Plantation Specialty Coffee: How an IT Worker From Canberra Broke Melbourne’s Coffee Code

calvin plantation coffee melbourne

When Calvin Leung bought his first espresso bar in Canberra after leaving a well-paid public sector IT job, he never thought it would lead to running one of Melbourne’s most identifiable coffee brands.

Fast forward ten years and Plantation Specialty Coffee, owned and run by Calvin, is now selling 500,000 cups of coffee annually. Running six locations across Melbourne, Plantation also brokered a contract with Myer that has seen them establish coffee bars in a growing number of department stores across the state this year.

Calvin credits his success to a strong focus on product and service delivery. He stands by continuous innovation and trying new technologies to improve their coffee and streamline internal processes. We caught up with Calvin to find out more about his business journey, how he’s used technology to his advantage and what he thinks about going cashless.

What drew you towards the coffee and hospitality industry?

When I first started out, I must admit, I didn’t know a whole lot about coffee but I knew I wanted to learn to do something different. I started with just a small espresso bar in Canberra that I ran it as a sole owner operator, seven days a week for two years.

We focussed on nothing but coffee, and avoided adding food options so as not to complicate our offering. Ten years ago, that specialised coffee business didn’t exist, so even though I worked hard I knew I was onto something unique.

Where did your business journey start with Plantation?

I first bought into Plantation’s flagship QV store in 2012. After buying, running and selling a couple of successful businesses in Canberra, I knew I needed to be in the heart of the coffee industry, Melbourne.

The concept behind Plantation was unique, because we were taking high street coffee into a shopping centre, which was typically the domain of the the quick-stop global coffee houses (like Gloria Jeans or Starbucks). It took a couple of years but with a strong focus on customer service we managed to grow a loyal following and high demand.

How has Plantation grown since then?

Since those early days we’ve grown significantly, from one to six stores, and our original five staff members have turned into 50! Over the last couple of years our multi-location set-up has also included some permanent pop-up coffee stations in three Myer department stores outside of Melbourne.

What sort of processes and technologies have you used to scale effectively?

I’ve never been afraid of experimenting with new technologies and processes to make sure that what we’re doing is the absolute best it can be. The way we make coffee is very precise and technical so I wanted that to flow into our other processes, like payments, inventory and staff management.

We’ve perfected the technology that works well for our business, and that’s how we’ve been able to get up and running quickly in new locations, like our Myer sites. We use Square for all our payments and location management, it’s super easy to buy new hardware and set it up instantly by downloading an app. That then integrates seamlessly with our accounting software Xero and our staff management tool Deputy.

Why is embracing technology so important to you?

With a background in IT, I know first-hand the benefits that technology can bring to almost any process. As a business manager, technology has proven to be faster and more efficient to operate than manual processes, which is crucial in a busy industry like hospitality. I want my staff focussed on serving customers, not fiddling around with stock lists or counting sales.

Aside from time-waste, technology has also helped us reduce environmental waste. Working with food and beverages, there is the potential to create a lot of waste, so we try to reduce it wherever we can. I’m proud that we are now a paperless company, which has been super easy to implement with Square’s POS system allowing us to to create e-tickets and send instant e-receipts to customers on the spot.

Our recent study that found the majority of Australian SMBs thought managing cash was a big contributor to wasted time for staff. How do you feel about this?

There is no doubt about it — accepting and managing cash, especially across multiple locations, is a big time burden for staff. I want to be able to service my customers the best I can, so I accept all forms of payments, but cards and digital payments are much faster and much simpler to manage.

We have noticed that customers are generally carrying less cash around with them now and they actually prefer the speed and convenience of tap-and-go,so they’re not fiddling around counting change or limiting their purchases by the amount of cash in their pocket. As a business owner, cash also weighs on my mind too, from wondering if there is enough change in the till to making sure a member of staff is responsible for counting and banking my earrings.

Do you think the future is cashless for Australian businesses?

Yes. Accepting card and digital payments is the norm now when it comes to running a business. Just like you have to organise a work space, staff and inventory, payments are crucial to your operations because without a good system you won’t succeed.

Customers are the most important element to any business, so they typically define the trends that we’ll follow. With more preferring to pay by card, and carrying less cash, there is no doubt that we are heading towards a cashless society.

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