Mr.Sister Coffee’s fit-out is pared-back and light-filled. Picture: Marina NeilWHEN Bec cannot find the thing she wants, she just does it herself, said Garth Buchanan, the Mr, in new venture, Mr.Sister Coffee.
His sisters, Ally Buchanan and Bec Thomson, brought craft markets to Newcastle and then coffee to Hunter Street Mall. Now the trio behind the wildly successful cafe One Penny Black have set out to conquer Westfield Kotara with boutique coffee. Mr.Sister Coffee opened four weeks ago on the second floor.
The impeccable style and quirkiness of One Penny is on display. But the gleaming, light and airy interior is the first clue that Mr.Sister is nothing like its predecessor.
“One of our customers said this is our light-bright side, when One Penny was our darker industrial side,” the trio laughed.
For a start, it is more a boutique store than a cafe, with an inviting fit-out that is more home apartment than shop.
The siblings have stepped away from food to concentrate on their core business: consistent, quality coffee and service.
The beans are Coffee Supreme, a New Zealand-based family enterprise that has a hands-on approach to helping farmers produce quality coffee crops. Mr.Sister was the first business in NSW to serve its coffee.
At the espresso machine Mr.Sister runs two blends, one for milk and one for black.
At the other end of the white-stone, shop-length bar, baristas craft filter and brews, including pour over and Moccamaster (which is served as a refillable cup), cold drip and cold-pressed ice coffee. Each week threes single origins are profiled.
To complement the coffee, an array of sweet treats made by Newcastle’s Hello Naomi, are on offer.
After growing One Penny from the ground up and then selling it earlier this year, the trio were looking to break new ground.
“We like the challenge of going somewhere other people aren’t prepared to go,” Bec said of the move to the shopping centre. “People thought we were crazy opening a cafe in [Hunter Street] a mall, it was all pretty negative initially.
“I think people have a love-hate relationship with shopping centres.”
Mr.Sister Coffee can be found on level 2 of Westfield Kotara, next to Portmans.
The two sisters played a pivotal part in the revitalisation of Newcastle’s CBD after arriving seven years ago – Bec from Sydney for her husband’s defence deployment; Ally after she was inspired by the city’s potential.
They wondered why a town full of artists had no quality craft market and founded The Olive Tree Market with now solo market organiser Justine Gaudry. Later came the Red Lantern Night Market in Hunter Street Mall.
“I knew what a good coffee was, and I knew I wanted to get that in town and I couldn’t,” Bec said.
The original One Penny, set in a tiny space at the east end of the mall, was the only coffee besides Gloria Jean’s. It gained momentum so quickly the sisters – who were not coffee makers themselves – were screaming for their barista-brother Garth to join them from Melbourne.
A lack of specialtycoffee at Westfield is just the latest gap in the market the siblings have seized upon.
The new business plan is also based on developments in the US, where the Westfield chains have evolved to become thriving fine-dining meccas. “With the Rooftop opening at Westfield, that is going to be the next destination for a few years,” said Garth, who travels frequently and avidly follows coffee and hospitality trends.
The Rooftop will have an eight-screen cinema complex and an open-air dining area with eight to 10 restaurants and food outlets.
If it weren’t for the irresistible smell of perfectly brewed beans and the people milling outside waiting for it, it would be easy to miss this glass-walled shop on first glance. The fit-out takes people so much by surprise that they have almost gone past before they realise what it is, and come back for a second look, Garth says. The elegant branding is deliberately understated to stand out from the rows of loud chain store signage.
The Mr.Sister logo, a simple bowtie or hair bow, represents the two sisters and brother team and symbolises their professionalism.
The three say working together has been “awesome”, not just for their complementary skill sets, but also the opportunity get to know each other.
There are, in fact, four Buchanan siblings involved in the business. Naomi, the third sister, who also shifted to Newcastle, is their emotional support.
“We should probably put her on the payroll,” Bec said.
“We each individually go to Naomi and she listens.”
Bec, the eldest, come from a finance background and is the business brains, Ally is the “creative” and Garth is the coffee master.
He shies away from praise, claiming to be a novice, saying “every day I find out something new and think I can’t believe I didn’t know that”.
They credit their farmer father and farm upbringing in Gympie, Queensland, for giving them a solid work ethic.
“It’s given us the drive and the want to be our own bosses but we have also seen what is can become,” Bec said.
“You have to have work-life balance.”
Having three aboard also gives them time to pursue outside interests and avoid burn-out.
For Bec, the relationship-building aspect of the business has been a “blessing”.
“I’ve loved it because I didn’t ever go to school with Garth,” she said.
“There’s a significant age gap between Garth and I and it’s been awesome to get to know your siblings properly as adults. I don’t know if that would have happened if this hadn’t happened.”
A former base player in heavy metal and punk rock bands, Garth chased music dreams to Brisbane and then to Melbourne before bringing a piece of the arty city to Newcastle.
“This is the most any of us have lived together since we were very young.
“We all like good service, we are all foodies and coffee snobs.”
They share a passion for coffee and the evolution of flavour from farm to cup.
“There are so many variables, from the farm to how you drink it,” Garth said.
“Most people unfortunately buy their coffee and don’t even give that a thought … The coffee flavour wheel is like wine – it’s just completely huge.
“There are thousands of different coffee trees and they all roast completely differently.
“It’s only now, with modern techniques, that people are really embracing that.”