The Keys. The making of a Melbourne café.
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Episode 5

Branding & Communication

The cafe now has a name!
Watch this episode to find out as Chin Chin's Chris Lucas helps Andrew stamp his new cafe's name into Melbourne's culture.

Andrew Kelly Journal Entry

Coffee tripping by Andrew Kelly

We all know now that coffee as we know it is the seed of a fruit that is sometimes called a cherry, and it grows on trees, right? Right.

Unlike the can of Nescafe always sitting there ready (if not to be consumed then to demonstrate that it can survive a nuclear disaster) the kind of coffee we deal in has distinct zones of freshness and slow decline – it has a shelf life not measurable in half-life. And this is before roasting, not after roasting.

Happily, this seasonality thing means frequent trips to purchase fresh product, visiting and tasting with the producers. Colombia is the source of more trips for us than the other countries we buy from simply because there is a greater diversity of seasons of floration, maturation, harvest, and processing there. That is, one can get fresh crop coffee from Colombia for two-thirds of the year, and opposed to one distinct season in most other countries.

And that is why, in January this year I found myself there for 4 days.

We don't go to schmooze, and certainly not to haggle over the price. We go to taste coffee in a controlled lab-like environment (a process called cupping) – closest to its source – in order to be able to select our purchases. We like to buy from particular producers season after season (Lucio Delgado, Esneider Lasso, Elias Roa to name a few), but we also reserve some of our buying for wildcard goodness: coffees that seduce us on the cupping table and demand attention.

This visit was one of our most fruitful ever, whether by virtue of our visit's timing, the weather gods smiling, more producers caring about their work, better selection of samples by the logistics peeps, or other reasons. This wildcard side of things – this chasing of god in a cup – is what keeps so many peeps doing their thing in coffee.

We are chasing elusive characteristics that will delight and excite, and challenge the notions of what can be considered "coffee" flavour. That these characteristics remain a little uncontrolled or unrepeatable is one of the pleasures: that can at least be reliably identified on the cupping table, and then we can talk to the producers to see what they did (differently perhaps) to produce such flavours. The enquiry helps us in our long term establishment of a data pool that enables us to make suggestions to other producers ("we saw that Lucio ferments the seeds for 15 hours and then soaks before dying under shade, and this seemed to work fabulously for preserving the juicy acidity and sparkling mouthfeel in his coffee"). This way the knowledge pool expands and we also have a chance to demonstrate to producers our deepest commitment (backed up through price premiums paid) to their pursuit of quality. We pay over double the going market price for coffee right now, and rightly so – we buy the best of the best, microlots only, and we need to cover the producer's higher costs of quality production and ensure they want to stay in the game.

In January in Huila (and subsequently in our North Melbourne lab where the chosen samples were taken for further scrutiny) – we found more coffees with super exotic flavours (lychee, vanilla, tropical fruits, sugar-candy, etc) than ever before.

The exporter is preparing these coffees for us now: let's pray they arrive by opening time!

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The Message – Chris Lucas

By Max Olijnyk, Broadsheet

The father of Baby and Chin Chin talks branding, creative use of social media and the importance of a name with Max Olijnyk.

As the brain behind some of the most popular and distinctive restaurants in Melbourne, Chris Lucas knows a thing or two about building a brand. The restaurateur's venues – Chin Chin on Flinders Lane and Baby pizzeria in Richmond – are known almost as much for their party atmosphere and cheeky online presence as their food. But as Lucas explains, the recipe for his success isn't that complicated, but a matter of deciding on the type of customers they want to attract, then working backwards.

"We don't do any in-depth study, it's more anecdotal," says Lucas of the planning process behind a new venue, "but we do try to keep in mind the demographic we're targeting - that's just sort of logical." Once a direction has been decided on, the real work begins – staffing, menus, fit-out, graphic design – but Lucas believes that promoting a venue can begin long before the doors open for trading, even before settling on a name. "Some people spend a year trying to come up with a name," he says. "It's not that important. Once it's out in the marketplace, people get comfortable with it." Both Chin Chin and Baby use social media extensively, daily updates on specials as well as regular video content including tongue-in-cheek ‘Chef Wars' between cooks from the two restaurants. As much as he uses it to his advantage, Lucas is quick to point out that without a good product, all the Facebook updates in the world won't help your brand. "I don't think social media is this magic wand that everyone keeps talking about," he says. "It's just like any form of advertising. You've got to know what you're doing and the message behind it has to be strong."

Lucas' restaurant family is about to welcome a new member – the Korean BBQ joint Kong, which is set to open in March. The word of Kong's imminent arrival spread like wildfire months ago, building anticipation that is more akin to a new album release from a hot indie band than a place to go out for dinner. As well as putting the word out through various media outlets and his social media channels, Lucas has been using his existing venues to build the hype for Kong. "We've been running a bunch of really cool short films on the movie wall outside Chin Chin based on K-pop and the coming of Kong," he says, "so people who have been coming in get a double whammy." Lucas is not concerned that mixing messages across venues will dilute the identity of any of them, citing the sophistication of his customers and the value in doing something memorable, rather than sending out a "boring email". He believes in highlighting the fact that each restaurant is part of a bigger family, rather than an entity to build from the ground up. "Otherwise," he points out, "they're just another restaurant."

Another clever piece of marketing is the Chin Chin: The Book, released late last year. As well as the obvious attraction of chef Benjamin Cooper's Thai recipes, the 250-page tome serves as a physical manifestation of the Chin Chin brand, in all its irreverent, colourful glory. Lucas chose the financially risky option of self-publishing the cookbook, explaining, "We didn't want to be constrained by what some publisher wanted, who's purely motivated by sales."

Taking a risk and trying something different is central to Lucas' ethos, which, unsurprisingly, takes some inspiration from the late founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. "That single-minded determination to make sure that whatever they did was the best and the most innovative," says Lucas, "Whether it's a computer or a restaurant, those philosophies cross over."

As well as laying the groundwork for Kong and managing his existing empire, Lucas has been acting as an industry mentor as part of The Keys. The project, launched late last year, was put together by Broadsheet and Bank of Melbourne to help one of Melbourne's favourite cafes take the next step and open a brand new venue. Along with fellow industry leaders Kate Bartholomew (Coda, Tonka), Nathan Toleman (Two Birds One Stone, Top Paddock) and Bank of Melbourne's local business manager, Vanessa Hastie, Lucas has been working with the successful recipient of The Keys, Andrew Kelly, as he sets up an innovative new filter coffee venue in the CBD. "He had some pretty stiff competition," says Lucas, "but there were a few things that stood out about Andrew. He has a good track record behind him with Auction Rooms and he has a unique angle for his new venue "

In the next installment of The Keys video series ‘Building Your Brand', Lucas passes on some advice on how Kelly can capitalise on the good reputation he's built up through his existing Auction Rooms venue, and some effective ways of building a following for his new venue even before it opens. "The market is so congested, especially at the café level, it's important to differentiate yourself." says Lucas. "The challenge is going to be to convince the marketplace that filter coffee is a different experience."

It's a huge task to launch a new business, particularly on the back of running several other ones – an experience both Lucas and Kelly are going through at the moment. But as Lucas points out, if the idea is strong and well executed, Melbourne diners – and coffee drinkers – are more than up for a culinary challenge. "We have a very significant and very sophisticated market here, because of the depth of competition," he says. "It's a very open-minded market. They're definitely open to new ideas."

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