Spending the morning with Salvatore Malatesta looks like a scene out of The West Wing. Inside the engine room, meetings are held back to back and some intertwine with each other, from a menu consultation to a discussion on solar energy. Salvatore brings out hard-hitting questions, evidence of his law background and efficiency to just “get to the point”. Occasionally, he pauses to reply to a text message or buzz his PA for a contact. No two days are the same for the owner of one of the county’s most iconic coffee roasters. Salvatore’s role is not about bean selection or the inner workings of roast profiles. His job is to take his business from a roasting brand to a creative agency.
“The original intention of ST. ALi was to get people drinking better quality coffee,” Salvatore says. “I think the quality of coffee in Melbourne is incredible. That was not the case a decade ago. Absolutely we’ve made it better, but Melbourne is a very mature market. It has led the global coffee renaissance. Now in order to open a café, your food and coffee have to be excellent as a minimum. We will keep pushing the boundaries of what you could call the fourth wave of brewing and grinding technology, but now it needs to be about something more.”
That “something more” is the creative element. From the get-go, Salvatore has aligned himself with a creative team, which along the journey have included a fine artist, photographer, graphic designer, animator, fashion designer, National Institute of Dramatic Arts student, and art history major. With the launch of ST.ALi’s creative studio called ST.UDIO ALi, however, there is now a designated “venting spot” for staff to unleash their creativity.
“When you supercharge a traditional coffee business with a massive creative umbrella you get really cool results you can’t plan for,” Salvatore says. “I like to think of it as the foundation for the preservation of fantastic possibilities or two words: magical thinking. We are searching for the unicorn. I have never been able to pinpoint why having a creative team helps sales, I just know it works and the best part is, it’s fun.”
ST. ALi’s creative culture permeates through its staff, including Renée Ayling, a Fashion Designer who is responsible for creating St ALi’s merchandise range and preparing the launch of its streetwear clothing label, due for release within the year. Unlike other businesses Renée has worked for, she has the creative freedom to spend more than three hours creating a t-shirt or pair of shorts with the only criteria “to have fun” and “develop something spectacular”.
“It’d be incredible to see ST. ALi’s streetwear brand walking down the runway like an Alexander McQueen show in next year’s Melbourne Fashion Festival – anything’s possible,” Renée says.
If the concept of fashion appears detached from St ALi’s roasting commitments, think again. Tayt Bale, ST. ALi’s Brand Manager, says the similarities between buying coffee and sourcing fashion and more aligned than people realise.
“We try to find the best coffee, the best fabrics, and be ethical with our purchasing decisions,” he says. “These considerations are key to our branding philosophy as a roaster, retailer and employer.”
Thanks to a deliberate strategy to create and maintain brand momentum, seasonal taglines have been used throughout the business. Wide Awake in autumn/winter encourages staff and customers to pursue passions and remain active instead of being seduced by winter hibernation. Feels Good in summer/spring is about reaping the rewards of hard work in the warmer seasons.
Graphic Designer Jes Hoskin says brand development is helping put ST. ALi in a space it never existed before.
“These subtle cues have become part of the ST. ALi lexicon and it’s helping communicate our brand message, even through apparel,” Jes says.
ST. ALi’s creative team works towards a ‘rock and river’ philosophy. There are parts of the brand that remain rock solid – the things you expect from ST. ALi – and the rapid river – the crazy, unpredictable part that brings up the question of “what’s coming next?”
What customers have come to expect from ST. ALi is its top-quality coffee and a restaurant-style menu under the stewardship of ST. ALi Co-Culinary Director Daniel Dobra, or as Salvatore describes, “the best chef you’ve never heard of”.
“My philosophy and vision for food is to cook food I like to eat on a daily basis, not food I wouldn’t eat. Cooking food for me is a very emotional and somewhat spiritual, to a degree. I put a lot of heart and soul into everything I make,” Daniel says.
ST. ALi is now 13.5 years old. It’s passed its 10-year mark as a city institution and has transitioned from a coffee company with a creative focus to a creative agency selling coffee.
“ST. ALi has never been in a better place than it is today. What you need to make something amazing is a delicate symmetry or balance – a bit like a ballet performance, which looks really seamless on the surface but has lots of training behind the scenes. Our front of house, kitchen, and back of house have really come together,” Salvatore says.
“There are coffee companies that are much larger than us, and smaller than us that are cool, but I’m not sure there is anyone who’s in exactly the same space we’re in. I like this space. Its enjoyable and we’re fortunate we can fund fetishes and creative projects.”
Salvatore has been an entrepreneur from the start. When he studied law/arts at the University of Melbourne, he says the culinary offering was “dismal”. There were just six fast-food joints serving average food and bottles of Coca-Cola. Frustrated by the lack of quality offering, Salvatore walked into the student union and asked “how does one get a site on campus?”
His timing was fortuitous. He completed an expression of interest, tendered, and won. Having worked around food and beverage venues since the age of 15 and at his family’s restaurants, Salvatore understood the magic required to make a venue work – good quality produce and old school hospitality – but he had no idea about how to run a café. At just 21 years old, he opened his first café named Caffeine in 1996, which became the epicentre of the University of Melbourne’s café culture overnight.
In context, Salvatore says the café space was very different to what it is right now, but Caffeine was certainly ahead of its time. Riding on its success, Salvatore opened a second venue, a sushi bar called Plush Fish Café a year later, which sold 2500 hand-rolled sushi each day and 1500 coffees daily.
At just 23 years of age, Salvatore graduated from university, worked as a clerk at Gadens law firm, and had 15 venues on university campuses.
Ten years later Salvatore sold most of his businesses when he started a family, but his eye for opportunity remained, including his involvement in ST. ALi of which he took ownership in 2007.
This article appears in the October edition of BeanScene. To read the story in FULL, subscribe now.
Image credit: Nicole Reed