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Behind the Kounta

Melbourne’s Hot New Coffee Joint Takes a Vacation from Modern Coffee Culture

Coffee culture is one that’s been deeply rooted in societies across the globe for centuries now. And, it makes sense – the stuff tastes divine (yes, it’s an acquired taste, but it doesn’t take long to acquire), it wakes us up, and it actually raises our dopamine levels.

By Chloe Chaplin

Not to get all scientific on you guys, but dopamine is the brain chemical that makes us feel motivated, blissful, focused, and, you know, happy. So, yes, it just makes us feel good.

Coffee has also become a bit of a trend, as of late, with über-hipster coffee joints sprouting up that feature new brewing and serving methods, ultra knowledgeable baristas, and vast selections of roasts. Some might even argue that the culture has gotten a bit pretentious over the years as well. While we’ve never met a coffee shop we didn’t like, we won’t say we haven’t noticed perhaps a bit of snootiness here and there, and we totally get it. Coffee is a hot commodity, but it doesn’t need to be intimidating. Coffee should, however, be a destination, which is why we think “Vacation Coffee” is ever-so-aptly named, and it’s a coffee shop that never takes itself too seriously (we swoon, we swoon!). The art deco-esque space is bright, airy, open and inviting – it’s a bit of a mid-century modern mixed with 80’s pastel design (à la Miami) that’s filled good vibes, fruity graphics, and cheeky slogans.

We recently caught up with one of the four brilliant minds behind Vacation coffee, Julian Bedford, about this wonderfully whimsical yet sleek and stylish café in the centre of Melbourne. We wanted to know more about the unique space design, the roasts, the brews, the name itself, and how Julian and his three co-founders’ concept has shaped the brand’s retail experience.

* Vacation Coffee is run and conceptualized by co-founders, Julian Bedford, Jimmy Tjoeng, and brothers Matt and Kael Sahely

What’s behind the Vacation design?

We noticed that a lot of cafes and coffee businesses in Melbourne were really quite stuffy and took themselves very seriously, which is good. It’s nice to take a product seriously, but we thought that maybe they’d gone a bit too far, and that they were letting the product sort of overshadow customer service or atmosphere. We wanted to create a place in the Melbourne CBD, which is quite bustling, that felt a little bit like a haven or a respite, and we found this beautiful space with very tall ceilings and big windows that had a nice view out across the city. We thought we’d do something a bit more exciting and fun, and then we came up with the name Vacation. From there, we decided that we wanted the space to be nice, bright, airy, and reminiscent of a holiday. It just panned out this way.

How has the design shaped the retail experience – do people tend to hang out at the space for a while?

Yeah, absolutely. People do settle in. Obviously, we have people dashing in and out – 80% of our business is takeaway coffee, but I think we do create an overall experience [for in-house and take-out].

How did you get into the coffee business in the first place?

I’ve been making coffee or working in cafes since I was fourteen, so I’d go to work right after school. Then, I continued doing it throughout university. When I finished university, I decided that I would much rather continue working in the hospitality industry than in what I’d studied, so I got the money together over the course of some years. Then, I met my business partners and they’ve really helped me to shape the vision. Coffee is my passion, really. It just took a little while to realize it. Kael and Matt have had heaps of businesses before, so I was very lucky to partner up with them.

Between you, Jimmy, Kael, and Matt, what are your individual strengths, and what’s the dynamic like between you guys?

The cafe is under my control, whereas Jimmy is like a coffee guru, so he decides what coffee we’ll be roasting, and he roasts all of our coffee. He packages and he delivers, obviously with the help of our staff. And, then, Matt and Kael have so much experience that we can draw on what they’ve already done in the past [Matt and Kael are the original founders of Melbourne’s famed Pillar of Salt]. They help us push forward and find new things that we can do, because obviously, they’ve tried so many things. They know what works. So, it’s really industry experience that they bring, which is huge.

It looks like you guys have a lot of fun together?

People say that all business partnerships are great if you’re making money, so thankfully that’s the case, but we do get along really well. It’s a very harmonious relationship. But, you do hear horror stories about business partnerships going sour, so yes, we’re very lucky.

Where do you source the majority of your beans?

Mostly South America, Central America, and Africa. We have the luxury of being able to use several different importers. We also make the connections with coffee farmers, bring the coffee into Australia, and then provide samples for you to taste. This way, you can decide what you want, what you think would taste good in the blend or by itself, and then you place your order with them. We have really close relationships with the importers, as mentioned, mostly in South America, Central America, and Africa, particularly in places like Ethiopia, Kenya, Brazil, Colombia, and El Salvador. Those are the big ones, and so we do go through a rigorous process. It’s called, “cupping”, and it’s where you roast up a sample in a small roaster and, similar to how you’d go about a wine tasting, you gather around a table tasting each one, and you use a thing called a cupping spoon. It’s all very nerdy, but absolutely essential.

Do you ever source in Indonesia since it’s so close by?

It’s interesting, we’ve actually just recently roasted our first batch of Indonesian coffee. My business partner, Jimmy, is in fact Indonesian. Indonesia’s coffee sort of has a reputation for not being quite at the standards of other countries, but that’s definitely growing. In fact, Bureaux Collective just recently held an event where we tasted a lot of new Indonesian coffees from Indonesian roasters, and it was all amazing stuff, so Indonesia is definitely coming up. Most of what we get is from West Java.

Do you guys ever see yourselves out in the fields working directly with the growers?

It’s what a lot of people want to do, and I can see us developing relationships in Indonesia because Jimmy already knows coffee farmers there. So, it’s definitely a possibility, but the thing is that I think you take on a lot of responsibility when you do this. If you’re sourcing directly from these people, then you have a lot of responsibility [to the growers]. We already ensure that the [growers] are fairly compensated and treated, but we do this through our importers because they have commitments to do so. If you start to do this yourself, the responsibility of this oversight falls on you, and it would be really challenging to make sure that everyone is looked after properly. I’ve spoken to [others in the industry who do this], and they’ve talked about how difficult it is to establish relationships that they trust, and to make sure everything is above board. I think there’s a lot more to it than just developing the relationships. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it properly, so it’s probably a while away.

What’s your favourite roast?

I really like Ethiopian Naturals. Ethiopian coffee is really fruity in general, but then there are a few different ways to process coffee on the farm. One of those ways is called natural processing and it sort of divides people because it’s got a really funky, winey sort of flavour. Some people hate that, but I really love it.

What about your favourite brewing style – do you have one?

When I’m at home, I brew with an AeroPress because it’s really convenient and it makes one cup. It’s quick and it’s easy to clean. But, if I was going to a cafe, I’d probably order, maybe, a batch brew. This is like a couple of litres brewed at a time and kept warm in a pot. Just take a serve at a time. It’s kind of like a really big pour over kept warm. I just like it because it’s simple and not very pretentious. It’s like American-style filtered coffee, but we take a lot of pride in it, and I think we do it really well.

Finally, How do you use Kounta to run your business more efficiently?

The reporting that it provides has been great. We can look on there throughout the day, at the end of the week, end of the month, and basically track to see what’s selling well, when it’s selling, and how that matches up with our rostering. So, for example, if we have staff on at the right times, it shows you the peaks of your sales, hour by hour, and then you can compare that to your rosters and see if you’re rostering efficiently. You can also see what products are selling well, if you need to make more of those, and what people tend to like so you can make a product that’s similar. So, like, if a cold drink is selling well, maybe you can come up with a new type of cold drink – things like that. The whole reporting side of [Kounta] is very useful – it’s what we use the most and it’s been really great.

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We love the vibe that Julian and the crew have created over at Vacation Coffee. While we do take our coffee seriously to a degree, it’s refreshing to know that modern coffee culture doesn’t have to be stuffy in order to be cool. These boys have accomplished this in spades. Oh yeah, the coffee itself happens to be some of the best we’ve ever had, and we drink a lot of coffee. If you’re in the CBD area, don’t miss out on a killer cup of Vacation “joe” and a stop at what we consider, aesthetically, the grooviest looking coffee shop in Melbourne, if not all of Australia. They’ve also got a fantastic selection of snacks and sandwiches right at the bar, so it’s a great one-stop-shop and a welcomed respite, as any good Vacation should be.

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