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We’ve always been involved in coffee, it’s in our blood. As kids, we didn’t get school holidays. We would jump on a train and head for the city, to dad’s coffee lounge. We’d arrive early in the morning and help dad take orders, serve customers and make coffees.
Then, when my brother and I went to Sydney for a period in the early 90s, we continued the family legacy. We established and ran Retro Cafe for about 15 years, which was next door to Sydney’s State Theatre. It became a bit of an institution. We hadn’t started roasting our own coffee yet, though.
Eventually, we came back to Melbourne and landed in Flinders Lane. This is when the cafe scene became very competitive — you had to do something different to stand out from the crowd. So, we decided to roast our own coffee. It’s difficult to roast beans in the middle of the CBD, due to council restrictions, so we ended up finding the site at 303 Exhibition Street. We’ve been roasting here for 14 years now.
Back in the 70s, people ordered their coffee so hot it was sacrilegious — but that’s the way most people liked it. There was also far less diversity. At one stage, most people were buying coffee from the supermarket. People are more discerning now. Most are buying their coffees from local roasters.
Single origins are our specialty, and we do it well. We roast single origins from Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, El Salvador, and beyond. All our beans are roasted in small batches, which helps us to make sure every roast highlights the beans’ unique characteristics and gives more consistency within each batch.
The cafe industry has changed dramatically from the 70s to now, and it’s still constantly changing. You’ve got to keep up, whether that’s with a new offering like beans, better service, great staff, or new equipment. Last year, we renovated the cafe and installed a Modbar under-counter coffee machine for a streamlined coffee service. We also recently upgraded our EFTPOS terminals to Zeller.
We were with one of the big four banks, and we were very unhappy with the number of dropouts. Our EFTPOS terminal would stop processing transactions at peak periods. Our upstairs area would be packed with diners eating breakfast, while downstairs would be busy with takeaway coffee orders and there would be a queue out the door. But the terminals would go down, so none of the customers could pay — they’re not carrying cash these days.
We’ve built up a strong customer base. About 95% of our customers are regulars. So, when the terminals were down, we’d take a customer's name and they’d come back the next day to pay us.
We don’t have any of those issues with Zeller, so I’m happy to say we don’t need to do that anymore. Our terminal has 4G and WiFi. If the 4G network goes down, WiFi takes over — business continues, as normal.
"Taking payment from a customer is simple, as it should be."
It's been tough, I won't deny it. We have a great product and a loyal customer base and that's allowed us to keep going.
The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns impacted sales, as we lost all our corporate customers when offices emptied out in Melbourne's CBD. What's kept us going is essential workers and tradespeople from nearby building sites and an increase in the number of “home barista” customers — people buying their coffee beans from us to make their own coffee, while working from home.
We believe that being a family business has helped us succeed and stay resilient even in these challenging times. Chris and l have worked together from the very beginning, starting in our late father’s restaurant as young boys.
We work well as a team and I think it’s part of what makes Decoy a success.
A lot of cafe owners these days will hire a manager, but we’re owner-operators, and there’s always one of us here. We do that because we really love working with customers.
We give 100% when it comes to quality, service and staff. Chris and I share those values. We rely on each other.
Decoy Cafe is located at 303 Exhibition Street, in Melbourne's Central Business District. Drop by for your morning coffee, a quick snack, or lunch, or pick up a bag of fresh coffee roasted on-site (also available on the newly-launched Dark Horse Coffee Roasters website).