Veneziano Coffee celebrates 20 years of business evolution


Veneziano Coffee Roasters is celebrating 20 years of business. BeanScene talks to company Founders Craig Dickson and Rocky Veneziano about growth, relationships, and why customer service can never be overlooked.

Each morning, Rocky Veneziano starts his day sitting at the Veneziano café bar in Richmond. He asks the baristas how they are. He shakes the hands of customers. He makes a menu recommendation, and enjoys an espresso.

From Rocky’s early days working in hospitality, he has seen the benefit of being approachable, and the relationships that form from simply being accessible.

“Prior to starting Veneziano, I worked in cafés and noticed that every time a customer asked to speak with the owner, they were never around,” Rocky says.

“Just the other day I was sitting downstairs when a customer came up to me, asked if I was Rocky Veneziano, and if he could shake my hand. Another customer from England was amazed by the café. He messaged all his friends back home and bought every coffee on the menu. At the end of our chat, he asked what my surname was and looked dumfounded at my response. ‘But that’s the name of the café’ he said.”

Customers just want to feel connected, and for this reason, Rocky will always pick up the phone.

“They want to be listened to and heard, whether that be an issue or problem to be sorted or something they’re happy with. We always listen,” Rocky says, of the company’s wholesale partners nationwide. “We’re not untouchable, we’re approachable people with the door always open.”

This year marks Veneziano Coffee Roaster’s 20th year of business. The company was established in 2002 and was first located out of a small warehouse in Bond Street, Abbotsford in Melbourne.

Craig Dickson joined Rocky’s new venture shortly after, and the pair launched the business with just four people and a business base roasting about 200 to 300 kilograms of coffee per week.

The pair first met while working for coffee roaster Douwe Egberts (DE), where Craig was State Manager for Victoria. He would recruit baristas for on-the-road sales roles, and Rocky was one of those recruits. Their time at DE together sparked a passion for hospitality and a desire to make specialty coffee accessible. The encounter of these two individuals formed a friendship that would reunite years later.

“All I wanted to do was create a business that would leave a legacy, leave something behind that we’ve built, but I think we’ve done more than that,” Rocky says. “I’m so proud of the impact we’ve made on coffee and to the people who live for it.”

The pair became pioneers of specialty coffee at a time when Craig says ‘specialty’ didn’t really exist in the industry’s vocabulary.

“Other brands at the time were predominantly producing mainstream coffee. Specialty coffee wasn’t really known, but we were certainly in that space and wanted to make it accessible to the general community,” Craig says.

Where Veneziano really started to make some noise, Craig adds, was when then-employee Dave Makin started winning barista competitions. He won the ASCA Australian Barista Championship twice, and placed runner-up at the 2008 World Barista Championship (WBC) in Copenhagen.

“Under Veneziano, we’ve won the Australian Barista Championship five times, Australian Latte Art Championship three times, and the Australian Roasting Championship twice. We’ve also placed second in the national competitions about five times and once at the WBC. “Did I mention how much I hate second place?” Craig laughs.

Those early days of barista championships sparked the company’s passion for competition, and it’s been part of its DNA ever since.

Craig Dickson and Rocky Veneziano opened Veneziano Coffee’s River Street roastery and café in Richmond in 2018.

Veneziano’s nurturing of talent has continued with the likes of Erin Sampson, Jade Jennings, Mike Wells, Craig Simon, and Jen Marks, to name a few. Current-day competitors include Daniel Shadbolt, 2022 Australian Roasting Champion; and Gabrel Tan, runner-up at the 2022 ASCA Southern Region Barista Championships. The company also credits training Simon James of Genovese Coffee, Con Haralambopoulos of Gridlock Coffee, Joe Tynan of Café imports, and Caleb Cha of Humble Tigers.

“Look at this talent and where they’ve ended up. We’ve had lots of influence on many people over the years. Our entrepreneurial spirit is key to our culture. When we see our people move on to build their own businesses, it makes us nothing but proud to have instilled that quality in them,” Craig says.

“We’ve grown from a company with two guys to a rock-solid community and a very successful business, which enables us to keep nurturing and developing people.”

Craig says opening its River Street roastery and café in Richmond in 2018 was another key milestone not many roasters would have considered 20 years ago.

“Back then, transparency wasn’t really a thing. Most people wanted to isolate their recipe and hide what they were doing. We, on the other hand, wanted to share it. Come have a look at our Willy Wonka factory and see what we do. We have opened the doors for everyone,” Craig says. “Knowledge sharing has always been a big driver of what we do.”

Another key driver has been Veneziano’s entrepreneurial mindset, which inspired the tagline ‘everyday evolution’. It represents Veneziano’s ambition for continual and consistent changes in order to improve everyday lives through the relationships it creates, products it develops, and knowledge it shares.

“We never sit on our laurels. We’re continually changing and challenging our standards, thinking ‘what’s next’, ‘what can we do different?’”

That mindset has seen the brand create one of the first cold brew cans in Australia, oat milk cold brew in a can, nitro coffee on-tap, and even launch a Pinnacle Series premium-range of coffees in the middle of the global pandemic.

“We’re always trying to be the first and develop something new. It might not be perfect the first time, but we’re not afraid to try. That’s the everyday evolution of Veneziano,” Craig says.

Even during the peak of COVID-19, Veneziano’s sales went up year-on-year and e-commerce sales trebled.

“We’ve never had a year where we haven’t grown the business, not once in 20 years,” Rocky says. “A large attribution to this growth has been Craig’s ability to think outside the box, be unafraid of failure, and to inspire our people to do the same.”

Over the years, that confidence has seen the company expand its offering to Canberra, Brisbane, South Australia, Western Australia, and Sydney.

“We’ve got wholesale customers in every state in Australia and clients that have been with us since the beginning,” Craig says. “Now, thanks to our cafés, espresso bars and online stores, we’ve built a whole new community of Veneziano consumers.”

Longstanding relationships with suppliers have also been key along Veneziano’s 20-year journey. This includes producers from Sethuraman Estate in India and the Matão Women in Coffee Project (Mulheres do Café) in Brazil, cocoa manufacturer Maltra Foods, tea provider Tea Drop, and machine manufacturer La Marzocco.

“Veneziano was one of two roasters committed to using La Marzocco coffee machines from the start. Today, we
are one of their biggest customers and very proud of the relationship we’ve built over the years. That’s why we have such a great relationship with Guido [Bernardinelli, Chief Executive Officer at La Marzocco], because he remembers us from 20 years ago,” Craig says.

Thanks to such partnerships, Craig says Veneziano has become a successful and high-level specialty coffee business, but one that retains a family feel.

Craig says the longevity of the company has nothing to do with him or Rocky. Rather, it’s always been about developing the team and coaching them to succeed.

“Everything comes back to our people and the support we have for our customers and staff. We look after our talent and make sure they feel supported. It’s for this reason we have people like Jade Jennings and Daniel Shadbolt who have been here seven years, Mike Wells who’s been here 10 years, John Paul Sutton 9.5 years before starting his own Veneziano distributorship, Jack Allisey 11 years, Ryan Jones 12 years, Karen Clarke 13 years, Minh Ly 14 years, and Mini Rana 15 years,” Craig says.

“I remember in the early days packing coffee on the floor with Minh. We’d be on the machine packing coffee by hand, making sure we got the coffee out for the day. Minh was a computer engineer in Vietnam. Since he’s been in Australia, he’s become our packing champion on the warehouse floor, helping automate our processes and transition our packing and warehouse team through enormous change and growth.”

The future of Veneziano is bright, and one that will forever involve Minh and the honour-board listing of employees and former coffee champions.

Craig says the aim is to continue growing and become one of the industry leaders across Australia in all states in the specialty coffee industry.

“We have to be in the top five of roasters in Australia now for volume,” he says. “We want to use that position as a force for positive impact across the industry, make a difference to everyday lives and do our bit to ensure coffee is around forever.”

Rocky says it’ll be interesting to see what the next 20 years holds, but one thing’s for certain. He’ll still be sitting at the Veneziano coffee bar, drinking a morning coffee and talking with customers.

“We may not be employed any longer, but I hope I’m still here to enjoy a coffee,” Rocky says. “The venue has my name on the doorway after all.”

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This article appears in the August 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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