new ways to build that experience, along with new channels and audiences, because we can’t keep relying on colourful packaging and our connections.”
That drive is what led DC to consider the supermarket channel in 2017 when Coles approached the brand to be part of its Coles Local neighbourhood program and help reenergise its coffee category.
“It was a really big risk for us because of the perspective of our foodservice customers, but because it was contained in a local setting, we did it. We went from supplying our product to one Coles store to two, then three, to 20. All of a sudden, we were in 200 stores, and we went national from March 2020 in the space of a few months,” Rob says.
“Why it ramped up so quickly was because customers really wanted the product. What was on the shelf at the time was cycled over and over and then suddenly there was a product with a massive visual hand break. It tasted great because we were very persistent with Coles that they had to treat coffee as a fresh product, not a pantry product with a long shelf life.”
Rob says it’s thanks to the support of DC’s sister company Conga Foods and the larger backing of the Corvale Group that it’s had the infrastructure to manage the nationwide partnership, having a stronger impact than Rob expected.
“Back to 2017, there was a bit of industry blow-back that we had sold out in the supermarket. There was also the assumption we would lose a lot of customers if we went into Coles, but the opposite has happened,” he says. “Because of COVID, we find a lot of customers that are buying our product on the shelf and enjoying it at home, ask us where can they experience it in a café. And now our cafés are benefitting from inquiries of how their customers can have it at home too, so it’s a revolving circle.”
The next challenge for DC is how to take its customer on a bigger journey and keep the product line fresh and exciting. Just what that entails is under wraps, but Rob says technology and the development of AR shelf navigation is one consideration to navigate a customer’s in-store purchase.
“If technology is available to us, we need to look at it. If there’s a way to help the customer interact with the brand and replicate the café experience at home, we need to consider it,” Rob says. “It’s about trying to find ways of delivering a product to a consumer that is good and consistent. It has to be beyond coffee being an ingredient, but how coffee can be used to create an experience.”
This August, DC is celebrating 20 years of operation. Within that time, the brand has undergone three name changes – from Caffe Ducale to Ducale Coffee to DC – and proudly developed its own modern slavery statement, but at each stage of its journey, the company has looked to its customer base to evaluate how it would survive the next five years, and what it needed to adapt to market needs.
“Experience is key. If you’re a café or coffee roaster, you need to consider what is the experience you’re bringing to the customer that is different to anyone else, and why should you be here. It’s not a question you solve overnight. It’s a question you have to keep asking yourself weekly and yearly. Then it’s about touchpoints – what’s going to be the experience when a customer interacts with your brand? If you nail that, it gives you such separation from the herd and you can create your own voice from everyone who is peddling the same narrative.”
On reflection, Rob says there’s been plenty of memorable origin trips, including to Sumatra with Fairtade Australia, and Brazil with green bean supplier Minas Hill, but it’s the relationships and friendships in all facets of the industry he treasures most.
“We still have customers that have been with us from day one. Fundamentally, they stayed with us and came along for the journey because we still do what we do, and we do it well,” he says.
Prior to COVID-19, Rob says specialty coffee was celebrated with flavour profiles, brew ratios and 90-plus graded coffee. Now, he says, the pandemic has “fractured a lot of that momentum” and DC must use the current landscape to navigate its own path, once again.
“If we’re having the same conversations and still drinking cappuccinos and lattes in 10 years, then the industry hasn’t innovated. It hasn’t moved forward. Now is the perfect opportunity to assess what we need to be doing to innovate, grow and give our customers different experiences of how they enjoy coffee,” Rob says.
“It means we have to keep pushing but it also gives us incentive to cross over to different industries and genres, and we can because the brand allows us to go in that direction – and that’s where it’s fun.”
This article appears in the June 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.