NOTE: The Richards family sold Social Brew early in 2017.
“Everything the Richards family touches works really well,” a friend once confided.
From what we’ve seen it’s certainly true. We’ve followed the Richards family (a family team of parents and three adult children) in awe as they opened and operated a string of successful ventures: a deli café at The Pines, Lola’s, Plantation House, Department of Coffee and now Social Brew in Burleigh.
It came as no surprise that whenever we spoke to one of the team they were really clear about the essential elements needed for a café to succeed. Amanda, one of the Richards girls, had shed light on their ‘management of the home bases’ theory when we visited Department of Coffee a couple of years ago:
“Dad has a concept that there are three things which are important: price, service and quality. If all three are covered; if the coffee, front of house and kitchen are right, if each dish is top quality, and if we price our dishes cheaper than competitors, then we’ll succeed.”
But does that formula keep on working as trends and tastes change, or do other factors come into play? We talked to Nathan Richards about Social Brew, and its place in the Richards’ understanding of changing Gold Coast café culture.
How is Social Brew similar and different to your other cafés?
Social Brew is really an amalgamation of all the ideas we’ve had about restaurants. It’s as though we’ve worked out what worked best in all the other places and put them all together here.
Plantation House was smaller than here. We concentrated on the food, really successfully I think. Department of Coffee, on the other hand, was basically a takeaway. We honed our coffee skills there, but it was far too small for us to do what we wanted. So we kept looking…
In Social Brew it has all come together. We took a long time finding the location for this café. It’s the largest of all our venues and gives us the space to run the sort of café we want.
[The café takes up one corner and side of what was a pretty ordinary T-shaped arcade. Now occupied by this smart café, a long stone-fronted counter and wood-clad seating booths in a jungle of hanging baskets and planter boxes, it’s a transformational makeover. Beautiful!]
We’ve learned a lot as we’ve gone along that we could put into practice in Social Brew, tweaking ideas and adding little touches such as packaging and branding. Dishes are named after each dish’s health benefits to gain attention (such as Immune Plus for an immunity booster, or Wind Man – for bowel health).
We’ve made judgements about what’s important to keep our price point as keen as possible, including the removal of full table service. [Diners come to the counter to order and meals are delivered to the table.] But we’re quick with the coffee. Sometimes, we deliver the coffee before the person gets back to their seat! We’re also offering three types of self-serve free water (room temperature, cold and sparkling), all filtered. It’s a point of difference and really appreciated in this climate.
We’ve thought about design elements carefully to make them flexible, photogenic and with identifiable features. Seating is flexible to cater for groups of 2, 4, 6 or small functions. Our chosen accents, such as the hexagonal tiles on tabletops and handmade plates from Tasmania, get maximum customer-generated Instagram coverage – they ‘pop’ on photos, driving traffic and interest in the café.
Your family is the Brew crew. How does it work, working so closely together?
We’ve come to realise that we’ve all got our strengths, so we work in the areas we’re good at and leave everyone alone to do their job. For example, my sister Amanda is the raw cook. She is really inventive in that area and just soaks up new ideas and techniques. Anna is Front of House and she does a brilliant job at that. Dad (Mark) is in the kitchen. He cooks the menu items. Mum (Sharon) does the school run, plus she looks after the five kids who are not at school. She also does stock control for the café. Besides working fulltime (as you know), I design and build the cafés.
I’m the barista on the weekends and grow and maintain the garden with Mum.
You have to remember that we’ve all grown up with this. I remember when I was nine years old standing on a crate washing dishes. These ethics were built into us by our parents. Yes, it’s intense work. None of our family has had a day off in four months! [So much for everyone’s dream job of owning a café, I think!]
How would you sum up the menu at Social Brew?
Social Brew’s menu is heavily influenced by trends. It’s not based on dishes we want to cook, but on what our customers tell us that they want to eat. There’s a big difference! Most of the meals are plant-based and you can add meat to them. You’ll see gluten intolerant, vegetarian and raw influences right through this menu. Veg, GF and raw dishes have a really large following and people realise how costly the ingredients are and how much time they take to make. Often it’s most efficient to buy something from us.
Balancing that are the menu ‘favourites’ or classics. Eggs Benedict is still our highest selling meal. Saying that, lots of really healthy dishes are bestsellers too: Mushroom Thyme, raw cakes and cold-pressed juices. (My aunt works full-time just making cold pressed juice, nothing else!)
[I reflect here on our last breakfast at Social Brew and the diversity of what we ordered, representative of the two strands of the menu: the Big B Breakfast for the Main Squeeze with two poached eggs, rosti, spinach on Turkish, and tomato; the Eggs on Grain for me – sunflower seeds, avo, beetroot paste, tomato, and two poached eggs on seeded rye.]
How has Burleigh responded to Social Brew?
As a location, this was 100% the right area. Burleigh residents have a highly disposable income and they’re used to eating out. They are developing a food culture which recognises quality food and coffee.
An unexpected strength is the complementary nature of the businesses in the arcade. There’s a nice little flow between the café and Manny and Barbara’s Foodworks and Organic Pantry. People come here for raw food then go into the shop to pick up the ingredients to make their own, or they buy a paper there then come here to get coffee… it works really well!
Already there are differences in the food we didn’t fully expect. We didn’t anticipate that raw cakes would be so popular, that their market would be so massive. Amanda works fulltime as a raw cook. At present, she’s only got a pretty small table. She needs more area, so we’d like to expand if we can find the space.
What other trends have you identified?
Coffee is huge. There are far more conversations about coffee. And those conversations have changed from what particular brand of coffee people like to what sort of coffee they like, so the barista can find the bean that suits. There are also more black coffee drinkers. We’ve responded by being bolder with our coffee, carrying five blends, all from an independent roaster in Sydney: a house blend which is light, sweet and easy to drink, freshwater decaf, an organic bean from Peru, killer coffee (rich, oily and easy to drink) and a rotating single origin. There’s a constant turnover of all of these coffees; no risk of any of them going stale!
The increase in coffee knowledge has also justified, in a sense, the role of the barista as a profession rather than as just a casual weekend job. Now a barista manages beans and preparation styles for different kinds of palates and purposes.
So what’s next?
We are installing misting fans for summer, which, besides adding a different dynamic, should lower the temperature five to ten degrees.
Cafés need to evolve and maintain interest and appeal to stay on trend. We’ve factored that in with the garden. It’s an ongoing project, so even if you only visit once a year, Social Brew will look different. I love the garden and the way it’s grown. You’ll see more growth once the skylights go in.
When people turn a corner into the arcade, I love seeing their faces. Those who haven’t been here in a while are amazed! But many people are regulars who’ve followed us from one venue to another. They know what they’re going to get, they know the service. Sure, it’s really not possible to satisfy everyone’s needs 100% but we can get pretty close!
I think back to the chat I’d had with Amanda after we visited Department of Coffee. “We enjoy the busyness of our work, the smiles and light-heartedness of greeting and serving our customers,” she told me.
Maybe that’s what drives the Richards family on, the unexplainable quotient; that despite the odds in business, there’s a joy that each one of the family gets providing a service to diners in their local community, meeting the challenge of the 100% satisfaction quotient. It’s one of the unwritten rules for success.
Burleigh Arcade, James Street, Burleigh Heads Ph: 0487 981 781
Open: Mon – Sun 6am – 3pm