“It’s about what’s in the cup,” is all Mark Dundon really has to say about coffee. And if that’s the interview, I’m roasted. He’s got a point though. These days, indie hipster culture is hopped up on too many morning espressos. If you’re not onto the latest buzz phrase: ‘third wave’, siphons, cold drip, it’s as if you’ve no right to even drink the stuff. It’s become less about tasting what’s in the cup, than picking the right single origin off the chalkboard. And Dundon is over it: “Bashing people over the head with all this hipster barista stuff… It just needs to be a good cup of coffee. We find coffee very interesting, but coffee is what it is. It’s not stopping any of the wars on the planet. It’s just f**king coffee! It can be taken into too high an echelon. Where people judge you like, ‘f**k man, what are you doing drinking that?!’”
It seems an odd thing for Dundon to say. Considering a lot of those hipsters would think him some kind of godfather. After all, he was the guy that started back alley St Ali roastery and café, before Sal Malatesta bought it and turned ‘third wave’ upon the city.
Dundon, and his business partner, Bridget Amor, are behind Seven Seeds, the small-ish coffee operation that takes in the Seven Seeds roastery and cafe as well as the inner-city mini-outlet Brother Baba Budan, where there are more chairs on the roof than on the floor, and the most recent addition, De Clieu. I say ‘smallish’, because Dundon and Amor manage to keep their operation looking inviting and individual despite employing 70 staff and working their way through that transition period from small to medium business. But the reason their outfit feels so identifiable is because Dundon and Amor put the highest importance on relationships, most noticeably between the coffee and their customers.
For the record, the guys at Seven Seeds aren’t too enamoured by ‘third wave’. Not least because to them it engenders a certain amount of wankiness, but mainly because the term, originally devised by American Nick Cho, doesn’t really work when applied to Australia. Cho used it to describe the entrance of espresso into the mainstream market in the US, instead of the standard drip. Because espresso has been the main coffee process over here for decades you can see the confusion the term creates. In Australia, ‘third wave’ is applied to the emergence of things like single origin and single estate coffees, and the general change from just blends. But if you were to drop the term into conversation internationally, they’d think, ‘oh this espresso thing is catching on in Australia’. When it’s really all we’ve ever had. “I don’t particularly like the term,” said Dundon. “To me, ‘third wave’ conjures up a lot of wank and hype. As I was saying before, it’s got to be in the cup. Getting charged $12 for a cup of coffee that tastes really bad, just because it’s ‘third wave’ doesn’t help anyone. I worry about these buzz words. Because realistically the objective for us to tie the farmer directly to here. A really close link.”
PLANTING A SEED
Seven Seeds sits on the fringe of the CBD, in a warehouse, down a back street. And it’s packed, often. It’s prototypical of Melbourne’s laneway culture of discovery — without the shelf life. If you enter via the front door, you’ll see coffee plants. And at a glance you’ll notice a few things about coffee. Firstly, there’s bugger-all of a crop, and secondly, it’s really tough stuff to grow — as evidenced by the tree that’s not looking too flash. They managed a harvest last year. The final haul was 20 grams, which made a couple of cups, not really enough to keep an empire churning. But it served a different purpose for the staff at Seven Seeds. For all of them, it was a chance to realise the grind they dump out of a group head into a bin is handpicked, a really small harvest, and not just something that comes out of a bag. “It’s good for the staff in terms of wastage and appreciating the product,” said Bridget. “It’s a lot of work for it to end up in someone’s grinder.”
This social experiment isn’t limited to the staff. In the middle of the warehouse is the cupping room. It’s where you can go or check out other people and staff go through cupping sessions. The room is walled by glass, and on display. Looking straight through the cupping room, you can also see the roasters in full swing. Nothing is hidden. The journey from bean to cup is on full display.
THE COFFEE EXCHANGE
The reason this ode to coffee appreciation doesn’t feel forced or cliché, is because of a couple of factors. Firstly, Dundon, the green bean maestro of the two, had to learn the coffee business from scratch and is inclined to pass on that knowledge. Secondly, Seven Seeds doesn’t just import beans to roast, or even merely go on coffee buying excursions, but has an integrated relationship with most of the farmers that grow and harvest those beans. Just recently they had Felipe, their Brazilian contact, out here working for three months at Seven Seeds. It’s a cultural exchange, mirrored when the Seven Seeds team go visit the farms.
“Pretty much all the coffee that we get in is from people we know or people we visit,” said Dundon. “There are some exceptions to that rule from a government point of view. Ethiopia and Kenya have an auction system. It’s fairly hard to get directly back to where the coffee is actually from. We have Raul, our Guatemalan guy coming out for a couple of months to see what happens here. And we’ve got a couple of people over in Brazil at the moment with Felipe. It’s a fairly good exchange.”
So while the visits to Brazil or Guatemala might yield better storage programs, or farming practises, the opportunity for guys like Felipe to see the coffee at the end of the chain helps them see what affects their processes have. Dundon: “Felipe’s cupping is with smaller roasts, to try and really push the coffee and present it in a positive light. It’s great, but it’s a different equation coming over here and having 300 bags of it, put it in blends, and really make it adapt to what we’re doing with it here. So it was a really big learning experience for him to see that side of things. It’s actually made a positive impact on our business to be able to get him to look at exactly what farming practises he applies, and storage and processing, so we can get the most out of it back here. That two months of checking out exactly what we’re doing and being involved really hammers home to him how we treat the product, and all these people who drink it. It’s a positive thing.”
“It was great to have him here at the time we brought in his coffee as well,” said Bridget. “Everyone was talking about his coffee, it was out on Twitter. It was great for him to see the product of his family run business on the other side of the world.”
MIDDLE CLASS WAVE IN THIRD WORLD
That exposure to the people appreciating his product is crucial. Because while coffee has long been viewed as a Third World business. Things are starting to change. And according to Dundon, coffee is only going to become more expensive. “It’s as simple as the third world, specifically Central Americans, becoming middle class,” said Dundon. “The kids don’t want to pick coffee anymore, they’d rather go and do something else. It’s on the way out in some areas. There’s a bit of a re-invigoration, with some younger people going back and starting to farm. There’s a couple of really good names that are doing some great things with coffee. But you’ve got to pay good money for it, because they’re the same as us, and they’re not going to do it for 17 cents a day.
“If you go to some of the growing regions in Panama, which are beautiful, there’s competition from American retirees buying condos and holiday houses down there. So for farmers, the decision becomes, ‘do I sell to a development for this amount of cash, and take the money and run? Or do I continue to farm?’ They’re all business oriented and to grow coffee there is expensive.
“I took a photo the other day at the local supermarket and I just can’t get over it. They’re all under $10 for 250gm. If you do the maths on the coffee that’s going in there, the cost of production would probably be somewhere around 25%. For commodity coffee they’re looking at the New York Commodity Exchange, which is quite low. But prices for specialty coffee vary from $6/pound, down to $3/pound. One particular coffee, Esmerelda, sells from $25/pound, up to $70/pound. I don’t know what the Fair Trade price is at the moment, but it’s probably not above $2/pound. So when you look at the cost to the farmer, and profit margin on their coffee, that direct trade relationship is hugely more effective then it is with Fair Trade. We have Fair Trade close by to us here, and a lot of the time they ask, ‘why aren’t you using Fair Trade?’ So we get Felipe over to speak to them.
“It’s a very effective thing for a client to talk to a farmer. They’re usually taken aback. They’re expecting a slave. And that’s a lot of the marketing behind Fair Trade — if you’re not using Fair Trade coffee, then you’re employing slaves. Which is one of the things we really disagree on.
“There’s quite a separation in the market at the moment between commodity and specialty coffee. People are prepared to pay.”
Dundon has always had this small market approach since his first café Ray. Before Ray, he’d opened a bar called Troika, with a couple of fine art student friends. It was his first move into legal drugs, which has worked out as a pretty good business plan ever since. But after a couple of years of 4am finishes, a desire to start a family with his wife led him to launch a café in Brunswick. “There really wasn’t anything there at that stage. So we built a little place in Victoria Street. It was hardcore Brunswick positioned somewhere between a pisshead pub and a railway line. A lot of people said, ‘what the f**k are you doing?’ And when we opened it took a little while to get going, but it was really appreciated by the community. Two months after we opened it was full Saturday and Sunday. It was small, simple, and we used a lot of local producers — Istandbul meats, and Mohammed and Ali were our fruiterers. So the café was a really good introduction to food on Sydney Road, without going goat at Istanbul.”
Taking the same approach with coffee wasn’t really going to work. Not just because it’s primarily grown internationally, but also because there weren’t many people around that would let Dundon in on how to go about it. “The difficult thing with coffee was that the overall advice was, ‘just use the yellow bag dude. Don’t worry, it’ll all be okay.’ But I was worried. I really wanted to find out about it and see how it worked.
“There were a few roasters back then. There was the Coffee Company in Balaclava, there was Cisco’s in Prahran, and a few little guys. It was still pretty old school, and they weren’t barista-led. Even though I’m old, I’d been a barista at Ray, so I had come through that younger ranking. So I had to go to The States and find out about cupping, and all that stuff for myself. There was no information, or real learning process here. It was either, ‘we’re not going to tell you anything’, or, ‘it’s too hard, you’ll burn everything, and it’ll cost you huge amounts of money’. Thank goodness stupid doesn’t hurt, because I just ignored it.
“So then I had St Ali. I didn’t have a lot of cash. I built a lot of it myself. We had to select a site that was not retail, but industrial, and in an area that had a zoning we could use as retail. We looked around a lot to find somewhere that fit the bill. We set up St Ali to showcase that you could roast coffee and approach it differently to the way it had been approached before.”
THE BUSINESS OF GROWING UP
Eventually Dundon and Amor sold St Ali to help start Seven Seeds. “We’d made some mistakes at St Ali in the setup and design from a roasting perspective, and storing green beans,” said Dundon. “So we thought we’d sell and get some cash to do the next thing and do it properly.” And they’ve got it so right that things are going to have to change at Seven Seeds. With 70 staff on the books, they’re going to have to get a bit more ‘business’ about it. “It doesn’t mean we need to change any ideals, or the way we actually run our businesses,” said Dundon. “It just means we need to put things in place so we’re not spending as much time on people not being able to turn up to work.” The stuff that Dundon confesses he’s “terrible at”, which is where, like all good partnerships, Bridget picks up the slack. Dundon: “Bridget can organise a really good team. She holds the place together, leading by example in regards to attributes and goal objectives. And really making everyone else feel guilty about not working correctly. If someone’s whinging about something, she’ll just get out there and do it.”
And if Dundon had any parting words of advice for the average café, they would be: “Aim higher. Business is a very interesting thing. A lot of people just think they’re good at it. We spend a lot of time on training. You really need to spend a lot of time on anything. Understanding it, and perfecting what you do. I’m not a natural coffee guy. It’s taken a lot of time and money to go over and learn. With cafés, there are a lot of classic cases of, ‘I’m just going to buy this business from my brother.’ Realistically, there’s nothing more difficult than preparing espresso coffee. I have a degree in applied science, and looking at it from a scientific point of view, it’s a mindf**k. You’ve got so many things changing. Someone that’s on the machine needs to be really good at what they’re doing. And intent on what’s going on to keep it in the zone. In the scheme of things, those top baristas should be getting paid more for what they do. There was an interesting article about a guy who worked as a barista while he was studying law. And he ended up moving into law, but far enjoyed being a barista because of that constant interaction and change that made an instant impact on all those people around him. Even though it’s a café, sitting in an office looking through legals to find if there’s a problem just didn’t have the same impact for the person as doing this. It seemed like he was doing more for society. It sounds bizarre, but from my point of view, I can see it.”
And keeping above commodity and Fair Trade coffee prices can’t be hurting either.