Can a business run along ethical and sustainable lines really make for good business? Single Origin Roasters co-founder Dion Cohen tells how it can be done
It’s a memory that still brings a smile to Dion Cohen’s face. He recalls the day in 2003 when his café Single Origin Roasters opened in Sydney’s Surry Hills, and his first moments working behind the counter with his then-partner (and later wife) Emma did not exactly bode well for success.
But his tale of opening day does offer an insight into how a shift in Dion’s intention also helped point the business in the direction it has since travelled.
“So I was standing there, and when someone came in, on the first piece of toast I was slicing, I cut my finger,” Cohen recalls. “I then realised it was starting a whole new career out of nothing, and it was something I had no knowledge of.
“With that, I said, ‘Guys, I’m not going to work in the café. I am going to go upstairs and see what I can do about building a wholesale company’. And so I bought a little scale and a scoop, and we roasted the coffee downstairs and then brought it upstairs to work on the blends.”
South African born Dion, 39, a former gymnast, science student and property developer, embarked on the venture with Emma and two other friends. It has to be noted that the partners, while all successful in their various fields, had little knowledge of the coffee industry—or the hospitality business for that matter.
What they did have, however, was a drive for success. Emma had worked in corporate copywriting, and after more than a decade in the property field, Dion says the time had come to do more with his life.
“I left the corporate world for a reason—it was to try to actually be human,” he says. That was eight years ago. These days, Single Origin Roasters, both the café and the coffee roasting distribution business, has indeed brought about the life change the Cohens were hoping for. They married a month after they opened the business, and now have two children.
The café has also played a significant role in changing the railway end of Reservoir Street, once home to the city’s rag trade, with coffee-sipping customers and computer bloggers now regular features along the footpath.
New plans have also just been approved to expand the café further along the strip as a takeaway servery, or as Dion prefers to call it, “like a sideshow carnival.”
It seems a perfectly fitting description from Dion, who talks about the business with all the excitement of a kid at a fun fair. But his tale also reveals that the success of Single Origin Roasters has been as much a firm commitment to clear values and ethics, as it has been adherence to a steady business plan.
When Single Origin Roasters opened its doors, the very concept of responsible coffee and ethically produced food was, to be sure, a well-meaning and niche notion. They had the best of intentions, but could this really be a practical way to run an operation?
Seven years on, the constant growth of the business speaks for itself. With a staff of 22, and a warehouse distribution operation as well as the Reservoir Street café, they have proven their concept not only works, but is actually a sound business model to follow.
Single Origin Roasters coffee is supplied only from fair trade dealers and all foods are from by certified organic and sustainable suppliers. In most cases, the product is sourced from reputable brokers and agents, and everything supplied is done so with certification.
Coffee is sourced from guaranteed organic and fair-trade dealers within Australia and such overseas markets as Ghana, Papua New Guinea, Panama and Guatemala.
Dion admits this does make for higher operating costs, but he says the end product is the company’s most dramatic unique point of difference for where it fits into its market—not to mention its strongest selling point.
“We have a unique product because we took a fresh approach to this in the beginning, and surrounded ourselves with people with an equally fresh-approach,” he says.
“We use only the finest products—certified coffees and organic hams and milk and sustainable lettuce from farmers we know. And yes, that costs more and, fortunately, the company has grown successfully to allow us to offer these products to our clients.
“Even if we hadn’t grown that successfully, we would still be putting out the same product. If you’re going to put out a product, you have to do it right, otherwise, you’re just going to be an average café like everyone else. The love, care, passion, and importantly, the quality—people will pay for that and will respect that.”
The success of Single Origins Roasters has been as much a firm commitment to clear values and ethics, as it has been adherence to a steady business plan.
Dion also says the market place has changed, with customers—be they café patrons or coffee distribution customers—better informed and making choices based on more variables today than in previous times. Among the establishments Single Origin Roasters supply coffee to is the Sydney Hilton, Bird Cow Fish, Red Lantern, Universal and Brisbane’s Aria.
Dion believes a company run along ethical principles can become a strong player with these principles and then following all transactions up with superior customer service. One primary philosophy on the distribution end is that is the client never has to call to make a booking—the sales team do so at the same time either every day or every week.
Cutting quality in either service or the finished product in order to save cents in total costs, Dion insists, simply does not make business sense at any level.
“People may say they get scared off from taking this approach amid all the talk about the collapse of the world economy,” Cohen says.
“I could change my bread from non-organic certified sourdough to a cheaper bread, and that’s great—I’m saving on my overheads and the costs of my goods are going down and I am making more margin on my product.
“But then what happens? You have 20 per cent less people coming into your café every day. Then start looking at what that does over the five years of running the operation. You only realise then that if you kept the quality going from day one, it might have been a struggle to get there at the beginning and there may have had some rough patches, but that was the strength of your business in the first place. Instead, you look out the door of your café and no-one is there anymore.
“It really is about passion and quality and paying a bit more for it, because at the end of the day, consumers are not idiots. Ten years ago, people just accepted what was given to them. People now know a lot more, and certainly know what a good coffee is.”
Dion points to the recent Global Financial Crisis as a case in point to illustrate his philosophy. At a time when many businesses were running scared with the fear of whether they would be able to afford to keep their doors open, Single Origin Roasters actually reported an increase in business. “That time made people want to meet up and talk over issues, like ‘Are you okay? Have you lost your house?’ but it came back to the reality that everyone can still afford a cup of coffee for three bucks,” he says. “Many people may not have been able to afford the $150 lunches any more, but they could afford to have a cup of coffee and a social experience with it.
“And the quality is there in the cup. People then go, ‘wow, that is an amazing coffee—I will come back again tomorrow’. And they do the next day, and the day after, and after that as well. And then one day they also buy coffee to take home for a dinner party, and some of the guests there will come in the following week to try it for themselves.
“Word of mouth about the quality spreads and gives your business a strength—and that is what we are sticking to,” he says. While there has been some talk of opening other cafes in the future, Dion says such a move is highly unlikely. “I don’t think you could replicate the human factor or the character of this area,” he admits. As a refugee from the corporate end of town, he appears happily content to continue to run their business in a way he is proud of and which, at the end of the day, continues to show a profit on the spreadsheet.
“I’m the sort of character, and Emma is as well, that we try to give back more than we take—and it has never been about the money,” he says. “It is about being passionate and if you love what you do, the money will come.
“When I look back on the whole seven years, I think 90 per cent of the time I am proud of what Emma and I have done and what the 22 people we employ have also achieved. I think it comes down to enjoying what you are and what you are doing.”