The Keys. The making of a Melbourne café.
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Episode 4

Smooth Operations

Order up. Put on your napkin and prepare for an episode served with expert advice about ensuring your new cafe purrs like a coffee machine. In particular, Nathan Toleman, of Top Paddock fame, helps Andrew set up his operations and supply chain as he moves into his new location.

Behind the scenes of Andrew Kelly's new café

By Andrew Kelly

This week has been quite a big week. To start with, we finally had conclusion of the lease negotiations at the new space. It wasn't like we were doing hard negotiations either; it was more that the guy we were dealing with came back and said, "sure, no worries!"

Secondly, we've chosen a design firm to help us with the physical design of the venue. We've got a really tight timeframe, a tight budget, and a really interesting concept that we need really high-level execution of. We needed a group of designers that would get on board with that. I can announce it's Design Office.

We've also appointed The Hungry Workshop as the graphic designers of our merchandising and everything else like that – the soft design. We needed to make both those appointments at the same time because we can't figure out what the space will look like until those decisions are made. The concept and the physicality go hand in hand.

We realise there's going to be a very strong visual merchandising need, because we'll be selling coffee beans, filter coffee beverages, espresso coffee beverages and of course, the Smorrebrod. We're trying to wrap it up in one site that has a high trade custom and a fast flow. It's complicated and I did not want to do that alone.

This is the first time I've had the luxury of choosing real professionals to do these tasks, instead of doing it all myself. We've also made contact with a builder who should have men available in January to help start preparing the site. It's full speed ahead.

The other background stuff that's happening is constant tinkering with filter coffee brewing methods, plus the other stuff we do in the roastery on a daily basis like blend new coffees, adjust roast profiles and do a whole bunch of tastings. Everything's been going on nicely.

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Steering the ship – Nathan Toleman

By Max Olijnyk, Broadsheet

When it came to selecting an Operations and Supply mentor for The Keys, Nathan Toleman was an obvious choice. At the helm of three successful Melbourne venues (and counting), Toleman has become known for steering a steady ship, implementing plenty of behind the scenes processes to ensure both his customers and staff enjoy being there.

"It's been a lifetime of learning I guess," says Toleman. After finishing year 12, he studied hospitality management at William Angliss, then spent a few years working in hospitality and hotels in various roles. After a spell teaching English in Japan and a few years working with a shop fitting company, Toleman was ready to open his own venue." It was a pretty good combination of having a chef as a wife and studying hospitality," he says, "so it was a pretty obvious thing to do."

Since opening that first venue, Liar Liar, in 2006, Toleman has opened Apte, Three Bags Full and Two Birds One Stone, all of which have become well known for being very busy, very efficient venues. His latest project, Top Paddock, is perhaps the busiest and most efficient of them all. "When we design a space, we think of it from the customer's point of view and the worker's point of view as well," says Toleman. "The customers have more fun if the staff are having fun, and the staff have more fun if they feel like they're in control."

For The Keys, we chose Toleman as one of four industry leaders that we think have shaped the Melbourne food and drink landscape. Along with Kate Bartholomew (Coda, Tonka), Chris Lucas (Chin Chin, Baby) and Vanessa Hastie from Bank of Melbourne, Toleman helped sort through the final entries to select Andrew Kelly as the recipient of the invaluable program of mentoring in the path to opening his new venue. "I've been really fortunate to have been involved in this industry for almost 20 years now and I would've loved to have been able to rely on someone's mentoring and advice in the early days," says Toleman. "A chance to work with Andrew or any of the other applicants is great for me, because I can learn off them as well as them learning from me."

Toleman is excited about the concept for Andrew Kelly's as yet-unnamed new venue. "I think it's nice to see somebody wanting to do something a bit different that hasn't been done before," he says. "Right now there's a sort of explosion of cafes in Melbourne and I think that everybody seems to be looking at everybody else for inspiration. People are hungry for something new and to do something new, sometimes you need to have a bit of a name. Andrew can use his name and offer something different, and people will give him a chance."

Following his recent meeting with Andrew Kelly for our latest installment of The Keys video series – Smooth Operations, we asked Nathan Toleman to let us in on some of the lessons he's learned along the way on how to run a smooth and successful cafe venue.

  • 1. The less steps, the better.

    We try to make dishes with three to five steps at the max. Any more than that and it just puts too much pressure on the kitchen and pushes the wait time up. On a busy weekend in a Melbourne cafe, you can wait 30 minutes just for your food, but we've been able to get that down to 15-20 minutes. It's a really important factor; not only in providing a good experience for the customer, but it helps with your productivity, because you can turn over the tables quicker. It benefits the customer as much as the business.

  • 2. Ratios on the floorplan

    It's a natural thing you do when you're starting a business – you try and look at how you can get as many seats in as you can, but there's no point in having them if the kitchen can't accommodate that many customers. We've learnt it's better to reduce your number of seats and increase your kitchen space to be at least 20 % of the floorplan. It might sound excessive but it makes the operations so much smoother. We've designed the kitchen so there's a central pass – it's a bit more like a restaurant I suppose, not a traditional one. It lends itself to food being able to be cooked a lot quicker and for communication between the chef and the floor staff.

  • 3. Ratios on the wait staff

    I've worked as a waiter so I know the extremes. We try to keep it to around 30 customers to every waiter; it provides a good level of service. We always have a manager on as well to act as a second pair of eyes and hands for our waiters whenever they need it.

  • 4. Build a great team

    A great chef is key. We want chefs that can provide food that is a little bit of a twist on an everyday favourite, but it needs to be relatable to people - not too boring either. A good chef is really important, but I wouldn't say they're any more important than a good waiter or a good barista. It's a real team effort and that's something we've focused on – developing a team that's strong on all levels.

  • 5. Suppliers

    We directly contact growers and work with them, so you don't just know where they came from, but who grew them. There's a real emphasis on people knowing where their coffee comes from, so we look at it the same with produce. We have people all over Australia growing avocados for us, we get cheese made for us down in Red Hill. If you look after them, they'll look after you. They'll call you and say, you know, ‘we've got some great prawns on the boat right now, do you want some?' There's no reason to buy frozen or refrigerated food – it's just not necessary.

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How to poach an egg – the essence of operations and supply

By Broadsheet

As detailed in the latest video installment of The Keys, the team at Richmond's Top Paddock cafe pride themselves on delivering a consistent level of quality to a high volume of customers. Head chef Jesse McTavish tells us how to poach the perfect egg every time – a true marker of a cafe worth its salt.

There's more than one way to fry an egg, but poaching eggs perfectly demands some serious kitchen skills. "We go through about 6000 eggs a week," says Top Paddock's head chef Jesse McTavish. It's the essence of operations and supply – nailing the behind-the-scenes systems and processes that go together to form a successful business – and a delicious, gooey poached egg on toast.

A seasoned professional at poaching eggs (when he flawlessly poached 60 eggs at once during his first breakfast shift in a Sydney deli he knew he was onto a winning method), McTavish says the key to getting a perfect egg on your plate is deep water, a splash of vinegar and fresh eggs.

At the risk of demystifying his secrets, McTavish was kind enough to grant us access to the Top Paddock kitchen to demonstrate his magic touch.

What you'll need:

  • eggs
  • vinegar
  • pinch of salt
  • water
  • deep pot
  • slotted spoon
  • paper towel
  • The Eggs:

    The Top Paddock team source all their own produce, including the eggs, which come fresh from the Dandenongs. "We specifically request only eggs from young chickens," says McTavish. "What you want is the egg whites nice and tight around the yolk, which you only get from young chooks."

  • The Water:

    Despite many people still using the shallow water method, McTavish says this is nothing more than an old French tradition. Deep water (about 20cm–30cm) in a large pot is ideal for poaching multiple eggs.


  • 1. Fill a deep pot with about 20cm–30cm of water.

  • 2. Add a pinch of salt and a dash of vinegar – the ratio of vinegar to water should be 1:50.

    We need the vinegar to prevent the egg from falling apart, explains McTavish. When the egg is dropped into the water, the ovalbumin in the egg white denatures and the vinegar makes hastens the process. It brings the pH in the water down, making it more acidic and meaning a thin layer of cooked egg rapidly forms, keeping the egg together.

  • 3. Bring the water to about 85–90 per cent boiling and drop the eggs straight in (McTavish cracks the eggs with one hand in one swift movement, but he says you can use two hands if so required). And do you need to swirl the water? "No," he says. "It's not necessary, but you can do it if you want a slightly rounder egg."

  • 4. Make use of an egg or iPhone timer for perfectly cooked eggs – McTavish advises three minutes for eggs from the fridge and two minutes and 45 seconds for those at room temperature.

  • 5. When the time is up, take out the eggs with a slotted spoon and place them on a towel to rid them of excess water. If you're unsure if they're cooked, give them a shake – if the whites don't wobble, they're ready.

  • 6. Once the excess water has been absorbed, cut off the tails or any extra stringy bits, and you'll have a poached egg worthy of presentation at Top Paddock (or at least Instagram).

Top Paddock
658 Church Street, Richmond
(03) 9429 4332

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