I’ve been enjoying watching Brown Sugar Espresso Bar grow since I drove past the signage going up a little over a year ago. From the perfectly chosen aesthetics to the personalised interactions with every person that walks through the door, this tiny space has been embraced as a community hub within the Mangerton / West Wollongong area. I sat down for a brew with owner, Lucy, to discuss coffee, community and cakes:

Tell me a little about Brown Sugar. Is this your first café?

“It is my first. My little baby came about because I was going to buy an existing café in Keiraville and then it didn’t happen. I was driving around one day with my sister and we saw this spot and went “Hmm!” I wanted to open an espresso bar – a different concept to a regular café. I talked to the real estate, who didn’t think this space could work for what I wanted and it took around two months to agree. It’s a different sort of a space – it’s communal, a shared space and that’s where the idea of an espresso bar differs from a café where you can just sit in the corner and not talk to anyone. In here, the conversation just continues throughout the day.”

Were you always aiming for an espresso bar, or only when you saw this space?

“Yeah, I was. I wanted to take the mystery out of coffee for people, instead of people waiting for their coffee while the baristas are hidden behind the counter. I wanted people to be able to see what was going on and get people to understand a bit more about how coffee works – that it’s not just someone pushing a button.

It’s only 20 square metres in here, so we had to really think about how to make that work. This was probably our fifth layout. I had my interior architect draw up plans and every time he came up with something, I was like “This is not it!” We got talking one day and I said, “Think about the best places you’ve ever been to and travelled to. I got talking about places I’d visited in Europe and we decided to have this open format. Everything revolves around the big communal table. It can be used as a community space – everything on it that you see is removable, so it can be made in to a bar, we can have dinner parties, book clubs, even small weddings, you know! I wanted this space to become a community corner. We’ve had an oils night here and I’ve actually started running a Girl Boss meeting for local women who are in business in the Illawarra – mainly people who are associated with Brown Sugar, so a lot of my home bakers, that type of thing. We’re finding there’s a lot of networking going on, so people come in here telling me what they need and I’ve been able to put them in touch with someone thy can talk to. It’s that same feel to when I was growing up – you talk to your neighbours and someone always knows someone – you didn’t Google anything, you know?

The overall concept was always and remains quality food, quality coffee and a quality customer experience.”

There are so many new coffee shops popping up in the Illawarra – did you have any fear of being swallowed up as “just another café”?

“I didn’t really give much thought to it. It’s the same as I’d never focused too much on how much money I need to make, how many beans I’m getting through each day or I would just get freaked out by all of that. I’ve always had a history of when I’m committed to something, I see to have a natural ability to make it work because I really know what I want. Any time something hasn’t worked here, it’s because I’ve been thrown by someone saying “This is what you need to do”, so now I just say “NO”. I know what I need to do and I’m just going to slowly plod along. I think the reason we have been embraced so much by the community is because we ARE different here. This concept wouldn’t have worked in Crown Street – it works in this neighbourhood setting, but I think I would’ve been able to adapt it, depending on where I had opened – it’s just worked out this way for us!”

What was the process in sourcing who your suppliers were going to be?

“I’ve always been big on social media and it was just a case of seeing what was around in the area by following people. I first got in touch with Crystal at “It’s Home Baked” – she was my Number One – I was locking her in, no matter what! From there, it was a matter of looking at who she followed and if she recommended anyone, talking to people. A few of the bakers I have were originally just doing markets and then they started stocking with me – now they stock with a number of cafes. I just have such a thing for quality – there’s been some trial and error to find what works and things change too. When I first opened, nobody bought croissants, at all, whereas now every time I get croissants in, they go right away! We get products from several local bakers including Anastasias Bakehouse, GF Eats, Millers Local Bakehouse and Willow & George.

Another thing we’re trying to do is reduce how much plastic we’re using, so where possible, we encourage people to bring their own containers if they’re buying cakes or beans. We do a discount for people who bring their own cups and we’ve got compost bins out the back – we’re trying wherever possible. I’ve tried talking to my suppliers about how they package their deliveries too – our Juice Farm we use let us return their jars for re-use.”

**Brown Sugar are now a part of the Green Caffeine Reusable Cup Program.

It seems word has got out and the locals keep coming back for your Butterbing cookies…are they the crowd favourite?

“They’re amazing. They’re pretty much the only sweets that aren’t made locally. When I was opening this place, I talked to one of my friends, who is coeliac, and she said, “You have to have good gluten free options” That’s why I sped the money to get them up here from Melbourne. They are more expensive, but they’re such a high quality product and it’s really hard to find gluten free that’s such high quality. We’re branching out now, people are getting to know we have vegan stuff, gluten free, and savoury options as well. I don’t have a menu, because I like to work with whatever is fresh and seasonal.”

What made Peaberry coffee the choice for your beans?

“I drank a lot of coffee during that process! I knew I didn’t want any of the big players – I just didn’t want something that’s already dominated the market. I’d seen Peaberrys, but because they are in Newcastle, I thought it was just too far away. Then I went out to Bathurst and got talking to some roasters out there and they mentioned that they could service Wollongong, so suddenly Newcastle didn’t seem like so much of a stretch!

I rang Peaberry in the morning and that same afternoon, I drove up there. I was just so impressed by what they stand for – they only service around 90 regional cafes, they’re Australia’s only coffee “cellar door” and Adrian, the owner, just lives and breathes coffee. They’re all about “How can we evolve your business?”, “What can we do to support your business?”

Adrian drove down here before we opened and he spent two hours down here before I even turned up, just walking the streets, talking to people and sussing out the area – to the point of him looking dodgy enough that the hairdresser next door rang her husband because “some strange guy was just weirdly walking around”! From the instant I met him, he was just right on board with my business model…with many other roasters I had talked to, I felt like I was just a number. Adrian’s been such a good business mentor to me.

We pair their coffee with South Coast Dairy milk, Mayde Tea – I’ve put so much thought in to having really great quality products here. I ask myself, “What would I want as the customer?” People have told me that my prices are too cheap, but I’m constantly thinking, “What would I be willing to pay for that?”

Your staff seem to truly care about the business in the same way you do. How do you recruit them?

(Interjection from staff member, Steph): “This place has such a good reputation. People want to work here. It’s a happy place – just check out the photos on Instagram!”

“I’m not a Wollongong girl, so I came in not knowing anyone. When I was looking for somewhere to live, I talked to the real estate agent and she asked what y story was. I mentioned I was opening a café and said, “You don’t happen to know a barista do you?” and laughed sarcastically.
She said, “Actually I do!” So, that’s how I met my first staff member, Sadie. Another of my staff found me because I was stocking Anastasia’s Vegan Cupcakes. Others, I’ve just met and said, “Hey, I reckon you’d be a good fit” and some approached me first.

I know who’s going to work and who’s not going to work…not to mention who can actually work with me 10-12 hours a day! It’s a small space – there’s no hiding out the back! I think it’s about how I treat people as well…I do make time for people and it works both ways. People notice when I haven’t had a day off and really care. We’ve had days where we’re absolutely getting slammed and some of my customers are asking what they can do to help – it’s lovely!

We don’t often have people getting annoyed at us – even on our busiest days, like Australia Day, we had a line outside right back to the bollards for a whole three hours and people weren’t getting upset. We take time to talk to people – I don’t serve people on their phones, I won’t have people being mean to my staff. If that means they don’t want to come back here, I’m okay with that. It’s about friendships being formed – I’m witnessing people getting to know each other who didn’t know each other before and no they’re sitting down to have coffee together. There’s no reason why you can’t be talking to people…it’s coffee – it’s not brain surgery, it’s not a cure for cancer and my staff know I expect them to engage with people.”

So, Australia Day – that was around when you won first place in the Mercury’s poll for the Illawarra’s best coffee?

“I knew that the Mercury was doing an online poll and I’d encouraged a few of my customers to get online and get involved by posting the link on social media, but it was such a surprise to get the Number 1 spot, that’s for sure. Somebody called me – I’d been at an event and had my phone off, and I was like, “WHAT?!” The down side was that I had a few negative comments from people suggesting I must’ve voted for myself and “How can you have the best coffee when you’ve only been open for 6 months?” that’s disappointing, especially when some of those comments come from other businesses – at the end of the day, we’re all small businesses and we should be supporting one another. There’s enough coffee to go around. This place isn’t the right fit for everyone, but there’s always tall poppies – I’m not going to lose sleep over it. We did manage to attract a few newcomers as a result of the poll!”

If you haven’t popped in to Brown Sugar yet, do yourself a favour and pay Lucy and the crew a visit. 103 St Johns Ave, Mangerton, on the corner of The Avenue. Hot tip: Make sure you’ve got room for cake!