Hitchhikers guide to coffee

Finding a good cafe when you’re on the road is pretty tough. We struggled in our January trip to New Zealand. There are a number of tips and tricks for checking if the cafe you’ve stopped in is worth your while. But most require you to actually step inside the cafe, and then there’s the awkward evacuation that comes after you spy the milk caked steam wand…

But no more. Beanhunter does the hard work for you. Tracking down independent cafes and recommending them. There’s one result for Townsville – the sadly defunct Squires (actually I think they’ve just moved, and I haven’t found them yet). I’ll put Coffee Dominion on the map. Because they deserve it.

In case I’ve not posted something like this before – here’s my fail safe list for judging a cafe without actually tasting their coffee…

  1. Bean supplier – I tend to avoid the big name companies like La Vazza and beans that are shipped from Italy or elsewhere. You’ve got absolutely no way of knowing if the beans are arriving within the window of freshness – and chances are they’re not. Beans roasted on site are normally the best bet (but not always). Reputable local wholesale roasters (eg Merlo) are a good start… but can suffer from the same dramas as international beans. Beans from specialty roasters tend to come with a little more care involved – they’re more interested in protecting the brand than expanding the number of cafes selling their beans.
  2. Grinder. I don’t think there are any cafes not grinding their own coffee these days. But Grinders with a big doser (the plastic chamber at the front) are dangerous. If the barista is grinding on the spot it is at least freshly ground.
  3. Milk wand. Seriously. If it’s caked with cruddy milk or screaming like a banshee – run away. Literally. Run. Don’t wait.
  4. Volume of traffic – lots of customers means high turnover of beans and that other people like the product.
  5. Staff – if the staff look like they can handle the basics – grinds, tamp, extract, and froth the milk – that’s a start. If they have two baristas working the machine – one doing coffee and the other milk – that’s even better.

Signage fail

We spotted this at our favourite cafe on Saturday – while I’m not a grammar nazi I am an irony fan – so this made me laugh. I tested it on people at work and most of them thought the slogan was funny without noticing the glaring error.

Cafe economics

Hands up if you’ve ever thought “opening a cafe would be fun”. This little article was just about enough for me to put my hand down to that question. Here’s a failed cafe owner elaborating on the costs of pursuing your cafe dream. 

“A place that seats 25 will have to employ at least two people for every shift: someone to work the front and someone for the kitchen (assuming you find a guy who will both uncomplainingly wash dishes and reliably whip up pretty crepes; if you’ve found that guy, you’re already in better shape than most NYC restaurateurs. You’re also, most likely, already in trouble with immigration services). Budgeting $15 for the payroll for every hour your charming cafe is open (let’s say 10 hours a day) relieves you of $4,500 a month. That gives you another $4,500 a month for rent and $6,300 to stock up on product. It also means that to come up with the total needed $18K of revenue per month, you will need to sell that product at an average of a 300 percent markup.”

“Coffee was a different story—thanks to the trail blazed by Starbucks, the world of coffee retail is now a rogue’s playground of jaw-dropping markups. An espresso that required about 18 cents worth of beans (and we used very good beans) was sold for $2.50 with nary an eyebrow raised on either side of the counter. A dab of milk froth or a splash of hot water transformed the drink into a macchiato or an Americano, respectively, and raised the price to $3. The house brew too cold to be sold for $1 a cup was chilled further and reborn at $2.50 a cup as iced coffee, a drink whose appeal I do not even pretend to grasp.”

“But how much of it could we sell? Discarding food as a self-canceling expense at best, the coffee needed to account for all of our profit. We needed to sell roughly $500 of it a day. This kind of money is only achievable through solid foot traffic, but, of course, our cafe was too cozy and charming to pop in for a cup to go. The average coffee-to-stay customer nursed his mocha (i.e., his $5 ticket) for upward of 30 minutes. Don’t get me started on people with laptops.”

It seems the real cost was almost to the couple’s marriage – which the writer said was saved by a “well timed bankruptcy.

New Zealand

So we’re in New Zealand. We being my wife, two sister-in-laws and brother-in-law-in-law. We arrived yesterday at 3.30pm here time (midday ours).

The cross cultural feel didn’t kick in until we left the airport. Everything looked the same – and having kiwis doing menial jobs for you is nothing out of the ordinary. That was a joke.

As we travelled to our salubrious digs in the Christchurch CBD in our hire car we all had a little giggle at the following ad:

“Million dollar beard sale for a limited time only.”

Everything but the beard was clearly understood. I know bagging out the accent is old hat – turns out it was a clearence sale for beds.

Our first stop was nextdoor to our 3 bedroom unit – in a funky refitted warehouse called Living Space – at an equally funky little cafe called The Honey Pot. They made very good sandwhiches and ok coffee. Robyn’s video review of the coffee will be posted at some stage when I complete a more comprehensive travel journal.

We trapsed through the streets of Christchurch until the wee hours of the morning – it was daylight until 10pm. I took close to 600 photos with our new camera. Taking photos is now too easy. Deleting unwanted ones is going to be a nightmare. Anyone fancy a slide night when we get back… No. I didn’t think so. We still have 12 more days to amass photos for your viewing pleasure. That’s a lot of photos.


I was walking through Pacific Fair today. It was jam packed. From carpark to K-mart – everywhere was teeming with busy consumerism. And I liked it. Despite what the hippies might say. I buy therefore I am. With that out of the way (and without revealing any purchases made ahead of my family-in-law’s Christmas celebrations in the brighter hours of this morning), I was struck by a thought as I ducked and weaved through the crowds holding tightly to my wife’s hand. Nay. I was struck by three thoughts…

1. There are literally billions of people in this world who I will never ever meet, but may walk past fleetingly in a shopping centre. That could be my sole interaction with them. Ever. Being in the same place at the same time. Competing for that single spare space in the car park – a coincidental intersection in the space time continuum. That is mind boggling. Each of these people has a life, a history, a story of their own… and each has a different reason for being at the shops at the same time as me. Robyn and I were sitting in one of Pacific Fairs many food courts tittering at the idea of standing on the table and doing some street evangelism. What would the police say as they dragged me away on trumped up public nuisance charges? I do like to watch people as they walk around and judge them by their clothes, snippets of conversation and the way they discipline their children. I like to speculate what their life story is. What life is like for them. Why they’re buying 50 rolls of no frills single ply toilet paper in one go (that sentence could do with some hyphenating). Nobody needs that much TP. People watching is fun. I can almost understand the tantalising appeal of reality television at that point. Almost. Only real life is more fun.

2. Krispy Kreme deserve to be famous for their coffee – not just their donuts. Their stores are always immaculately kitted out with cutting edge coffee machinery – and staff who seem to know their way around a Mazzer grinder and aLa Marzocco machine. I guarantee Krispy Kreme will produce a better coffee than any other global franchise. They leave Starbucks and Gloria Jeans for dead. Every Krispy Kreme store I’ve been too has the same coffee kit – and it works like a charm.

3. If I ran a candy store I would be as happy as a kid in a candy store. Lolly shops are great. I’ve only been to one or two in my time that had an owner straight out of Roald Dahl’s “Boy” – a sour, dour old person. Lolly shops seem to attract nice people. How could you not be happy surrounded by so much sugar? If I weren’t so enamored with the other careers I plan to pursue then I would quite happily start up a lolly shop/cafe.

3a. Simply because I want to add an extra point while adhering to my “three points” promise – I’d like to point out that cookie shops always smell the best of all. I love the smell of fresh cookies at cookie man. That must surely be their sole marketing pitch. Krispy Kreme at Pacific Fair hand out little paper hats to children so they’ll wear them as their parents shop. At least their unruly behaviour may draw the eye of passers by. Cookie Man doesn’t need such trivialities. They have an aromatic weapon that works like the pied pipers flute. I did hear at a tourism industry workshop with Tom O’Toole – owner of the Beechworth Bakery – that one of their successful initiatives was to pump the smells from the bakery kitchen out onto the street. If I were to start up a lolly shop/cafe I’d have to think up a similar scheme.

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