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Why Are So Many Australians Working in American Coffee?

The success of Aussie cafes might be more about the people than the flat whites and avocado toast

Pouring a flat white at Aussie cafe Sweatshop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Australia has given the world so much: Nicole Kidman, the Hemsworth brothers, flat whites, and (some say) avocado toast. At least two of these imports made Australian coffee shops a slow-burn trend of the 2010s — by 2016, a flat white and an avo toast, along with single origin brews, savory dishes (not just pastries), full service, and a clean design aesthetic all became shorthand for this particular style of establishment.

Australian chains like Bluestone Lane — and those Aussie coffee workers themselves — now dot cities like New York and Los Angeles. Earlier this year, Vogue announced that “coffee [had] percolated seamlessly with Australian culture,” suggesting an odd role-reversal where ultra-cultured New York is looking to smaller cities like Melbourne for tips on being cosmopolitan.

It seems that Australian cafes have developed a cult of personality as their followings have grown: In particular, that personality is of the server with a laid-back attitude — no “hi, my name is Jane, and I’ll be your server” here. Back in 2014, New York Times coffee critic Oliver Strand noted this as a highlight, writing that Australian cafes’ casual style of table service has “a sunny disposition so genuine it could disarm the most brusque New Yorker.”

Strand was onto something. The success of these cafes — NYC has at least 31 different Aussie-owned shops — is arguably thanks to a non-consumable import: The Australians hired to staff the cafes and provide that “sunny disposition” that’s become a hallmark of the Aussie cafe experience. To many cafe owners, importing Australian workers is less about highly developed coffee skills and more about cultivating a certain casual, cool vibe.

“When you walk in to an Australian cafe it’s going to be fun, lively, welcoming, you can kind of go there and feel comfortable and not feel like you’re walking into a science lab… it’s that mentality that we’re trying to replicate here,” says Ryan de Remer, owner of Sweatshop, which opened in 2014 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and now counts 11 Australians on staff. “Back in Melbourne you don’t go for the biggest coffee with the most caffeine, everyone sits and chills. The American coffee gets too focused on the product.”

Despite Portlandia’s depictions of the mustachioed, self-serious American barista, Aussie coffee shop owners say it’s not that Americans don’t know how to be friendly (or that they don’t know good coffee). Rather, it’s just a stylistic difference, as Giles Russell and Henry Roberts, owners of Manhattan’s Two Hands, tell Eater. “If we have American staff, they learn that style of relaxed service from the Australians.”

The fact is, Aussies are more than happy to claim those jobs, too: Josh Evans, the owner of Greenwich Village cafe-restaurant Banter, says he gets emails from Australians most weeks inquiring about jobs, and he routinely gives them interviews: “Word gets out back home,” he says. Two Hands also noted that they’ve typically been happy to hire Australians.

There’s more than one relatively easy way for Australians to get work visas to the United States. One special visa category makes it easier for Australians with special skills to be hired in the USA: the E-3, a visa just for Australians, created as part of a free trade agreement that was a “thank you” to Australia for sending troops to the Iraq War. Anyone with job offer for a “specialty occupation,” usually a job that requires a specific university degree, can get an E-3.

But it’s not that Australians bring visa-worthy special coffee skills with them (after all, baristas can be found in the U.S. as well). In addition to the E-3, the J-1 visa — called an “exchange” visa — is open to a specific set of mostly younger people (often new university graduates) who pay for a visa sponsor from a long list of approved organizations. With the J-1 visa, the sponsor isn’t an employer, so once the year-long visa is approved, those Australians can work wherever they please. Both are much less competitive than the H-1B visa most non-Americans would apply for — and while President Trump is pushing for the H-1B to get even stricter, there’s no sign that the E-3 is going to face a crackdown.

Many Australian coffee shops have taken advantage of the E-3 visa. Per the Department of Labor database, the rapidly expanding chain Bluestone Lane appears to have filed the initial labor certification paperwork for an E-3 application 28 times. This doesn’t mean Bluestone Lane actually received 28 visas for staff, as some applications might have been rejected or withdrawn, but it does mean the company has actively tried to hire plenty of Australians.

They’re not alone. Over half of the Australian coffee shops in New York filed such paperwork at least once in the last three years, apparently seeking visas: chainlet Toby’s Estate put in nine such applications; Hole in the Wall, with two Manhattan locations, and Sweatshop each filed seven of them. Most of them are for professional-level jobs: designers, marketing professionals, analysts, fitting with the visa requirements. But a handful of coffee shops appear to have tried to nab them for jobs that certainly don’t require a degree: Brunswick in Park Slope filed a request for a server, to be paid $10.50 per hour, while nearby Seven Point Espresso filed one for a barista, paid $9.61 per hour.

According to Sauer, these latter applications were probably rejected: He says anybody at the level of restaurant or coffee shop manager or below wouldn’t be considered professional enough. But fresh college graduates, eager for a taste of life in New York and wielding the J-1 visa, could fill those slots.

It seems like the influx of Australian cafe workers is likely to continue, at least for a few years. With an injection of money from a venture capital firm, Bluestone Lane (already the biggest Australian coffee shop chain in the U.S.) is planning to expand to 60 stores. And while smaller cafes like Two Hands don’t have the same kind of grand expansion plans, owners Giles Russell and Henry Roberts say they suspect some bigger hospitality groups from Australia might try to make a move over the Pacific.

“We’re assuming it’s going to happen, so it’s important for us to stay relevant,” says Russell. His prediction seems to be coming true: In recent days, a much larger Aussie company, Sydney’s Bourke Street Bakery, announced that it would be taking on the New York market this fall. So one might infer that the Aussie brand of “casual cool” will continue to be relevant for brands looking for an edge in a global marketplace with endless competition.

But with plenty of visas still available, and plenty of areas in New York and beyond without Australian coffee shops of their own, Sweatshop’s Ryan de Remer says there’s still plenty of space for flat whites to keep flowing.

“If people are creating this for their micro communities, I don’t think there will ever be oversaturation.” Except, perhaps, when it comes to avocado toast.

Tim Forster is the editor of Eater Montreal.
Editors: Daniela Galarza and Erin DeJesus