In this interview I have the pleasure of meeting the National Operations Manager of The Café Supplier who are revolutionising Food-Service wholesale for Independent cafés.
I’m proud to say, I’ve been involved with this vibrant and exciting Australian café industry for over a decade. I arrived from Blighty, on the shores of East Coast Australia, and not to make light of recent racial tensions, was introduced to the infamous Flat White and have never looked back.
One of my more challenging job roles was as a Food-Service Rep of a large food-service (FS) national distributor. It was always concerning to me when independent café businesses were often treated like second class citizens, meaning their needs were not being met regularly. My observations working in the industry, as a FS rep is that it was a tricky business; the invoicing was frequently un-transparent and any loyalty to customer was wholly and solely based on spend! Leaving this highly competitive industry in a free-for-all race to the bottom.
Imagine my delight to hear of ‘The Café Supplier’! Offering a one-stop-shop distribution model for independent cafés. Specialising in café brands and products at great (transparent) pricing. A business that understood the demand of running a café and didn’t discriminate.
I met with Michael Elligett, who has progressed from a Cookie Man franchisee in St Ives to being Purchasing and Production Manager role in 2010, which after 6 years of learning the role led to National Operations Manager and to now being responsible for the manufacturing facility and overseeing of The Café Supplier.
Let’s talk to the man himself, about The Café Supplier’s beginnings in 2020 and how Covid has been a stumbling block but also a vital learning experience.
I think to get an idea of the man behind the business we will need to examine Michael’s coffee habits first… AND he passes with flying colours.
What is your morning caffeine routine?
I love the freshness I get through a French Press in the morning, where I use our very own Mount K Coffee. Followed by a latte purchased on my way to work, which I believe to be a Campos blend.
What are your passions outside of the workplace?
Having played every sport under the sun, I can safely say I’m a sporting fanatic! I used to play rep level soccer as goalkeeper, although my passion outdid any ability. I also played No 8 in a rugby playing school. Rugby didn’t treat me well, after breaking my arm in 3 places in my first game and then a succession of numerous back and knee injuries to follow. Now my passion and time are in my work. However if pressed, I still love my sport and avidly support Parramatta.
What was the inspiration behind starting ‘The Café Supplier’?
To offer some background, we were already a manufacturer, wholesaler and distributor, to a network of independent supermarkets.. Essentially what happened after that was quite organic, as 1 or 2 independent café would look to us for distribution each week, which grew until it became difficult to say no!
What we discovered was that nobody was servicing the independent café market!
You have your big roasters and FS distributors charging an arm and a leg for items they shouldn’t be. I’ve heard reports of alleged blatant overcharging; café owners being invoiced more than their quoted prices. Just to make running your café businesses a little more difficult and time consuming, by having to cross-reference all invoices cent for cent from suppliers.
And so ‘The Café Supplier’ was born! We said let’s cater to that sector of the market that’s been forgotten, with great café products at unbeatable prices.
What effect did Covid-19 have on the business? And what impact does it have on how you will run the business in the future?
That’s a massive question but super relevant. I was impressed with how café businesses adapted to the pandemic. The way cafés advanced their e-commerce business and the use of takeaway ordering applications. However from a ‘The Café Supplier’ business point of view, we lost about 93% of our business overnight. In all honesty it was a terrible, terrible couple of months! Having to stand down our whole team. The remaining 3 of us had to do rotational hours to service the franchisee.
Looking forward, the business will never be the same again! And we will never run it the same way. Pre-Covid we were in a cycle of affording solutions to problems at an ongoing operational cost. That was until Covid hit. Once the pandemic started, we had to carve everything up and make the necessary cuts. As we rebuild, we ask the questions ‘Do we really need it?’ And most importantly ‘Does it add value to the business?’ If the answer is No, then it doesn’t eventuate.
That covers every part of the business from how we train our staff, to the pricing matrix, to our marketing. It’s a totally different mindset now, which is ‘How to add value to the customer?’ This comes down to our business model offering the full range, at the best prices, with the best service.
What separates you from the other Food Service Distributors?
If you look at our brand ethos, we champion Australian café owners and Australian producers. Australian producers featuring, because we are an Australian manufacturer and it’s a really hard thing to do! Also, being a café owner, I think is undoubtedly one of the most challenging, most competitive trades.
There are distributors in the market charging between $22 and $26 for 1k of Arkadia Chai, and we are charging $14 everyday. We champion the independent café owner and for want of a better word, hope we can cut out the ‘bullshit’. I believe there’s a genuine feeling of cynicism from the independent café owners towards the large coffee roasters and FS distributors. The choice in the market from the café owner’s perspective is limited to choosing between the best of a bad bunch. ‘The Café Supplier’ always remembers and respects who the customer is.
There’s a genuine gap in the market for independent cafés, who as we’ve touched on, are discriminated against from the traditional food service route to market who want to sell vast quantities in each delivery, which often is against the flow for the average café; fast paced, quick turnover, limited storage, looking for café-centric products. We want to offer that one-stop-shop at unbeatable prices and the fantastic service that can only come from a team with a wealth of hospitality experience and knowledge. We operate nationally from our Sydney hub. We have a $100 dollar minimum order on all orders for next day deliveries for the East Coast.
Where do you envisage ‘The Café Supplier’ to be in 2030?
If you are to ask me what my grand-plan is for the next 10 years, we will have distribution points in each of the states, daily deliveries, offering an expansive, full café range of goods that the Australian café owners recognise as their industry supplier, who above all, value and appreciate their business and support.
And that seemed like a great place to end the interview. Michael was absolutely on the money when he talked about the challenges faced by independent cafés and their distribution options. Cafés need their supply chain and although price point is essential it’s also essential to be treated equally as a customer, essential to have trust in your supply chain and essential to feel like, as Michael placed the ‘The Café Supplier’ in the market, as the independent cafés partner.
Visit website for more info https://www.thecafesupplier.com.au/
By Rob Marlowe