You have cafes on both Coasts. How does location impact the design aesthetic?
You have cafes on both Coasts. How does location impact the design aesthetic?
Terrific question. What you’re seeing on the West Coast is a lot more focus on leveraging the surf, the water, elements tied to the coast in Australia, akin to Sydney's aesthetic. And in New York, you’re seeing elements akin to the aesthetic you’d find in Melbourne.
We curate every space, so no two Bluestones are the same. They are tied together with color and material palette, but no 2 Bluestones look the same. That adds complexity from an operational standpoint, but it keeps it unique and bespoke, so everyone has their own Bluestone Lane. And that’s important to us. It’s really unique about our model and something we take great pride in, that everything’s different.
Even though we have uniformity in everything our locals really love, like the taste of our product, the service size, the elements they want bespoke and personalized, their relationships with our locals and the aesthetic of the space and how people utilize it - some spaces put more emphasis on dining, the cafe concept, or the escape concept of a kiosk where you can walk in and feel recognized and special, where doesn’t need to be a longer visit but a nanosecond of human connection that makes people feel important, which is just accelerating in this digital age.
People spend more time on devices, less time socializing human-to-human, and so it’s very important for people to socialize with others. It’s where our predisposition lies. And even as technologies provides this mass ability to communicate, there still needs to be this notion of people spending time together. I want to be a bit of a contrarian in that sense, that we keep people together, human to human, rather than just virtually.
How do you hire for and retain outstanding performers in the high turnover Food Service industry?
It’s always going to be a challenge. But for us, we wanted to focus on developing people’s careers, not just hobby jobs. So a big part of it is having a development framework where people understand they can develop in the organization. We’re not perfect at it, it’s probably one of the biggest areas for improvement for us in the organization, but we're developing the Bluestone Laneways program launching in May where we’ll be committing to developing business leaders, and having a very prescriptive development program.
I think it’s so interesting that very few people manage a business that turns over $1 million dollars, and the opportunity to do that, to run a store that makes a difference to 1,000 people or more a day, I think it gets undersold, under-appreciated. And for us, that’s a huge message that we want people to appreciate, and we want our team to understand that it’s a terrific achievement.
You have to be focusing on 3 key leaders: purpose, why Bluestone Lane exists, why we make a difference, why we provide a genuine daily escape. Part of that is mastery, so constantly training, developing, and mastering. And then beyond hospitality, how to coach a team, how to develop people. And autonomy, for us that’s really about ownership, taking ownership of their small business, and thinking intellectually and critically about how they can drive performance, developing their team, while using tools in the Bluestone Lane system. Lastly, encouraging people to own their own career, knowing their role and executing it. It’s something you have to focus on all the time. The gig economy has made it really hard to retain talent, when you’re dealing with a regular schedule. But then a lot of gig economy jobs don’t have a team aspect to it, and the most critical component to be successful we see is that you have to LOVE working with other people - enjoying being on a team - and they must love serving other people, making them feel good and happy. If that’s missing, it’s hard to be successful at Bluestone Lane.
Ultimately, Bluestone Lane is about being part of a pure definition of hospitality, and for us, it’s about providing it to our locals every single day. We’re built on local retention. We’re built on serving the same locals. And that’s how it is for successful coffee businesses internationally, serving your same customer regularly. And you can only do that if your commitment to service is great. If the service is ordinary, it’s getting more difficult to sustain that. I know I expected a lot more when I moved to New York, I wanted premium service. The service must be premium and engaging. It’s a non-negotiable.
How do you and your wife make a two-entrepreneur-marriage work?
Haha! You know, I think you need to respect the boundaries between personal and professional. We’ve struggled to do that at times. I certainly haven’t left it at the door. But you learn a lot about each other working in a business together, living together. I think that it’s really being aligned in purpose of the company, and being respectful to the roles that either of you play.
Alexandra’s done a wonderful job in supporting me leading Bluestone Lane, providing injections of inspiration, that core DNA when we need it, when we’re confused. And she also gives me such an incredible sounding board, because she’s still so close to the movement, she can provide those salient messages and views that only someone who really understands the core, the purpose of the brand, and what we stand for. I’m so grateful for that, because I can come home, have a complicated question, a lot of people will try to address it but they won’t understand the influence from the Australian coffee culture, how it translates to the US, and she can decipher that, providing glimpse that have helped the company immensely. She’ll always remain helpful with Bluestone Lane.
And she’s being such a big driver of needing to do something different, providing better quality products, and now looking forwards allergen-free, she’s a big driver of the whole business, and that’s something where it’s small but exciting. And with Tesha, she has a great relationship, which is critical considering Tesha moved from Australia to the States to bring it to life.
There’s no linear answer to how it works, but you gotta respect the boundaries, and the role, and at times, I have to stop talking about Bluestone Lane, just put it down, and that’s hard for me. I’m the one who’s been most challenging with separating personal and professional, especially when it comes to home life.
As an entrepreneur, you’re always thinking about the business, how to improve, the great elements and the elements you don’t have answers for, which is the risk. And it’s an intoxicating experience, being an entrepreneur, a small business owner who’s trying to grow really quickly. That’s how I think of myself. You can never just switch off. You just care about it so much, you have a lot of repetitional risk, a lot of financial risk, a lot of responsibility for our locals, our team of 650 people now, our communities we serve - we pride ourselves on being a core part of the community. So it’s never just a binary “flip the switch.”
What’s the most exciting thing about the future of coffee that most people don’t know about?
I think for us, Australian coffee culture is around espresso coffee, because we’re a land of immigrants. Pre and post WWII there was a huge amount of migration from Western Europe - Italy, Greece, Malta, and they brought their espresso heritage, and that injected coffee into the Australian scene. Australia as part of the Commonwealth had a very big tea culture, and with Italians arriving with their espresso machines, drip coffee wasn’t a part of the landscape.
So for us, most of the innovation is on the espresso side, with a movement towards flat whites, it originated from New Zealand and Australia, and the fact that it’s now recognized by Starbucks and added to the core menu, that’s a testament to the Australian and New Zealand coffee culture.
Our coffee needs to be premium, it needs to taste fantastic, so we spend a lot of time sourcing incredible quality arabica coffee. The quality of machines has to be very premium, we are sourcing from Italian manufacturers, European manufacturers. And a lot of skill goes into making coffee consistently, especially with 3-4 kinds of milk, it’s not like opening a bottle of beer. That’s a core part of being a cafe in Australia.
So I think that’s the biggest one, premium espresso. It’s not made by an automatic machine, the barista has to be skillful and talented, it’s not just pressing a button. It’s a true, respected profession in Australia. I’d love for us to be a part of the movement in educating people on how talented and dedicated premium baristas are. It’s a lot more complicated than people appreciate.
What’s the most challenging industry blocker most who aren’t in the industry don’t know about?
I think it’s review sites, which are terrific for growing brand awareness, but they are also challenging because they are asymmetrical. Someone can review our business, but we can’t review the customer. So sometimes when it’s asymmetrical, there is no accountability, you can hide behind a digital veil without recompense, that can be frustrating, because sometimes people can have a bias, writing about something that hasn’t gone perfectly versus something that’s been really really great. We did this research within our own team, asking who does reviews, and we asked whether people reviewed positively or negatively, and we found that people were more likely to write a negative thing than a positive one. And that means you’re constantly being evaluated every day, with a bent towards writing about something that hasn’t satisfied, versus something that’s fantastic.
What’s the best money you’ve spent on building your brand?
Well, I think people. Our team. The most important thing about building a brand is leading with experience. If you provide a wonderful experience, one that’s premium and magical, then people will tell their friends, and the best way to market is word of mouth. And with us, that’s how we built the brand. We had a really clear vision of what we stood for, the purpose, and we got inspired by Australian coffee culture, primarily Melbourne where I’m from, and our teams in the field are the face of the brand, the service we provide really reinforces the concept.
I think you can spend a lot of money on different things, but if it’s inauthentic, it doesn’t represent what you’re about. For us, it’s about providing premium quality coffee and tea, curated bespoke environments, and this notion of not being a customer but rather an intrinsic connection with a local. And if you do that right, people start talking about you. And if you create things that are aesthetically pleasing, people will use those photographs on social media, which is natural amplification we’ve benefitted from.
How do you manage the work/life balance when you work closely with family?
(I'm friends with Andy and Ashleigh... small world)
I think you just gotta respect the lines. It’s not easy, because when you’re really passionate about something, you can vent and be more direct with family, because you’ve got that implicit love and care for each other that makes you feel like you can be more direct. And you’ve been through a lot with family that you can deal with it, but it was obviously a huge concept with a lot of people and with my parents when Andy was about to move across. But I knew Andy was the best for the job, and he’s so incredibly important as the custodian of the brand, the face of the organization and the culture.
We’ve played different roles - he’s been very respectful of the ways I want to push the business, and I’ve been probably not been as respectful, but certainly considerate of Andy’s experience in marketing, brand-building, partnerships, understanding how they should develop organically and grow. It’s been really terrific, worked really well. And the other thing that’s very different - Alexandra and I have very different skillsets and backgrounds. We didn’t get the same classes at university, but we’ve brought them together to create Bluestone. And I don’t think the company would be nearly as strong without all of us bringing together our different backgrounds. I’m proud of the job we’ve done with listening to each other, being respectful of each other’s backgrounds and points of view.
What are the small details that create the premium experience at Bluestone Lane versus typical coffee shops in NYC?
There’s couple of things. First of all, the product needs to be really good, every single time. The coffee, tea, the food offerings, all need to be made to order and fresh. Secondly, the service proposition - you need to have a team dedicated to providing fantastic service. That’s the hardest thing to do at scale, but you need to invest in relationships, in knowing the locals. And thirdly, creating beautiful spaces where people feel there’s an element where they can disconnect, where they can go socialize with someone.
I think a lot of businesses get 2 out of 3 right, or 1 out of 3 right, but to do all 3 right at scale, we call it “boutique at scale,” very few companies have achieved that in hospitality, let alone in the cafe world, where you can say “The product is amazing, the people are incredible, the space feels unique and like an escape.” We certainly haven’t perfected it, but that’s our mandate every day, along with our core tenets and values.
Do you feel more (or different) pressure to grow faster now that you've taken on private equity investors?
I think it’s sort of like the horse and cart equation. You don’t get access to capital unless you’re committed to a certain agenda, in our case, boutique at scale. I was very clear on what we were signing up for when we brought in investors. And we’ve so fortunate in that our investor is so focused on building the brand, and that they want measured growth. There’s always pressure when you have any investor - whether it’s your parents or a firm - you want to do your best, and not lose anyone’s money. But I feel the same amount of pressure from the first investor to now.
For us, we already knew the growth was coming, and we’re in a number of markets, with more staff, but with the investment, there came the opportunity to bring onboard more talent we’d never have had access to, and for me that’s incredible - I can learn from specialists in their fields. And rather than a few people doing everything, you can bring in true specialists, who can help make the business run better, provide better experiences for our locals, and help us build a successful company.