In Australia, coffee isn’t fuel for work—it’s a way of life.
Nick Stone, founder of New York’s Bluestone Lane—one of the city’s most successful Australian cafe chainlets—moved to the U.S. in 2010 and expected to feel culture shock from his native Melbourne. But what he wasn’t prepared for was the jolt of American coffee.
New Yorkers sat in cafes for hours, headphones on, laptops out, totally focused on work, drinking incredible quantities of coffee loaded with cream and sugar. For them, drip coffee was a drug to keep going. Yet, for Stone, coffee was a beverage tied to wellness, socializing, and practicing mindfulness.
In Australia, coffee isn’t fuel for work—it’s a way of life.
Where mass coffee consumption in the U.S. has long been connected with work and productivity, coffee culture in Australia is uniquely intertwined with leisure and relaxed beach-centric lifestyle. And slowly, as Aussie-inspired cafes sprout across the country, the U.S. is embracing a new laid-back coffee sensibility firmly rooted in superior brews.
Coffee in America
While America's appreciation for coffee is traceable back to the Industrial Revolution, as coffee historian Mark Prendergast notes in Uncommon Grounds, thanks to its stimulant nature, the beverage's popularity continued to grow. After World War II, the Pan American Coffee Bureau was born, institutionalizing the coffee break as a part of the workday.
Starbucks—America’s pioneering "craft" brew brand—debuted in 1971 in Seattle as an upscale coffee company concerned with taste, providing what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls third place, a community gathering space that is neither work nor home.
But in the last decade, as third wave coffee has proliferated the country, the mega-chain has taken a backseat to smaller quality-focused cafes, the Starbucks name itself becoming intrinsically linked to free Wi-Fi and grab and go.
The Guardian notes, "Walk into a Starbucks today, and you may not notice much connection going on ... many ... arrive in search of nothing more than a place to open their laptops and get some work done; in effect, using Starbucks not as a third but a second place—their workplace."
Other major coffee brands have recently made the connection between caffeine and work as well. In 2006, Dunkin' Donuts ran a wildly popular campaign titled America Runs on Dunkin'—implying the obvious—that the chain's coffee provides Americans with the necessary caffeinated fuel to navigate the day.
Coffee in Australia
Meanwhile, Australia’s affinity for coffee developed around the mid-20th century thanks to Melbourne's myriad independent espresso cafes.
After World War II, large numbers of Italians and Greeks migrated to Australia, and to Melbourne in particular (today Melbourne has the largest Greek population of any city in the world outside of Greece). Unlike Italians who immigrated to the U.S. between 1880 and 1924, Australian Italians miagrated to Melbourne later, following the development of the piston-driven espresso machine by Achille Gaggia in 1945. Italians introduced Australia to espresso shots, and beyond that the idea of cafe culture. Around the mid-century, Melbourne began establishing itself as a cultural city, and newly opened coffeehouses proved to be excellent public meeting places for socializing.
In 1956, when Melbourne hosted the Olympics, cafe culture bloomed. Places like the Italian-owned and -inspired Legend Cafe opened—eventually became a center for bohemian nightlife.
... Italians introduced Australia to espresso shots, and beyond that the idea of cafe culture.
Today, Australia functions as a large island nation with low population density—its major cities are built on the water, and beach culture is seamlessly integrated throughout. As one of the country's many remains of its colony past and cultural connection to the U.K., Australians embrace the English tradition of long, hearty, cooked breakfasts. So it's only a natural fit that Australian cafes seamlessly blend coffee cafe culture with food, leisure, and conversation—as opposed to work.
Per Stone, Australian coffee is linked to a healthy lifestyle, spending time outdoors and, in many cases, going for a surf: "In Melbourne, people make going to cafes a huge part of the weekend. They’re passionate about that experience, and it’s not based on fueling yourself on caffeine."
Australian Coffee in America
Six years after moving stateside, Stone now runs eight Bluestone Lane cafes (seven in Manhattan, one in Philadelphia), with two more set to open in April, including the company’s first Brooklyn location in DUMBO. These new locales will have to contend with Manhattan's growing Australian cafe scene, which also includes spots like Two Hands in Soho, Little Collins in Midtown, and Brooklyn-based Toby's Estate.
But New York isn't the only state looking Down Under for better brews. Hayden Barnie and partner Amy Cohen debuted the Australian and New Zealand-inspired Stowaway Coffee + Kitchen just over two months ago in Denver. Barnie believes that Australia and New Zealand's cafe cultures developed quite different than, say, Starbucks in America, thanks to a particular independent do-it-yourself aesthetic: "In New Zealand there’s the thing of doing the best with what you can because getting the latest thing shipped in from the other side of the world is not really an option," he explains. "So people have always been a little bit more about that D.I.Y. culture that goes along with small business and entrepreneurship."
Starbucks never succeeded in Australia in the way the chain has around the world. Notably, the retail giant closed most of its Australian stores in 2013 after failing to cut a significant profit.
... the Australian cafe scene is transforming the way America takes its coffee and leisure—one flat white at a time.
Teresa Sharp, co-owner of Coral Gables, Florida's Australian-influenced Threefold Cafe, says Starbucks couldn’t hack it with the Aussies because independent coffee culture was already so firmly established.
"There’s very few [Starbucks] left in Melbourne," she states. "You might see one at an airport or at a very high tourist destination, but in terms of serving coffee, people don’t go for it."
In the last few years, Australians have had success exporting their coffee model to other parts of the world partly because they have something others don’t—ample funds.
"There was never really any recession in Australia," Barnie says. "They just have a shitload of money and if they don’t, they just dig another hole in the dirt and sell it to China."
Barnie may be right—the mining-based Australian economy is strong, and Australian entrepreneurs have had more freedom and capital to establish businesses abroad in the past six years than ever before. And further, in Melbourne's booming coffee business, the city’s best baristas earn six-figure salaries, Sharp adds.
Perhaps more saliently, America's new mass consumer base—millennials—are now ready and willing to pay top dollar for well-made brews from independent sources. Craft coffee is only growing, and Australians have arrived on the scene with quality espresso when consumers are clamoring for it.
Australian and New Zealand coffee has proven its power. Let's not forget, in 2015, by popular demand, Starbucks launched a version of requisite Australian espresso-based drink the flat white—two ristretto shots with steamed whole milk and latte art.
Which, of course, is on offer at Bluestone Lane. The chainlet's service model is based on the cafes which define Melbourne's excellent coffee scene—meaning, in addition to great coffee one can drop in for brekkie (that’s Australian for breakfast), in addition to other edibles.
Bluestone Lane and Stowaway both offer table service, which sometimes causes confusion among customers who aren’t sure how to read a place which serves coffee and food, and forces a sit-down experience. Is it a restaurant? Is it a diner? Is it a coffee shop? And no it's not study hall here, so don't come looking for Wi-Fi.
"We don’t offer Wi-Fi in our stores because we really want people to take a moment to pause," Stone explains. "It ties in nicely with mindfulness—we want to encourage connecting with colleagues, or friends, or family."
In Miami, Sharp wants to bring simplicity and good espresso to the market. "We want to help people see that there’s more to coffee than cream and sugar," she says, adding, "Our business model is just trying to help people get back to what a real macchiato is and what a real espresso is."
From cream- and sugar-clouded brews as fuel for work, to quality espresso with a hint of mindfulness, the Australian cafe scene is transforming the way America takes its coffee and leisure—one flat white at a time.