Chris and the team at Main Street Café serve us wonderful coffee and food everyday, and throughout the past 12 months we’ve shared ideas, supported the community and most importantly, we’ve made a great friendship. Chris is a busy young man. The business is actually two-in-one, with a cutting edge café running by day, and a thriving chai manufacturing business with 70 wholesale stockists nation-wide by night. Recently we managed to take Chris off the busy shop floor for a coffee and a chat, to find out more about his story, the philosophy behind the brand and the success so far.
How did you get into making chai and what kickstarted the Chai Boy brand?
“I was working as a barista for a family who own four cutting-edge cafés in Melbourne. It was there I got the opportunity to learn how to make chai. I was then entered into a competition. T2 hosts a competition called the Chai Brewing Championships where they take Melbourne based baristas and they judge them anonymously on their chai making abilities. That’s what kickstarted the Chai Boy brand and which is something that came about after winning the competition. Part of the prize was a trip to India. I saw a whole lot of tea fields in Darjeeling and travelled all over India to learn how to make chai authentically. I returned with a passion to start my own label called Chai Boy. The family and owners of the four cafés I was already working for became my customer. They were based in Richmond, Northcote, the CBD and East Melbourne. They were happy to take on the product to support the brand and to support me. I was very lucky to have them as mentors, and to have their influence and calibre to kickstart the brand. We now have 70 wholesale stockists Australia-wide. We are in cafés in Queensland, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. We’ve been running for four years in November so I’m pretty happy with the growth that has occurred. The business customers of Chai Boy are high calibre. We try to associate ourselves with specialty coffee cafés. We tend to gear ourselves more to that clientele and this protects the branding as well. We feel our product is in safe hands. People that really enjoy and are passionate about good food and coffee also really enjoy our chai. I guess that’s what sparked me to really want to create Main Street Café. This is because it still gives me a foot in the industry as well as being able to produce chai from the one location so we have the linear integration model set up. After we finish at the café for the day, we have the tea crew come in and produce all the tea in the café and then pack it up and distribute through local couriers and we also do trips to the city everyday for deliveries. We produce all the chai from this location.”
Why did you choose Warragul as the location for Main Street Café?
“My folks opened Lean & Green, a specialty grocery store from this location about a year ago. But prior to that they had a similar store just up the road for about 7 years. When they moved here Dad contacted me and said there was a space available next door. I’d been looking to get into Melbourne for a long time. It’s such a fierce market and I didn’t have the capital to get something that I wanted to start. You are competing so hard against people who are spending up to millions of dollars fitting out the hottest café. Main Street Café is something that is within my means, something that I can handle. I would like to grow it into something bigger one day but for now this is fine. I’ve put everything I’ve worked for into this place so its been challenging and a bit scary at times, but I’m pretty happy with where it is at the moment and how its running.”
What is the brand philosophy of Main Street Café?
“‘To have a good product, you need good ingredients. That’s the way we run things here.’
A good product is consistent and the only way to be consistent is to keep it fresh and serve it in a comfortable environment with care that drives home the customer experience to be positive and memorable, every time. People love coffee in Warragul. We’ve got a strong customer base now. We know most of the people that come through our doors on a first name basis and we have developed really good relationships with all our customers. Being able to walk into your coffee shop, and be on a first name basis is like going to a friend’s house and hanging out with them, you don’t feel like you are walking into a place of business where you are just treated like a number. You are actually welcomed and the feeling is friendly. All the team are encouraged to remember peoples names and the little things that make a difference.
We are doing four menus a year. This is another good way of keeping your regular customers interested. But most of all it keeps us passionate, it inspires the chefs and floor staff alike, and to keep things fresh, you have to be in season. I am very lucky to have the crew that I have with me. Warragul is not a hospitality geared town. But it is definitely a food bowl. There is a lot of great produce and great producers within Warragul and the Baw Baw area. It is a growing town and with that we are seeing like-minded people pop in and share their products and their passion with us. I think traceability is the biggest thing. People want to know where the produce is from and support local. In being next to Lean & Green, my folks’ store, we are able to not only talk about but demonstrate the produce is coming from the shop next door, thats coming from the farm down the road, which is a family run business, who is a customer of ours. It’s that beautiful cycle of knowing where everything comes from. Any establishment should be able to produce something that is fresh and local. People like to receive the same standard if not better every time and if you can’t do that it is hard to stay in business.
My parents drummed an appreciation for good food into me from a young age. Growing up, they had a tomato farm for 25 years. We always grew up with fresh produce. Dad would go to the markets and take us with him to help sell the tomatoes so I guess working for yourself is always something I’ve been around and its also where the appreciation for fresh food comes from.”
What is the Main Street Café interior design philosophy?
“It is heavily focussed on the customer experience. And a less-is-more concept. We’ve got pretty blank walls. The décor is minimal. It is a clean, bright and vibrant space. All of the furniture is custom built by my brother and other local producers. The timber bench tops were built by my friend’s dad. My brother built the bench seat. All the furniture is made by local people. Nothing has been outsourced for cheap and inferior products out of Warragul, everything in the shop was built in the area. That makes it original. The flooring was purchased from Space Flooring & Interiors. We put together a story board and a mood board, and my friend came up with the floor plan after I told her how I needed the bar to look for it to be efficient, and she came up with the concept, and then she came back with colour schemes which I presented to Space Flooring & Interiors. They then chose the floor and how to contrast it with the texture and kick board for the bar and the splashback with the subway tiles and dark grout. The café interior design is a collaboration of minds that have put something really special together that I couldn’t have come up with on my own.
When we first moved in noise was a factor. The walls were brick and the floors were hard tiles so we needed a soft roof to absorb a lot of the noise. That way when people came in they didn’t feel like they were competing for talking space. We got some noise reducing batts put in the ceiling. They’re all things we had to think about – noise, comfort, looks. We created an environment where our guests feel free ‘to be.'”
Jill McClen, interior designer at Space Flooring & Interiors contributed: “Chris has brought a style that is more what you see in Melbourne and it was needed in Warragul. He’s made the most of the space. It isn’t a big space and he’s had to plan it very carefully to make the very most of what exists and comfortably seat patrons, while still maintaining the spacious look, and a comfortableness so that people don’t feel that they are stacked on top of one another. He’s done his research. To be able to use the flooring that he did, which looks great, has enabled the space to achieve a light industrial look, that is slightly organic and natural, it is very stylish and simple. He had to do something about the sound absorption because hard flooring in cafés can be very noisy, very echoey and that upsets a lot of people. So it was a vital component to the café that people be comfortable and the noise level is a major component of that. I’ve not had one person say anything negative about the noise level in a café so he solved that problem beautifully. The look of space is maintained which was very important. The counter area was planned well also. All the things that you need to be able to run a café behind the counter are there but not one centimetre of space is wasted. It’s done in a very compact and effective way as to leave as much space as possible for seating patrons. And the next final component to the experience is the service and it is excellent. They pride themselves on their service. Chris is a delightful person. He enjoys people very much. His personality, his communication skills and his warmth with people flows through to all of his staff. He just enjoys having people come in. They all learn everyone’s names. They make everyone feel very comfortable and they’re very helpful. People are made to feel special and it’s a very personal environment that makes coming into Main Street Café a lovely experience, every time.”
How do you support the community?
“We got involved with Warragul Snowfest this year. We support a lot of smaller groups around town. We support a primary school and their horticultural program. What we do is we buy the produce back off the kids that grow the fresh food and we use it on our menu. We do this with Ellenbank Primary School. The kids grow seasonal veggies in the patch at school, and they bring it into the café and give it to the chefs and we pay them for the produce. It’s a great way for kids to get really excited about what they’re growing and seeing something come out of it whilst understanding the commerical side to it.”
What is next for Main Street Café?
It has been a very successful first year. I’m very happy with where we’re at as a small business and a start up. I’m pretty excited by what the second year will bring. We’re always thinking of ways to do our own thing. I’d like to start doing private events, utilising Main Street Café as a place for people to host their next function. Or doing something new such as staying open later at night and something more refined with local winemakers and cheesemakers. Perhaps using the venue as a bit more of a low brow boutique wine bar. Somewhere people can have a nice wine from a local producer and sample some cheese. I can say right now for sure, I’m excited about the future.”