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A conversation with Norm from Hawthorn's Sonny Ray Cafe

Tell us about your first experience with coffee.

I started way back in the ‘80s on Lygon Street, Carlton. My parents owned cafes and restaurants, so our days when I was growing up were spent on Lygon St - I’ve got fond memories of running a coffee cart with my Dad every year at the Lygon St festival. I was 10 years old, and I remember topping up milks from the cool room, pulling shots and collecting money. We were using John Carlos coffees back then - local roasters, it was really about keeping everything local, so that was drummed into me from an early age. I really just fell in love with interactions with people and giving the pleasure of just a cup of coffee and it all started from there!

Where was the first cafe you owned?

The first place we owned was a little cafe in Toorak in 1994. It was just me, (my wife) Suzy, and a coffee machine with a dishy to help us. My job was to make coffees and egg and bacon sandwiches. We had people lining up just for a coffee and a toastie, and we thought, wow, we’re onto a winner here. It was just an amazing time - nobody was really doing that then. 

We did that for about two years and then somebody came along, loved what we were doing and wanted to take it over, so we sold that and moved onto the next one. We sold our first five businesses in under a year! We truly got a buzz out of building up old places that needed a bit of work and then selling them.

How do you view the cafe market now compared to then?

Back then, people just went down to Lygon St. for a coffee, so that was the place to get your cappuccinos from. I think as Melbournians, we’ve come a long way in the sense that we know a good cup of coffee and we know what we’re after.

Tell us about your first interaction with Padre and Mr.Foxx, way back in ’09!

We started with Padre at our Glen Iris cafe Mr. Foxx 10 years ago. We had just sold a business and we got into Mr. Foxx who at the time were using Toby’s Estate. We were looking for a local coffee supplier and at the time, Padre was just beginning their wholesale side of the business. We were introduced to Padre through the South Melbourne Market of all places and just fell in love with the coffee. Suzy said “this coffee is just delicious” - the flavours were great. I thought, I’ll give them a buzz and enquire about wholesale, and go from there. We loved (Padre Founder) Marinus’ concept, approach to business and his coffee philosophy. 

As a longtime Slayer customer, what endeared you to the brand?

Slayer got a us a team, and that’s why we loved it. We got in a group of guys that wanted to learn, and that was the difference between a Slayer and a for example, a La Marzocco PB where the kids were just pressing buttons. We were with likeminded people who wanted to produce a lovely cup of coffee and experiment with recipes.

I was lucky enough to buy our first Slayer second hand from a friend of mine when we first opened Mr. Foxx - it was a V1 yellow beast. It was really enjoyable in a sense to work with and reminded me of the days in Lygon Street making coffees with the old lever machines.

We moved to a V3 with Mr. Foxx for two years. It was more reliable in the sense that when we were training baristas, it was definitely more consistent. 

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What are your two key pieces of advice for someone looking to open up a cafe…

You do need a business plan and that’s super important, but for Suzy and I, it was equally important to find a team - a team that we’re going to work with, and who are going to be with us every single day. Family is a strong word, but we do see them more than family, so the important thing is to find people who want to be there, not just because it’s just a job. So, build your team before you think about anything else. 

Also, trust your business plan, know the direction you want to take and believe in that. There’ll be people who you’ll come across that will question what you’re doing and try to stray you from your vision, and it could be as simple as ‘do great coffees and sandwiches’. It sounds corny, but once you’ve written down your goals, believe in them, know you’ve got a great product, and do your best to instil that into your staff, let them know the way you’d like things to run and the standard you’re looking for. 

Who’s your coffee hero or heroine?

It’s got to be my Dad. Him and the guys who worked from Lygon Street, in my eyes were the pioneers of coffee. For them, it was all about the love of coffee, that shot of espresso. Those hardcore guys like my Dad would start the day with an espresso and a shot of Grappa! There’s a group of us tough guys here at Sonny Ray who every morning start the day with a ristretto, but instead of the grappa shot, we have a shot of apple or pear juice on the side! Clearly they don’t make baristas like that anymore… 

 

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