After studying environmental science at university, and running her own coffee business for several years, Ali Slotemaker saw an opportunity to combine her two passions and give back to the Cairns community. Together with her husband Steve, they rebranded their coffee business to White Whale Coffee Roasters, a locally focused coffee roaster dedicated to making speciality coffee, and donating a portion of every sale towards the Reef Restoration Foundation (a not-for-profit that helps regrow coral on the Great Barrier Reef).
We spoke to Ali about building the business during a time when Cairns only had one or two coffee shops, how she went about the rebrand, and what’s next for White Whale Coffee.
Tell us a bit about how White Whale Coffee Roasters got started, and what your connection is to coffee.
Back in New Zealand, I started making coffee when I was 14. I went through uni as a barista and ended up in Cairns of all places! I was working for local government doing environmental protection work at the time. The coffee culture in Cairns then was basically non-existent. We kind of laugh now because there was literally just one café! As a Kiwi, I knew it was not what the coffee culture could be.
In 2010, my husband and I were inspired to start our own business. I had modelled our coffee roasting business off what was happening in my hometown Nelson, and New Zealand more broadly with the micro-roasting movement.
We went out and educated ourselves, doing some training with a coffee roaster from the US who was visiting Australia at the time, and Peter Wolff, when he was starting off doing roasting courses in 2010. Then we found a secondhand Probat coffee roaster in Victoria, brought it up to Cairns and got started!
What was the reception like when you launched?
We set up an industrial area, because we’d seen the model in New Zealand work. People just thought it was the craziest thing at the time. They couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t want to be close to the tourists, which was the main industry due to our proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. Some people even thought the coffee roaster was a pizza oven!
I went all out - we imported a La Marzocco 4 Group directly from the States. It was bright yellow. We’ve never had another 4 Group coffee machine since, it’s a little bit extra! But we were planning on being big and successful.
We did a very industrial fit out, the coffee was really good and different from what they had tasted. We also had some brilliant staff who helped create a great atmosphere. I think that with great customer service and great coffee, they just kept coming back through the door.
How did you discover the Reef Restoration Foundation? Why were you inspired to contribute?
We started to make a lot of changes in our business around waste reduction. We did some brainstorming about ideas of how we could reduce our footprint. We’re not perfect and we’re not claiming to be, but I think every little bit counts.
I read this article in The Cairns Post about the Reef Restoration Foundation, and it’s such a grassroots organisation. There was no government funding, it was just relying on donations from the public or businesses. With this organisation you could really see the impact they were making. If you go to Fitzroy Island (just 45 minutes off the coast of Cairns) and dive down, you can see these metal frames that they set up (they look like Christmas trees) with coral attached to the branches. The coral has been selected because it has survived bleaching events, so genetically it’s stronger; once collected, it is divided and tie to the ‘trees’. The corals grow faster than they would in the natural reef environment and once they are big enough, they superglued back onto the reef. It is a way to help support the re-generation of the reef.
You can actually see the change – and for me, if we were going to donate money to something, it had to be really transparent and make a difference. We’ve donated about $35,000 so far in just two and a half years!
You have such a unique design and name, how did you go about the rebrand?
We started off our coffee brand as Industry One Coffee. It was a very successful brand, but I started to realise that the brand wasn’t geographically significant in any way. We could have been in any city or town in Australia, and I realised that we had a huge opportunity to be the coffee roaster for this region and make that an important factor of our brand.
My husband came up with the name ‘White Whale Coffee Roasters’. There is a white whale that is quite famous called Migaloo, which is an indigenous word for ‘white fella’. Migaloo travels past Cairns on his annual migration, so it’s definitely a nod to Migaloo and that geographically significant tie.
I like that the name subtly reminds you to be conscious of our oceans and our environment, without being forceful. I brought it into a design agency in Cairns (Tropic Studio) to do the rebrand, and they nailed it the first time. That was another thing - realising that working with people locally is something that’s really important to us.
Has the Cairns coffee culture changed much since you first started?
It’s changed so much. I think we’ve got a highly refined and competitive coffee industry in Cairns now. It’s just really gone great in the last 10 years. You can pretty much go anywhere and get a good coffee. A total transformation.
What is your biggest challenge day to day of running the business?
I think the biggest challenge for us is growth. At the moment, we’ve just branched out and launched a coffee bar called Teddy Espresso, but I’m finding that you can’t be everywhere at once. We’re very used to being hands on in our businesses and seeing everything. I think you can’t have that ultimate control over everything, if you grow. That’s probably an area where we need to look at how we’re going to manage that.
How did you hear about Square and use us to help run your business?
Square’s been on the radar for several years. We’ve always been a big believer in the non-bank merchant model. My brother, Fox, came on board as an Operations Manager and it’s something he wanted to see implemented straightaway. The all-in-one Square Register point of sale was exactly what we wanted. All of our issues had been resolved and put into one system.
The speed factor was a big advantage as well, because we always had a couple of seconds lag with our previous point of sale thinking twice with a payment. When we’ve got a line of five people and need to process a lot of small transactions quickly, every second counts.
We’ve gone completely cashless, which is something I was really nervous about, but it’s so amazing. You just don’t have to think about change or cash. I was down in Brisbane recently and saw a couple of businesses doing it there, which gave me the confidence to do it. Having Square as a really great system was so good in that process.
Do you have any exciting plans for the business for the rest of the year?
We just purchased a new coffee roaster from Germany. It’s taken 13 months to get here! That’s our first upgrade of a coffee roaster, and I think that’s really going to set us up for significant growth. We want to be known as Cairns’ White Whale Coffee Roasters, so that if you’re talking coffee, Cairns and White Whale kind of go together. For us, it’s all about growth within our geographical region.