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Each new hospitality offering is an experiment worth watching. So, is this “another bloody cafe” or something more?

Jun 22, 2017

Words: John Calabro

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A lot happens in three months.

I wanted to start this issue’s address with a bit of a recap on what’s happened since we first went to print a touch over three months ago.

Here in Latrobe Valley from where we’re based, we’ve seen all manners of movement from major corporations, politicians, government departments, community leaders and emerging social support groups, including occasional drop-ins by TV networks – all trying to get their heads around the massive changes taking place, and what the effects will be short, and long-term.

Beyond our own council boundary (and the ebb and flow of news that goes with it) we’re observing a steady-as-you-go sense of optimism. Decent property sales in Warragul and Drouin are closing the gap between Melbourne and Gippsland; talk of an airport in Koo Wee Rup suggests connections to broader markets could soon be much stronger, boosted by the State Government’s plan to extend the outer ring road network. In Sale, massive investment in defence facilities is likely to bring great economic benefits to the region, with the continued redevelopment of the Port of Sale providing a cultural cherry-on-top, enhancing livability to a level worthy of envy by towns across Gippsland. Warragul and Morwell seem set to get a cultural injection also with funding announcements benefiting their arts centre and gallery respectively — something we hope to explore further in future issues. Southern and coastal Gippsland, you’re not forgotten — as we bid farewell to a long, warm summer, you’re beautiful scenery is etched into our minds, as are the many memories we’ve had enjoying sun, sand, and views of the luscious green rolling hills down your way. All said and done, the feeling around the traps ain’t all bad...

At Gippslandia HQ, our editor, Tim, has travelled between Paris, Cape Town, Australia, and back again. All the while working with us, remotely, to lock down this edition. The fact this newspaper has even made it into your hands is an achievement, but rest assured, we see this as us really trying to bring the world to Gippsland, and vice versa.

The flow of feedback after issue one was overwhelmingly positive – our greatest thanks to all who took the time to write into us. We’re finding our feet at Gippslandia HQ and to the dozens of you who are eager to contribute, but may still be waiting to hear from us – thanks for your patience as we find our feet. We saw healthy debate about our image selection for the cover of our first edition and some calls for a review of our font size – all welcome feedback. The magazine has travelled to readers as far as Melbourne, Sydney, Broome, London and Stockholm and despite the fears of some that “you’ll have competition from the other Gippsland-based magazines,” we’re proud on the contrary to reply that “As Gippslandians, we are on the same team.”

Questions still come – what is Gippslandia? Rather than position ourselves as a news service, we envisage our role as a promoter of big ideas about the future, innovation and opportunity to our readers. Despite the varied troubles of our region, if we can help try to re-imagine the ‘disasters’ as mere bumps in the road, we may collectively bolster our resilience and set ourselves instead on a long highway to greatness. That’s certainly not to downplay the severity faced by some locals in the coming months, but – I’ve travelled to India since the last issue on an eye-opening business trip. It has realigned my perceptions and definitions of hardship, as travelling so frequently does. What we have here, really is a gift. Perspective is such an undervalued resource.

Some still ask, ‘how can you remain so positive during these tough times? We’re not the first to say it, but, “if not us, who? If not now, when?” A hearty applause to Andy McCarthy of Gippsland Solar for his #pumpupyourvalley campaign that’s championing positive stories in the Latrobe Valley area. We’re steadfast in our belief that perpetuating blame and fear is more damaging in the long-term than any of the short-term problems we may struggle with. A swing to the positive could ensure that our next visit from the SBS Insight program will result in a very different story reaching the national stage.

Rather than continue looking at short-term challenges, we’ve chosen to focus on agriculture and food production this issue, which brings our focus back to an industry that isn’t quite as sexy in the press, but is unquestionably more sustainable than most others. Despite continued advancements in technology, we have always eaten food and we always will. While we don’t currently grow coffee in Gippsland (but if the Carmody’s can grow tropical macadamias in West Gippsland, then why we can’t we get a grove of Arabica?), we have seen the rise of the cafe’ as locale, hub, meeting point. A small business sector that other local businesses could possibly learn from, and one that may provide a glimpse into a future of long-term business sustainability.

The swathe of comments from the locals when another cafe opens in Traralgon is always entertaining. “Did you know we have over 100 places to eat in this town?” is something I hear echoed by many. “How do they all survive?” by others and the lazy, “Another bloody cafe!”, rattled off by another, like it’s a problem. And, well — is it? The continued rise of coffee culture is no new story, be it Melbourne or Moe, but the subplot that deserves an examination is that of the entrepreneurial founders. A cafe, after all, is a business, and in business, profit is the name of the capitalist game.

On a recent trip to Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, where so much of the cafe culture began before spreading out through Melbourne (like many other trends in a distinctively similar way), I happened across two very interesting options while hunting down a car park: Industry Beans and Grace Cafe (both highly recommended when you’re next in the Rose Street area). Tucked away in the back streets a few hundred or so metres from my lunch date were two well-attended cafes sprouting up like a daisy in the concrete pavement. Each incredibly unique, well invested and seemingly thriving. As will be a common theme in this publication, this encounter spurred an immediate reflection about how we do it here in our neck of the woods, and what we can learn?

What we’re seeing with cafe/dining culture in Gippsland is a mere shadow of the booming gastronomic scene that contributes so much to Melbourne’s claim as the World’s Most Liveable City, and, it is a small glimpse into a new standard of doing business.

Any business owner, from any industry, with an ambition to trade well in the future, should be paying attention. From the product to its branding, the staff engagement to the physical environment, these new spaces are consistently nailing it. The seemingly common elements of passion, drive, entrepreneurial spirit and desire, are seeing more people become eager, young business owners, and take their turn at creating their own dining space that is fresh, enjoyable and interesting (see our feature on Lizi Maskiell). Each new hospitality offering is an experiment worth watching. So, is this “another bloody cafe” or something more?

The barriers to business entry are lowering in many sectors. High-road expectations led by young generations of employees disengaged with the traditional top-down, boss-led dictatorial style of management are inspiring spirited young professionals to rethink how they spend the majority of their waking hours. A ‘Shark Tank’ culture of young entrepreneurs are jumping in the pool and learning to swim. It just so happens that opening a cafe is the new girl in the schoolyard, and she’s pretty cute.

But, there’s more to it than that. These places are stimulating an ideas economy and business is blooming off the back of a chai-latte boom. When the naysayers address us and say, ‘how can another bloody cafe save us from mass job losses’, the short answer is that obviously it can’t on its own, but in the long run, the improvements to liveability and the nexus of creative entrepreneurs that they foster, just might. Throw our cheaper land prices, reduced commute times, a surplus of affordable rental space and some beefy government incentives, and suddenly, we’ve got something happening that‘s much bigger than takeaway coffee. It’s the makings of a diverse economy that will attract people to our patch.

The influx of new hospitality offerings across Gippsland has so much less to do with food than it does to do with experience and lifestyle. Cafes are the new watering hole. While the retail industry continues to contract off the back of increasing online sales, cafes and restaurants are filling the gaps because simply put, they’re fun places to be. The trend is echoed in the workforce by large.

For the amount of hours that are spent at work, new generations of workers will want a quality experience and a quality lifestyle. The ticket to business success in all these economies lies in raising the standards to meet these new expectations: if you’re a cafe, you better provide a great atmosphere to keep those customers coming back; if you’re a workplace, it better be an enjoyable place to keep those employees from looking elsewhere. For every new cafe that opens comes, even more, pertinence to raise the bar and meet the challenge in a market that has a customer base whose expectations are constantly rising. Collectively, whether we’re sipping on lattès or preparing a report, we want somewhere comfortable to sit; we want to be greeted with a smile; we want nice lighting and an interesting spatial environment; we want to enjoy ourselves, even just a little. It’s not just the coffee trend making its way from the city; bosses, prepare you selves for the real meaning of lifestyle and experience design too.

With every new grinder and coffee machine installed in our small country towns comes an opportunity for another new business owner to show the local market something new and exciting. Each new business that pushes improved service, products and design, forces all the other business to pull up their socks. Eventually, this revitalises our main streets, even injecting new vibrancy that permeates through the town. It’s happened in Fitzroy, and countless other neighbourhoods, and as meeting points, has encouraged a whole micro-economy of creative conversations between aspiring your entrepreneurs. The opportunity is to embrace ‘liveability’ as a key economic driver for the region after some of our ageing industries have moved out of town. Let’s embrace and support this entrepreneurial spirit, even when the first challenge these entrepreneurs may face is properly frothing milk, and encourage more local businesses to embrace the same vigour. Let’s reward new ideas, raise the average and elevate the standards of business in our towns, for our customers, for our staff, and for the talented minds and entrepreneurial types that we want to entice into these spaces, and into our region.

There’s so much more to cafe culture than coffee and baguettes... Until next issue, enjoy.

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