Five Flexible Restaurants

Five Flexible Restaurants

Diversity is the word of the century. It applies not only to gender, ethnicity and modes of thought, but the way to succeed in the modern hospitality industry.

In the age of the remote office, the digital economy, and the lifetime freelancer, it pays (as our former prime minister used to love to say) to be nimble. On the other hand, it’s hard to innovate one of humanity’s most longstanding industries: cooking food and selling it.

But these days, the hospitality industry is under constant competitive pressure - not only from the raft of new operators who open every day, but from rising property prices the subsequent interest by developers; from 457 visa restrictions; from the cost of produce and energy – under pressure from the whole damn military-industrial complex.

Nevertheless, those restless and irrepressible restaurateurs and bar owners, baristas and chef owner-operators are finding ways to make a buck. One of the most interesting strategies to crop up of late is to diversify; to run a cafe that’s also a… fill in the blank here.

It’s might have something to do with that word ‘synergy’, but nobody’s ever known what that means, so we’ll just say it’s bloody clever. So we’ve tracked down five of the most nimble operators to find out just how they do it.

Brick+Mortar Creative, Adelaide

Elizabeth Donaldson didn’t really mean to open a cafe. The former diplomat and policy advisor, rather, had a set of values she wanted to pursue. “It was more of a conceptual, okay, what do I want to achieve here?,” she recalls asking. “What do I enjoy?”

What Donaldson enjoyed was bringing people together, and supporting the burgeoning creative industries in South Australia. “I knew by then professionally what excited me was meeting interesting people, helping people achieve their goals,” she explains. “When you apply the lens of creative industries over that what I was really looking to do was connect makers and artists with people who are interested in what they do.”

To accomplish this, Donaldson decided she needed a multi-faceted business, one that brought together both creatives and their clients, melding workspace with retail space, relaxation with hard yakka. The result is Brick+Mortar(, part retail shop, part studio, part co-working space and (perhaps most importantly) part cafe. Upstairs, architects, graphic designers and miscellaneous creatives work on their stuff. Downstairs, that stuff is displayed on plywood counters, while temporary exhibitions hang on the walls. And, bringing the whole show together is the cafe, serving bagels, salads and toasties for both guests and residents.

The combination of all these elements successfully integrate all Donaldson’s interests. “It's highly successful because people can sit down and have a chat and coffee,” she says. “It’s just really convivial and it's really conducive to people feeling relaxed and being able to spend time in a space. While they're waiting for a takeaway, they can have a look around the retail store or they can easily pop upstairs and have a chat to one of the studio tenants.”

And, importantly for Donaldson, the hybrid format is a sustainable business model in the long-term. “If you’re having a slow period in hospitality– and everyone knows that hospitality ebbs and flows –you've still got your little income from your permanent co working tenants,” she explains. “And then, you know, you might also be doing strongly on the retail front that week. There's a little bit of kind of buffer built to that financial model.”

Ultimately, for Donaldson, the cafe at the heart of Brick+Mortar brings people together. “There’s a really nice energy that comes from different people doing different things,” she says. “Being right next to each other but having a really distinct identity.”

Brick+Mortar Creative, Cafe 49 George Street, Norwood

Deus Ex Machina, Perth

In the modern era, the landmark flexible cafe is Deus Ex Machina. First opened in Camperdown, Sydney thirteen years ago, Deus was kind of a crazy idea: a motorbike workshop run by a clothing brand that served coffee and food. Obviously, people were into it.

Deus has outlets all over the world - and it’s about to open a giant new space in Perth. “We’ve got regional satellite stores, but it’s the first time we’ll be opening a flagship outside of our original store in Camperdown,” says global marketing manager, Jack Coles. “It’ll have the cafe and food offering, the full retail offering, and that creative space with things happening - surfboard shaping, and art installations, and all the things that go along with Deus.”

While the notion of people sitting in a mechanics and enjoying smashed avo on seedy toast might seem incongruous, the concept actually has a long history. For those who aren’t into biking lore, a cafe racer is both a style of motorcycle and a grass roots movement, where riders would race from cafe to cafe. “Motorcycles and cafes have always been synonymous,” explains Coles. “Motorcyclists would race each other between cafes, and that’s how it originally started. Over the years, it’s become a bit of a casual social meet-up place.”

But the 20th-century cool is just one selling point. It’s Deus’ solution to an age-old question that’s ingenious: why are retail spaces so fucking uncomfortable? “Retail’s a hard environment to make people come in and feel comfortable to spend a bit of time. A lot of places have couches you can sit down for five minutes, but it always feels a little bit forced,” says Coles. “Having that full-functioning cafe, people really just take advantage of enjoying themselves and enjoying the space. Having all those points of conversation - we’ve got art on the walls, we’ve got these vintage motorcycles - it’s pretty easy to start a natural conversation. A lot of people just come in to grab one coffee and look around. And that’s totally fine, because that’s what the space is for.”

So Deus the Cafe serves as a gateway drug for Deus the surfboard brand, or Deus the jeanswear store, or Deus the hand-made custom bike retailer. And we all totally love it. “Our customer base is so broad, and they all attach themselves to different parts of the business - our surfers, our core motorcycle riders, the people who are really interested in apparel, and the cafe guys who just come in for their daily coffee,” says Coles. “There’s something that shimmers and attracts everyone who walks in, regardless of what they’re interested in.”

The new store is in its final stages of construction, but being such an ambitious - and diverse project - the team is just working through their final round of council hassle. But, at this stage, the plan is to open before Christmas. But, when it does open, there’s little question whether Deus Ex Machina will be popular. “There’s a particularly great surf culture in Perth, so it’ll be exciting to see it open up over there,” says Coles.

Deus Ex Machina

229 Queen Victoria St, North Fremantle

The Acre Eatery, Sydney

It ain’t easy to do good. Sometimes, it takes a little something extra to bring the people in. But the Camperdown Commons in the heart of Sydney has figured out a way to help support its inner-city farm: with [The Acre Eatery](, a killer coffee-shop and restaurant where locals flock for the food and stay for the farming.

Such a partnership wouldn’t work if one of those partners was, say, Red Rooster. What makes the collaboration between The Acre and the Commons work is their shared set of values. “The ethics behind the two organisations are the same,” explains marketing manager Noéme Benit. “We’re both about limiting your food miles, supporting your local community and local growers, and doing everything that we can to make this a really valuable space.”

Having farm-to-table dining in the middle of a working farm is obviously a great idea. But the table part of the equation brings in customers who mightn’t otherwise bother with the farm. “The site can function as a one-stop shop for a community,” says Benit. “During the week, you’ll be looking at a business using the meeting room for a presentation, and they’ll have lunch in the restaurant and then they might have a workshop on the farm. There are so many interesting things that are happening all the time.”

The arrangement allows for the two organisations to mutually support one another. “It’s really important to coordinate with each other,” Benit says. “If they have something interesting going on, we put our regular customers in touch. If a company is doing a team retreat, we can organise the catering and then help organise a workshop with the farm.”

But the goal isn’t entirely profitability. Rather, it’s to be profitable in order to serve the community. “The Camperdown Commons Spaces are for hire, but they can also be used for free by local community groups and not-for-profits,” says Benit. “If you’re a private or corporate group, you pay a little bit so we can allow for the not-for-profits to come for free.”

But it’s not all about altruism, of course. The whole thing comes off mostly because it’s a beautiful place to visit. “Almost every customer you talk to who’s here for the first time, you see this look of amazement, and sparkle in their eyes - like, what is this? This tiny oasis in the middle of the city?” Benit laughs. “It has a different feel to anywhere else.”

31A Mallett Street, Camperdown


John Mills Himself, Brisbane

Plenty of venues reckon they can do all-day trading. But within a couple of months, most figure out that it’s much harder than it seems. While it might make sense from an economic standpoint not to have your venue sitting empty 50 percent of the time, it turns out that running a cafe and running a bar are very different things - each with distinct and specific skills.

But one Brisbane venue found an elegant way around this conundrum: by operating two businesses in one single space. At [John Mills Himself](, Matthew Burt and Marcus Allison sling specialty coffee across the counter by day, using beans from roasters as diverse as Five Senses, Coffee Supreme, The Single Guys and Uncle Joes, while serving a selection of Frenchy pastries from Crust & Co. By night, Helen Bird and Billerwell Daye mix espresso martinis and pull ponies of Stone and Wood, Green Beacon and Bacchus Brewers. And it works.

Burt believes that Brisbane isn’t quite ready for an all-day cafe, so this venue-sharing arrangement works perfectly for JMH. “It’s a smart move for us as we are able to afford/share the cost of running an inner city establishment with the drawcard of being more than "just" a cafe or bar,” he says. “Brisbane is not yet a city where a cafe can run all day. Pretty much every specialty coffee shop in the city is closed by four. So it’s awesome that we have the opportunity to still have patrons enjoying our space after the cafe closes.”

The arrangement also has the benefit of each business cross-promoting the other. “Cafe staff are constantly letting customers know that we turnover into a bar at four, and bar staff and constantly letting customers know coffee service has ended. We find it best to keep a constant dialog with new customers about how our space works but it come with the territory,” he explains. “It allows inner city workers, tourist and residents a venue that changes to suit their needs. In the morning they’re able to grab a great coffee, and an alcoholic beverage to ease them into the evening. Not only that the space changes, the lighting, the music, the atmosphere. It is like they are able to see both sides of the coin.”

Still, the reason John Mills Himself isn’t entirely down to the business model. The two teams both have to run an excellent bar and cafe. “We have definitely increased our efficiencies, but you still have to have a well managed, profitable and relevant business to capitalise on these efficiencies and to make the business sustainable,” says Burt. “And it takes continuous collaboration, otherwise the space wouldn't work. You need the right space and right partners – but these things are usually the hardest to find.”


Ladro, Melbourne

Everyone knows [Ladro]( The top-tier pizza joint has long been a Fitzroy fixture, operating on Gertrude Street since 2003. But what many folks won’t know is that during the day, Ladro’s not Ladro. Nope, it’s TwoSpace, home to a fascinating co-working venture dreamt up by two blokes in Sydney.

Spearheaded by Tashi Dorjee and Rob Walker, these two friends were dreaming up plans for businesses in an empty restaurant when the idea hit them. “We were actually getting a lot done having a meeting there. It was an empty restaurant. It felt completely dead. How good would it be if we just started filling restaurants with people that needed a space to work from?” Tashi recalls. “It was very different from go to a Starbucks or go to a café, and just work among the ruckus of people just having coffees, and commuting, and talking, and doing their own thing, and having to order ten lattes or cappuccinos to justify sitting at that table. Then if you have to go the bathroom, you have to take your stuff with you, and you lose your table.”

The pair began approaching restaurants in 2016, after Sydney’s lock-out laws had really begun to bite. “A lot of venues and restaurants were suffering. Foot traffic dropped in their areas because they were forced to close their venues at certain hours. That really hurt a lot of hospitality venues and forced them to shutdown,” says Dorjee. “But it also forced them to try and think differently about how they could generate revenue in different means. They were thinking of things like events, or, changing their menu to serve more during the day to utilise the space that they were leasing for the full amount of time, but only opening in the evenings.”

At the same time, the co-working wave was beginning to crest. Dorjee and Walker realise that with the new emphasis on the so-called ‘gig economy’, more people would need a space - but many couldn’t shell out for the standard co-working fees. By using pre-existing spaces that were just sitting dormant, TwoSpace was able to cut prices for members, while providing an income stream for hospitality owners. “There's a huge demographic of freelancers, entrepreneurs, people who work from home, who can't afford or want to commit to office space,” says “So this kind of finally gives them an option that they can work together or work from somewhere, rather than just from a noisy café or something like that.”

So, everyday from 9-5, itinerant workers gather in the empty pizza shop, where they sip coffee and plug away at their MacBooks, using their free internets while they network or brainstorm or whatever it is they do. And all the while they’re supporting hospo. “Ultimately it's all about if the space is sitting there and it's not being used, not only from a revenue-generating perspective but from an awareness perspective,” says Dorjee. “It just really helps the venues when people walk past it when it's normally shut with the lights off.”

Ladro, 224 Gertrude Street Fitzroy 3065


first published in broadsheet