Melbourne embraces a bit of coffee on the side

Looking at plants can be tiring; so why not grab a coffee? Acorn Cafe and Nursery in Melbourne's Surrey Hills.
Looking at plants can be tiring; so why not grab a coffee? Acorn Cafe and Nursery in Melbourne's Surrey Hills. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

No one could doubt that Melbourne takes its coffee seriously. The explosion of cafes in the past decade or so provides irrefutable proof that the dark bitter brew is essential to keeping the city's wheels turning.

According to website Urbanspoon, there are 2574 cafes in metropolitan Melbourne. But even with so much choice, the caffeine-addicted population is being tempted with new ways to indulge in its favourite beverage.

Bookshops and garden nurseries were among the first businesses to adopt the “with-a-cafe” model that has since spread to ever more diverse operations.

The coffee's not just for parishioners at the Collins Street Baptist Church.
The coffee's not just for parishioners at the Collins Street Baptist Church. Photo: Penny Stephens

Across Melbourne, hairdressers, car dealerships, record shops, laundromats, art galleries and even a church and a pharmacy now either sell barista-made coffee or offer it gratis to customers.

In Carlton's Elgin Street, Soap Bar Launderette is putting the finishing touches on its new in-store cafe, expected to open next month. Co-owner Ben Shaw hopes the caffeine offering will help ease customers' boredom while they wait for the spin cycle to finish, as well as bring in a few extra dollars. “We want to make it something of a social hub, so this is why we have the leather couches and free Wi-Fi,” he says. “It's going to have a nice vibe and it's a good way to attract more people; I have someone who comes from Ascot Vale just because they like what we do.”

This kind of coffee-business hybrid is popping up all over Melbourne, although most are located in the booming inner suburbs. In Fitzroy's Hares & Hyenas bookshop, for example, the clientele can pick up a copy of Christos Tsiolkas' latest with a latte. In the CBD, the kiosk-style cafe set up on the verandah of the Collins Street Baptist Church isn't just for parishioners – open weekdays from 9am-3pm, it's just as likely to serve a banker or retail worker as it is a church volunteer. At Mag Nation in Elizabeth Street, customers can flick through the latest copy of American cult journal Kinfolk as they sip a macchiato.

Coffee fiends can also get their fix at such unlikely places as the Green Laundry@cafe in Balaclava, The Little Mule Cycle Co. & Cafe in the CBD, Brunswick East hairdresser Ique Salon cafe, Acorn Nursery in Surrey Hills and Magic Hand Carwash, which serves coffee and car suds all over town. Those waiting for their prescriptions in Pascoe Vale can sip on a latte in a booth at Bell Street Pharmacy's in-sore cafe. Like the laundrette, the carwash and pharmacy cafes are a clever way to keep clients occupied while they wait.

Richard Jenkins, research director at Knight Frank real-estate agency, predicts more and more businesses are likely to fire up the espresso machine in order to diversify how they make a buck. “A lot of owners are interested in trying to offer more experiences to their customers and I think that's what they're doing by offering a convenience that could translate into more sales,” he says. “Retail sales are slowing down but people are still going out. It's a cheap luxury and will attract shoppers. It's a really clever idea.”

In August, TWR revealed that Fitzroy's Brunswick Street, one of Melbourne's premier hospitality precincts, has suffered at least 13 cafe, bar and restaurant closures in the past three years. Low consumer confidence, licence fees and high rents have been blamed. Across the state, more than 1500 eateries have closed in the past 12 months.


Trade across the hospitality industry has slowed in the past year. According to a report released by restaurant search and booking website Dimmi, the average spend per person has dropped from $61 to $54. For some, offering a freshly brewed latte is a way to indulge customers and earn loyalty, but for others it's crucial for survival.

Hawthorn's specialty vinyl shop Alley Tunes turned to caffeine when the main arm of the business started to slow in 2007. Co-owner Max Le Bras says selling coffee pays the bills and allows him to indulge in his passion for music. “We couldn't have survived without it; people hadn't stopped buying records but it wasn't enough to pay the rent,” he says.

He says placing tables and chairs outside the shop, which is on a quiet stretch of Glenferrie Road, has added to the area's otherwise languishing ambience. “It creates a nice vibe,” he says.

The extension of Melbourne's thriving coffee culture has been welcomed by the Australasian Specialty Coffee Association. Secretary Ross Quail, also general manager at Sensory Lab, has spent almost 20 years involved in the industry and is excited by the shift. “I think it's great – it's people realising that coffee is something that should be enjoyed and people value it in a range of experiences. And it supports people in the coffee industry.”

He says thanks to the array of beans, training and equipment available, it's almost impossible to get a bad coffee in Melbourne, even when the seller isn't a specialist.

“We've seen considerable change in the industry in the past 20 years and this is just another part of that,” he says. “It's all about how it contributes to Melbourne's reputation on a world level.”

What is the strangest place you've seen a cafe or espresso bar located? Log in to comment below.