On the corner of Mair St and Drummond St in Ballarat, you’ll find Johnny Alloo, a cafe and restaurant dedicated to connecting people and bringing joy through food and great coffee. The owner, Matthew Freeman, also started popular coffee bar Fika Coffee Brewers in 2015, before opening the doors to Johnny Alloo at the tail end of 2019. Throughout COVID-19, Johnny Alloo adapted to lockdown restrictions by going to take away only, and eventually extended their opening on Fridays and Saturdays for dinner, which they’ve since continued.
We spoke to Matthew to learn more about how the business started, how they’re diversifying a few years in, and what makes a great cafe.
Tell us a little bit about how Johnny Alloo got started.
Johnny Alloo is in a heritage building from the 1870s, which is amazing because it’s such a beautiful building with amazing red brickwork, but it took us 14 months to refurbish it with a more contemporary feel before we launched in 2019. We’re really proud of how it’s ended up!
We’re not really locked into a particular cuisine, so we do a range of things. The venue is named after Johnny Alloo, who was the first restaurateur in Ballarat. I think he would have had a lot of guts to do that at that time, and that’s definitely something we’re trying to emulate.
How did you get started in the hospitality industry? What do you think makes a great cafe?
I come from a small town just outside of Ballarat called Buninyong. I started off working in some cafes in high school and uni, and also did a few stints at some coffee carts. I worked at some restaurants in Melbourne, and did some summers in Lorne, and eventually decided to come back to Ballarat. When you live in a different place, you get a new perspective on where you’re from and start looking at it from the perspective of what it can offer, not what it’s missing compared to the big cities. I think Ballarat is a really exciting place to be in at the moment, and the cafe scene is growing. There is some amazing wine in the region too, from the Pyrenees, the Grampians, and Ballarat too.
In terms of what makes a great cafe or restaurant, I think it’s all about the feel. It’s about the ambience, creating an atmosphere, and allowing people to connect.
How were you affected by COVID-19 last year?
I guess like a lot of other regional areas we thought of the virus as something that might affect the major cities, but wouldn’t really affect us. But we went through lockdown restrictions, and moved to takeaway-only during that time. Before we knew what the government would be offering in terms of stimulus packages, we were looking for new ways to increase revenue streams so that we could retain staff, so we started offering longer opening hours, and dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, called ‘Johnny After Dark’. This is something that has continued ongoing and has worked well. We do a tasting menu and we’ve got a British Michelin Star chef, which is really exciting, who used to work at Chez Bruce (a Michelin Star restaurant in London).
What has been your biggest learning of running a business so far?
It doesn’t get easier! I think it’s really challenging to run a business and you’ve got to be someone who likes a challenge to take it on. I don’t mean to sound negative, but that is the one thing I’ve really learned, is that even if you think it’s going to get easier, it’s not!
How did you choose Square as the payments system for your business?
I used to work at St Ali in Melbourne, and they’ve always been at the forefront of innovation there, looking for new ways to run their business. St Ali were using Square’s products so I thought they mustn’t have been too bad! We’ve now been using Square’s products for 6 years, across the two venues that I own - Fika Coffee Brewers and Johnny Alloo, and they’ve been working well for us. We use the Square for Restaurants version of the point of sale system - so restaurant specific.
Does the business have any exciting plans in 2021?
We’ll be continuing Johnny After Dark and really leaning into it, so we’re mainly looking at updating our menus, and refining our wine menus to really make it one of the best wine lists in the region.
What do you think makes Johnny Alloo unique in the Ballarat scene?
For me, cafes are all about community, and connecting with people as a middle ground where they wouldn’t usually connect. For us, we’re building their day - starting them off the right way and seeing them in a good mood as they approach the day. We’ve got a really great community at Johnny Alloo - we have great relationships with our regulars and even go out exercising like running and doing yoga with the regulars we’ve built relationships with.
I think that Ballarat and other regional places are going to be the growth areas from now on, particularly after COVID-19. There’s a lot on offer and it’s great to see these areas growing. It’s amazing that you can get a world class meal at these places - you don’t have to go to bigger cities to get that, you can right here!