The Artisan Café wins Café of the Year

Artisan Café

Jonathan Homes-Ross and wife Heather. Photos: Simon Casson

How a chef and a research scientist fell in love, moved to Adelaide and created a local eatery called The Artisan Café that has just been named Café of the Year. By Kerryn Ramsey

UK-born chef Jonathan Holmes-Ross and his scientist wife Heather were keen to open their first café but they wanted it to be more than just a casual eatery—they wanted a community-friendly establishment.

Located in the scenic Adelaide foothills, The Artisan Café in Blackwood is much more than their creative menus with locally sourced ingredients. The licensed café/restaurant runs regular art exhibitions, jazz evenings and even communal knitting sessions—with knitters aged from 17 to 90!

“Because we have a village feel and plenty of spirit, we’ve been able to embed ourselves into the community—and that’s where our support comes from,” says Heather. “It’s all very local. Eighty per cent of our clientele are return customers.”

Even customers’ dogs are welcome at The Artisan Café, as they have their own outdoor zone, with bowls of water and plenty of pats.

This innovative approach is one of the reasons that the establishment recently won Café of the Year at the 2017 Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering HOSTPLUS National Awards for Excellence.

Jonathan and Heather were thrilled to win the award and many of the Blackwood community also congratulated them—including other local cafés and restaurants. They’ve all been supporting each other since the Holmes-Rosses spearheaded a business group called Totally Locally Blackwood in 2015, drawing inspiration from similar concepts in the UK.

“It encourages local independent business owners to support each other,” says Heather. “We all buy from each other, we recommend each other, we do whatever we can to help the community. In return, we ask for the community to spend just $10 a week in a local, independent place rather than online or in a big supermarket.

“That’s had a huge effect. Many people hadn’t realised that if you shop online, small local shops have to close down. It’s been really rewarding watching the community respond.”

Jonathan adds: “Coffee shops all work together now. We’re in competition with each other but it’s good to cross-pollinate.”

The couple’s innovative direction comes partly from their diverse backgrounds. Heather worked as a research scientist at Flinders University in Adelaide, as well as completing an associate diploma in hospitality and catering. Jonathan started his cooking career in England at the age of 16. He eventually became head chef at various high-end restaurants, including The Lime Tree in Manchester and Bridge End in Heyfield, Derbyshire. He expanded his skill set by developing chilled ready-meals for Tesco supermarkets. Jonathan’s first job in Australia was at the Qantas Club, but he quickly moved into menu development where he utilised both his cooking and development skills. Eventually he became the executive chef at Qantas, heading up the largest kitchen in South Australia.

Even though the corporate world was financially rewarding, Jonathan wanted to rekindle his culinary fire. In 2010, the couple bought Aubergine Fine Foods, which they soon converted into The Artisan Café.

“We chose the word ‘artisan’ as it refers to quality products made in small batches by using traditional methods and local suppliers,” explains Heather. “Mind you, the word wasn’t quite as trendy then as it is now!”

“We chose the word ‘artisan’ as it refers to quality products made in small batches by using traditional methods and local suppliers. Mind you, the word wasn’t quite as trendy then as it is now.”—Heather Holmes Ross, co-owner, The Artisan Café

To bring their concept to life, they needed to undertake two revamps, making sure the eatery looked homey but not granny-like. Apart from whitewashing Aubergine’s vibrant purple and yellow walls, they introduced new and recycled furniture, and rebuilt the bar using reclaimed timber.

“We tried to keep the café going and get people involved in the renovations, so I think we only shut for two days,” recalls Jonathan. “People were really stoked because they felt part of it.”

They also introduced the Artispace wall that encouraged local artists to display their new works regularly. The mini-gallery is now booked out until mid-2019.

“It works for us as well,” says Heather, “because when artists have an exhibition, all their friends come along and that exposes us to more people.”

As The Artisan Café boomed over the first four years, Jonathan was thrilled when a next-door tenancy came up. “We’d been coping with a tiny kitchen, so this meant we could build a whole new space, as well as expanding the dining area,” says Jonathan who was also keen to expand their catering business. “After building the new kitchen, including a new cool room and new equipment, it made our life a lot easier.”

This expanded kitchen meant that Jonathan was in his element, making sure ingredients were fresh, local and sustainable. “As a chef, I always support local suppliers and use quality products. We try to sell it at a reasonable price in a low-key environment,” he says. “I like to educate customers and staff about good food. We use all free-range meat and sustainable fish without charging much more than non-free range. If you’re using a happy pig and quality produce, then the taste comes out in the food.”

Another priority in the Artisan repertoire is its coffee, which is a unique 100 per cent organic blend, roasted especially for them in Adelaide by Rio Coffee. Their biodynamic organic milk comes from Paris Creek. “It’s deliciously creamy and comes from Meadows, which is just up the road in the Adelaide Hills,” says Heather.

While Jonathan has taken his cuisine to a new level, Heather has expanded her skills in regard to business and technology. “We used to spend an awfully long time doing payroll and rostering. Back then, we were very hesitant to pay for computer programs but we were fools! Now we use an integrated POS system that generates sales data. We also use online apps doing our rostering, payroll, accounting, checklists and more. We’ve become so much more efficient, we can now spend more time with customers as well as training staff.”

Training is such a priority that Jonathan has sent his staff—which covers 30 full- and part-time positions—to sessions on the likes of hygiene, barista training, and even molecular cuisine classes.

After winning the prestigious R&CA awards, Jonathan and Heather feel that their hard slog has been worth it. “I didn’t realise that this way of life meant you’re working 80 hours a week and not having a life,” says Heather, lightheartedly. “But that’s okay—we’re loving it.”

Jonathan couldn’t agree more, simply saying: “It’s a fantastic way of life.”

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