Café communities

Cafes, by and large, appear to be thriving in this gloomy economic climate. And it’s not only in Byron Bay either – home to a great array of them – but other little towns I happen to be visiting. At some cafes you cannot find seating; at others the customers spill outdoors, occupying any available surface to prop themselves up; in the case of Byron Bay’s perennially popular Top Shop throughout summer, the very lawn out front.

It has much to do with the fact that, for less than $5, you become briefly part of a small community. Most cafe regulars are loyal to one or two: this is where the barista knows your name and your poison, where you bump into acquaintances, where you might even have a favourite seat. Perhaps, with so many of us feeling financially fragile, the cafe offers us a tiny piece of luxury in our otherwise unremarkable days, a smiling waitperson bearing a fleeting treat in a comfortable space with music and laughter.

Statistics bear out their popularity. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article mentioned that the latest ABS figure show spending on restaurants, cafes and catering services up by 10.6 per cent in April, $148 million ahead of April 2011, with NSW seeing growth of more than 30 per cent. The area strongly affected is the middle sector, the category into which most contemporary cafes fall.

When I first moved to the area I was drawn to Espressohead, then in Jonson Street where cafe One One One now stands. Perhaps it had been recommended to me; at any rate I became swiftly seduced by superbly wrought Merlo coffee, and rarely went elsewhere.

Maybe it’s the location – most definitely it continues to be the coffee – but I am still to be found sitting in that geographical position except that, several owners and a dramatic facelift later, it’s now an entirely different cafe. Espressohead moved over the road for a few years until fairly recently when it set up shop in the premises opposite the courthouse – another site that has seen its share of cafe incarnations. I am chatting to Sam the owner, who had previously confided that he is the grandson of the man who founded the Nanda pasta business in Queensland. Hospitality very much in his veins, then.

Alessandro di Pasquale – his full name – has been a part of Espressohead since 2004. He could well be an example of the new breed of hosts, roots firmly embedded in old European traditions but tuned into contemporary trends and demands, mindful throughout of achieving a sensible balance between work and play. Sam tells me that he worked as production manager for the Nanda family business for twenty years, then moved to the US where he alternated working in restaurants in San Francisco with playing music. Burnt out at a certain point he returned, aged 25, to Australia, where he spent a decade as concierge at the Gold Coast’s Marriott Hotel.

It takes a certain type of personality to operate cafes, especially in a front-of-house capacity. I watch as Sam periodically slips away to welcome customers, make them coffees, bear them plates of cake. It’s a mid- week mid-afternoon, for god’s sake, and mostly women turning up inexorably. How can he stay so nice? And yet even to the one woman who has brought along her own carton of lactose-free milk (please!) he is the essence of charm and hospitality; even to another, who has answered his question as to how her job was going with the flip reply that she’s too busy to work these days, he is unfailingly courteous and affable. ‘I come from a very hospitable family’, he tells me, ‘I wake up every day enthusiastic – I work about forty hours a week and I surf. I’m very grateful. Yes, people are becoming more demanding, but if I didn’t like it I’d be in the wrong industry.’What’s more, he would recommend it as a career to young people. ‘It’s a worthy career now. It’s really changed.’

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