Published: Broadsheet, 10 September 2012
Melbourne’s love affair with its cafes is reaching epic proportions. New places are popping up faster than we can write, spilling out onto cobbled city laneways, taking over garage spaces and steadily trickling into our leafy suburban streets. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that in this city, coffee is the business to be in.
Mind you, we’ve noticed that an overwhelming majority of cafes are run and owned by young men. This has left us scratching our heads as to why there are so few women jumping on board.
Is Melbourne’s cafe scene really just a boy’s club? We catch up with the ladies behind some of our favourite spots to talk business.
Not Telling, Hawthorn – Verity Govett and Cathy Valentine
Light afternoon rain streaks the window of new Hawthorn spot, Not Telling, where the steamy hiss of the coffee machine is a comforting, welcome sound. With co-owner at Cup of Truth listed on her resume, this isn’t Verity Govett’s first time around the block.
Against a floral painted wall, a group of young mothers with their toddlers laugh over coffee and sweets. When it comes to her customers, Govett reckons she’s at an advantage.
“I think we [women] can have a way with people that the boys can’t,” she offers. “In Hawthorn, you get a lot of older women…who just want to have a bit of a chat. I don’t think boys would generally have the time to do that, or the interest.”
As to why there are so few ladies opening their own cafes, Govett is stumped. At a guess, she says, “A big one would be the hours and being a young female wanting to have kids…I’m already getting tired and it’s only been a week!”
Green Refectory, Brunswick – Sandy Green
It’s Monday morning at Brunswick’s Green Refectory. Bleary-eyed customers crowd the display case at the front counter, attempting to make a choice from the enormous spread of freshly-baked sweets, cakes and pastries. While the rest of us are just struggling to string the words ‘double shot latte’ together, owner Sandy Green has been here baking the lot since 4am.
Running the show seven days a week, Green hasn’t exactly had time to stop and contemplate her rare standing as a female cafe owner amongst a city of men.
“I think the core of the coffee culture is very male driven,” she says. “I’ve just always loved food and wanted to open a cafe…so I never thought about being a female making it more challenging or anything like that. I’ve got a real go-getter attitude I think.”
On top of a dawn-until-dusk workday, Green also has a five-year-old son with another one on the way.
She agrees that the gruelling hospitality hours that come with owning a business might be a deterrent to women who want a family too. But it would take a lot more than the demands of motherhood to stop Green from showing up to work.
“When I had Robby [her son], the customers were amazed, like right up until the morning my water broke I still got up and made the muffins, ‘cause there was no one else to do it!” she exclaims, laughing. “And within two days I was straight back into it and Robby was just in a sling with me all the time. We’d have him in a pram outside the kitchen door.”
Little King, CBD – Ellie King
On the other end of the spectrum, 23-year-old Ellie King isn’t too worried about the whole kids thing. With loose pigtails draped over her shoulders, she sits at a tiny table in the lace-curtained dollhouse that is Little King and mulls the whole conundrum over. Personally, her biggest learning curve has been mastering the assertiveness that comes with being boss.
Due to her cafe’s location, within an alcove of St Pauls Cathedral in the CBD, King has to deal with homelessness issues, drug use and police regularly.
“I’m 23, so I’m trying to deal with police officers that are double your height and double your age and just trying to get respect,” she says.
As to why there are so few women opening up shop, King offers, “I just see it as maybe being intimidated of what is to come and dealing with all the right authorities and trying to do everything yourself as well. And maybe girls are a bit more wise on how much work it actually is. Boys are like, ‘yeah! We can do it! No worries!”
The bottom line for anyone, she stresses, is a solid support network.
“Friends and family get you through every time…doing something by yourself is really tough.”
Milkwood, Brunswick East – Di Korndorffer and Alex Paterson
Like Ellie King, Di Korndorffer and Alex Paterson of Brunswick East’s Milkwood have copped plenty of condescending attitudes throughout their career.
“Owning a business, I’ve definitely noticed there are certain delivery people or service men who pretty much call you ‘little lady’ and then they try and screw you around,” says Paterson, chopping onions in the afternoon sunlight of their tidy prep room.
“And plumbers and tradespeople are so patronising, they don’t think you know anything,” Korndorffer chimes in.
“Women don’t think they have the confidence to do it,” Paterson says. “It’s an intimidating world because it is really male dominated. And I think we’re not treated with the same kind of integrity a lot of the time.”
Both Korndorffer and Paterson would love to see more of a female influence on the industry.
“I don’t know why women have always taken the backseat,” Paterson says. “I always find them better at multitasking, which is one of the key ingredients to being a hospitality worker.”
Galleon, St Kilda – Adele Arkell, Jackie Bega, Jessica Firouz-Abadi and Natalie Blinco
Adele Arkell, one of four female owners of St Kilda’s Galleon, agrees that women definitely bring something different to hospitality.
“They’re more inclined to be customer focused and to be really caring about the entire thing,” she says. “I think women provide more affectionate hospitality naturally.”
Joking that maybe the success of their four-way partnership is in part a “lesbian thing”, she’s proud of the fact that the group have been able to work so well together over such a long period of time.
“Women negotiate. Women talk. Women can be totally fucking painful too, you know. We definitely have a different style.”
If she can offer any words of wisdom to women who might feel doubtful or intimidated by the industry, she says, “In this country? You can do whatever you want. It’s all in your mind. I really believe that.”
Throughout our chats with these women, we twirled our spoons thoughtfully at the bottom of our coffees, trying to dig down to ‘the issue’. But we were floundering. In the end, of course, there is no reason why women can’t do all the great things men are doing with coffee and food – and they are.
The more women that set the trend of stepping up in a male dominated industry, the more will follow. Running a cafe (especially in a city of caffeine addicts and compulsive bloggers) is physically and emotionally demanding for men or women, and at the end of the day no one can get by without the support of family and friends.
There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be more women taking charge in this industry that we all enjoy, and that is such a culturally definitive part our city. We can’t wait for more ladies to step up and show us who’s boss.