Meet the cafe owners taking Aussie food culture to the US Midwest

Melanie Hansche and Jason Hoy at their Pennsylvania cafe, Tucker Silk Mill.
Melanie Hansche and Jason Hoy at their Pennsylvania cafe, Tucker Silk Mill. Photo: Danny Seo

In 2016, Alex Hall was living every foodie's dream. A pioneer in New York's Australian cafe scene, Hall owned seven popular cafes in the Big Apple and for the Melbourne-raised man, New York City was home. That was until things started to feel a little, well, crowded. Each week, a new Australian-themed cafe seemed to be opening. The market was getting saturated.

So Hall did the unexpected. He sold the cafes, packed his bags and moved halfway across the country to Des Moines, Iowa.

"It was the greatest thing I've ever done," Hall told Good Food from his restaurant St Kilda, a 280-square-metre Australian cafe that has become the talk of the town since it opened last year.

Fried cod tacos with coriander slaw and spicy lime aioli at St Kilda cafe, Des Moines, Iowa.
Fried cod tacos with coriander slaw and spicy lime aioli at St Kilda cafe, Des Moines, Iowa.  Photo: Supplied

Hall had grown tired of the grind after more than a decade in New York and his Des Moines-raised wife opened his eyes to just how under-served other parts of America were. "The restaurant just blew up. One year's revenue was the same as seven stores in New York. We've been so well received here.

"There are so many untapped markets in America, especially in the Midwest where cities have populations of 1 to 3 million. They don't have any cafes but they see it all. They see it all on Instagram and they understand Aussie cafe culture."

Hall isn't the only one packing his bags and heading west. Australians have been quietly moving to the far corners of the United States to ply avocado toast and flat whites while everybody else was still focused on New York.

St Kilda cafe in Des Moines.
St Kilda cafe in Des Moines. Photo: Supplied

There are common factors. Everyone Good Food interviewed said cheaper rents, more supportive landlords, a greater sense of community and less competition made the decision to open businesses in places such as Kansas City and Easton, Pennsylvania, a no-brainer.

For Sydneysiders Jason Hoy and Melanie Hansche, their dream of opening a wine bar simply wasn't viable in New York. Hoy managed Ultimo Wine Centre for a decade before Hansche's work in magazines took the pair to New York and then Pennsylvania.

When the commute from New York became too much, the couple eventually settled in a historic town called Easton and 12 months ago opened Tucker Silk Mill in a 100-year-old former silk mill.

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"I felt there was an energy and momentum and vibrancy here that we weren't really seeing in other towns in Pennsylvania," Hansche says. "There's a ton of running trails and hiking trails by the Delaware River. So that's why we moved here."

For the owners of Banksia in Missouri, the path was a little different. Robert Joseph and his young family moved to Kansas City in 2012 to expand his veterinary pharmaceutical company.

A lifelong foodie, Joseph decided to open a cafe just three weeks after retiring, prompted by the city's lack of dining experiences, which he says are taken for granted in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne.

Alex Hall at his Iowa cafe, called St Kilda.
Alex Hall at his Iowa cafe, called St Kilda. Photo: Supplied

"We were already over here and decided to stay. The quality of life in Kansas City is fantastic. It's a beautiful city and we felt we'd made great friends here. We were still enjoying living here.

"You might get Australian-concept cafes in New York City and San Francisco, and prolifically in Melbourne and Sydney but, in Kansas City, it doesn't exist.

"We have Starbucks, but what is unique about the Aussie cafe scene is our best chefs like Bill Granger have started more relaxed cafe-style restaurants which serve very elevated cuisine. That's what we missed living in Kansas City."

Drinks at Banksia cafe, Missouri.
Drinks at Banksia cafe, Missouri. 

Joseph jokes that the few Australians living in Kansas City "came out of the woodwork" when Banksia opened last year.

"One of the things that made it easy for us is that Americans, in particular in the Midwest, have an obsession with Australia and Aussies," he says.

"We've been lucky we've been able to rest upon being Australian, and Americans being intrigued by Australian food."

The team at Australian cafe Banksia, in Missouri.
The team at Australian cafe Banksia, in Missouri. 

But with all the benefits of being the only Australian cafe in town comes a significant hurdle: explaining to people what a cafe actually is.

When Hall opened last year people in Des Moines had never seen a poached egg and didn't know what bircher muesli was, he says. He even started calling St Kilda a "daytime restaurant" to clear up any confusion.

At Tucker Silk Mill, a tongue-in-cheek sign behind the counter lists how many days the cafe has worked without being asked for "pot coffee".

"One hurdle has been the education piece about what we're doing, because we'll have at least one person come in a day and look at the menu and turn around and walk out," Hansche says.

"When people are confused or they feel like it's a bit too fancy and they don't understand it, Jason just charms them.

"You have to disarm people and make them feel comfortable. You don't want to make them feel that just because they don't know what it is that it's intimidating or inaccessible."

Joseph says he also has to cajole his customers into trying new things such as watermelon salad or a pork and fennel sausage roll.

"They sit down and they take that first mouthful and their eyes pop wide open. That's fun. We get that a lot."

All three cafe owners agree the cost of doing business in the locations where they've settled is substantially less. For Hoy and Hansche, their cafe was not viable in New York and for Joseph, one of the major reasons for staying in Kansas City was to give his restaurant dream a go.

"The silver lining I think for us in moving to a small country town, population 26,000, was that it made Jason's dream more achievable," Hanshe says. "Our rent is $1000 a month, our overheads are really low.

"Setting up a business in Easton was a lot more achievable than trying to do it in New York. I frankly don't think we would have been able to do it in Brooklyn. Hands down."

Over in Des Moines, things at St Kilda have gone so well that Hall has already opened two more cafes, with the largest yet set to open in April 2020, offering breakfast, lunch, dinner, a full bar, bakery, and an event space.

Joseph is also building two more locations  in the new year.

"In New York, we would do $1 million in revenue and run at 5 per cent profit," Hall says. "In Des Moines, we did $2.5 million in revenue in the first year and we run at 27 per cent profit. It's outrageous.

"The banks lend money here, and in New York you can't borrow money from the bank. In New York, we had investors and here we don't have investors.

"The biggest difference is doing business in the Midwest. It's just so easy."

Hall, Joseph and Hansche also agree that being an Australian cafe gives them a point of difference.

"Aussie cafes in New York are a dime a dozen," Hansche says. "I can't think of any other Aussies between us and Philadelphia or us and New York.

"It sets us apart. It's a thing that people talk about. People know us as 'that Aussie cafe in Easton'. It's a selling point."

Hall adds: "I was in New York for 14 years. The whole idea was to get a brownstone and live happily ever after, but it's just crazy. You can live in an area like Des Moines now or Minneapolis or Denver – New York will always be there, you can always see it.

"The Midwest has been great. We've been so blessed with the support of the people in this area. I could open 15 restaurants here."

Details

St Kilda stkildadsm.com

Tucker Silk Mill tuckersilkmill.com

Banksia banksiabakehouse.com