February 06, 2019 1 Comment
We often get asked how we ended up in the coffee business and I suppose, like most people, the answer is that we’re not really sure. ‘One thing led to another’ is not really an answer but to some degree it’s true.
At the end of 1989 I finished high school and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. In hindsight, I would’ve explored the football opportunity that was presented to me but in those days the level of professionalism and money in sport wasn’t what it is today. Sigh.
I found myself a job at the Hotel Como in Sth Yarra working in the Concierge Department and little did I know that my hospitality journey was underway. I spent almost 3 years learning about hotels and hospitality whilst studying Hospitality Management at William Angliss College. Funnily enough, I learnt more about the industry at work than I ever did at college. So much so, that in 1993 I packed up everything and with my brother took off for the United Kingdom. At the age of 22, London became home.
The 5 star Hotel Como Melbourne was one thing. The Marriott Swiss Cottage Hotel London was something else altogether. It was busy. People checking in and out from every corner of the globe all day, every day. There was no doubt that my experience at the Como helped to prepare me for work in one of the busiest cities in the world but it’s fair to say that I was now working on a completely different level.
After 2 years at the Marriott I decided that I’d seen enough of hotels and that it was time to explore other parts of the industry. I bounced around from job to job for another 6 months or so before returning to Australia where I then worked in various bars, clubs, fine dining restaurants, events, catering and eventually cafes.
I waited on tables wearing what looked like a dentist’s outfit with gold buttons the size of a 50c coin. I lasted just the one shift.
I lasted only a few hours in a top Italian restaurant where I wasn’t allowed to speak anything but Italian. They could've told me that before I started.
I worked for an events/functions venue doing back to back 22 hour shifts with up to 3 or 4 functions going on at any given time. How those hours were seen as acceptable I'll never know but in those days we knew no different.
I enjoyed the formality of certain parts of the industry but to be truthful, I wasn’t overly fond of the apparent class system that others seemed to enjoy and on the night I was berated by my boss at a particular fine dining restaurant in Melbourne for getting along ‘too well’ with a patron and being a little too ‘matey’ during conversation, I knew that my time at the so called ‘top end’ of town was done and dusted.
In 1997 my brother and I took a leap of faith and with the support and backing from family we opened our first cafe in Acland St St.Kilda. I was 26 years old and while I’d learnt so much about the day to day work involved in the industry, I soon found that I knew nothing about owning and running a business. Nothing.
Suddenly, I was required to make decisions on cafe design, kitchen design, dealing with architects, builders, banks and councils. I needed to learn about business registration, food registration, permits, liquor licensing, hiring staff, wages and taxes. I had to learn about food cost, wastage, insurance, work cover etc etc etc. The list goes on.
I had no choice but to learn and learn fast and in a matter of a few weeks realised that all the experience in the world was one thing. Knowing how to operate and run a successful business is a completely different ball game. It’s a learning that one simply cannot fast track.
At the time I was young and somewhat frightened and back then I wished that I had someone to teach or mentor me. Someone I could call for advice. Looking back now, learning for myself was the best thing that could’ve happened and somewhat of a blessing.
Fast forward 8 or 9 years and we’d successfully built and sold 3 cafes in some of the busiest parts of Melbourne. Acland St St.Kilda, Little Collins St Melbourne and Brunswick St Fitzroy.
After Brunswick St, I got married, had kids and in the week my son was born began working for what would become the biggest specialty coffee company in Australia where I would spend the next 3 years. My roles at this company changed from running barista training sessions to Account Manager to finally the Operations Manager for Victoria overseeing the wholesale distribution operation to NSW, Vic, Tas and SA.
I learnt more about the wholesale coffee industry than I ever thought I would and during that time privately taught myself how to roast coffee with the help of a dear fiend who I still regard as the best in his field.
For years, my wife Jackie was a professional dancer, dance teacher, choreographer and school teacher. After our kids had turned 2 and 3 years old respectively, the best mother in the world decided she wanted to get back to work but had also decided that her days of dancing and teaching were over. We knew we wanted to do something together but what?
We thought that if we could find the right location in the city we could showcase everything I’d learnt during all my years in hospitality and in coffee and do what we always wanted to do which was to work for ourselves and with each other.
Black Velvet was born in December 2011 and opened for business in the first week of January 2012. Since then our business model has evolved into something we never dreamed that it could. 2 unique retail outlets, wholesale coffee roasting and an online store selling coffee and related products.
We’re still learning everyday and there are still challenges that frequently arise but one thing is for certain. Jackie’s experience of co ordinating 200 school kids, their teachers and even more challenging, their parents, combined with my experience of 30 years in the industry including 20 years of working for myself and the last 8 years with the smartest business owner I’ve ever known holds us in good stead in an industry that is continually changing.
I was once told to make sure I never go into business with family or friends. There isn’t anyone in the world I would rather work with than my wife Jackie. In fact, Black Velvet is what it is today largely because of her work and because we made sure that we determined our specific roles.
In a world that demands so much more from business owners competition is as fierce as it’s ever been. Social media is now at a level that it simply cannot be ignored and with technology being what it is, customers and clients want more and more and want it faster and faster.
We’re forever looking at ways to stay ahead of the game and are currently looking at an expansion plan that we are extremely excited about.
We’re often asked what advice we’d give prospective small business owners. There is so much but the most important thing is to make sure you don't bite off more than you can chew. Ask questions, take your time, be prepared to learn and make calculated decisions.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
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