Market Lane Coffee: Keeping Melbourne caffeinated during two lockdowns

Market Lane is one of Melbourne’s iconic coffee brands, with a host of locations from Prahran Market (their first location) to Queen Vic Market, South Melbourne and more. Like many Victorian businesses, over the past few months they’ve had to adapt and accept that the impacts of COVID-19 are not going away anytime soon, as they continue to do business.

Market Lane has a mission to sustainably source and roast high-quality coffee and share it with Melbourne, striving to have a positive impact on the coffee industry and the communities they are connected to through a number of initiatives. We chatted to one of the co-owners, Fleur Studd, about doing business during COVID-19, how she learned the ins and outs of the coffee industry, and the tools that have helped Market Lane this year.

Fleur Market Lane Coffee

Tell us a bit about how Market Lane got started. Do you have a special connection with coffee?

I grew up in a household in which food was shared, savoured and celebrated, and in which quality and provenance was valued. From a very young age, I was encouraged to be adventurous with food and flavours.

I started drinking coffee in my teens but I didn’t appreciate its potential until I was in my early twenties, living in London and frequenting a special roastery and coffee shop called Monmouth Coffee in Borough Market. Up until that point, I thought all coffee just tasted like ‘coffee’, and that the only secret to a good one was probably the barista behind the machine. As I worked my way through Monmouth’s list of filter coffees and read their detailed tasting notes and backgrounds on all the producers, I began to appreciate how terroir, variety and processing impact a coffee’s flavour. This blew me away.

Returning to Australia, I discovered that while the local coffee and café culture was well-established and thriving, access to high quality, fresh and traceable coffee beans was virtually impossible. Coffee was treated as a commodity, and the Australian industry was dominated by a few large commercial green coffee suppliers.

So, with some incredible mentors, I learnt to professionally cup and evaluate coffee and, in 2008, I set up Melbourne Coffee Merchants and became Australia’s first specialty green coffee importer. We began to establish transparent, mutually beneficial relationships with quality-focused producers, many of whom we still work with today.

One year later, in 2009, I co-founded Market Lane Coffee with my business partner, Jason Scheltus (a fellow Victorian who had previously lived in London, too, and worked at Monmouth Coffee)! Our first shop and roastery was at the Prahran Market. Today, there are three owners of Market Lane - Jenni, Jason and I - and a wonderful team of around 55 staff. We have six shops across Melbourne, a busy online store, and a brand new roastery that we just opened in Brunswick East. Our goal is to make good coffee accessible and exciting, simple to understand and appreciate, and easy to brew and enjoy.

Market Lane Coffee

What is one of your favourite products at the moment?

I love this time of year! We have some beautiful new coffees arriving from Ethiopia and Kenya, and Guatemalan coffees are also in season.

To brew coffee at home, I recently invested in a Moccamaster and have not looked back. We have two young kids at home, and often the mornings are quite chaotic as we try to get ourselves ready for work and school. The Moccamaster has made brewing a delicious coffee so quick and easy – to the point that now our 3-year-old Archie is in charge of making us coffee in the morning!

What inspired you to put a coffee vending machine outside your Brunswick East roastery recently?

We have long been inspired by the vending machine culture in Japan. When we built our new roastery in Brunswick East, we decided to put a vending machine out the front in order to share coffee with our neighbourhood. We loved the idea of people being able to come to our roastery at any time of day or night to stock up on freshly roasted coffee beans or last-minute filter papers for their brewers. When COVID hit, this idea felt even more relevant and urgent, as it enables people to buy our coffees in a contactless manner, at whatever time is convenient for them.

How have you been navigating the impact of COVID-19 and two lockdowns?

Our primary concern, first and foremost, has been the wellbeing and continued employment of our team. Thankfully, we have been able to keep our shops open, and have managed to keep our full team employed, with distancing and safety measures in place.

We have also been deeply concerned about our local suppliers and, crucially, our coffee-producing partners and their communities, who rely on us for their livelihoods. We have done everything we can to maintain our purchasing volumes from these suppliers and producers, and we continue to support and buy from them. Sadly we have been unable to travel to origin to purchase coffee this year due to travel restrictions but we have been blown away by the creative ways our producing partners have helped us feel closer to the harvest, making videos and sending photos and even setting up webcams to film their coffee processing!

Probably the hardest thing to navigate during this period has been the uncertainty. We have had to remain very agile and work overtime as last-minute government restrictions are announced. We have tried our best to communicate as much as possible with our team and suppliers during this period, and to offer support to our colleagues in the industry who are also facing incredibly tough times.

This year has made me realise more than ever before how special and valuable each of Market Lane’s relationships are – be it with our team members, our suppliers, our friends in the industry, or our amazing customers who have shown us so much support and loyalty. We are so lucky to be connected to such amazing people, and we have felt very supported and in this together.

Market Lane Coffee

Market Lane also aims to have a positive impact through the way you buy coffee and run your business - is there a recent initiative that you’re proud of?

There are lots! At origin, we have been really proud to support the Santa Clara Scholarship Fund. We have worked with the Zelaya family and Santa Clara farm for 11 years now, and this initiative has been something we have supported since 2014. Since 2019, we have been involved with World Coffee Research, and we’ve donated over $10,000 to support their research into coffee varieties and technology that will enhance the supply of quality coffee and improve the livelihoods of the families that produce it.

Back at home, in the last year we have introduced compostable coffee retail bags and Returnr canisters for our beans. We are always seeking out ways to reduce our waste and environmental impact across the business, and we aim to have solar panels on our new roastery in Brunswick within the next year.

How did you get set up with Square? What tools do you use the most?

We implemented Square POS in our shops when it was first introduced into Australia 2015. At the time it was life changing – we had been working manual tills up until that point, which is hard to believe now. The reporting functionality has been probably the most powerful feature – we can see real-time how the shops are performing and easily compare our performance across shops or sales periods. In addition we have saved a lot of time in data entry as Square integrates with Xero. In COVID times, the integrated Eftpos and credit card facility has been extremely valuable as it allows for contactless payment. The gift cards are great and easy to use and redeem and we have valued this feature also.

Any advice for other small businesses, particularly those struggling during this time?

Gosh, it’s so hard, and my heart goes out to the many small business owners, many in the hospitality industry, who have been hit hard by this pandemic.

For us, one lesson has been to stay focused on doing what we do well, rather than trying to pivot too far away from what we are already good at. We have invested a lot of time in making sure our website, online store and Coffee Club subscription service are as strong as they can be, and making sure we provide exceptional service to our online customers – many of whom are new and starting to make a lot more coffee at home.

The other thing we have realised over time is that this COVID thing isn’t going away in a hurry. For a while, it felt like we were holding our breath and we put a lot of things on pause – like staff reviews, team meetings, and big business decisions. Over the last month, however, we have realised that the show must go on, and that all of these things are really important. So, we are trying to adapt to the ‘new business as normal’ and make sure we are not staying in a holding pattern waiting for all this to blow over.

Image credit: Abigail Varmey, Armelle Habib and Kristopher Paulsen