Breaking Into the American Haute-Coffee Market
When Toby Smith decided to open the first U.S. outpost of Toby's Estate Coffee, his Australian boutique coffee shop chain, his first order of business was understanding how American tastes differ from those Down Under.
"Australians are very big on espresso-and-milk based coffees, whereas you guys have a much stronger, pour over style of coffee," says Smith, 43. "But America is such a huge country and so diverse—between different states and different coasts there's plenty of room for everyone's tastes. Variety makes everything modern and exciting, and the parameters of making good coffee are the same no matter where you are in the world."
So Smith and his American partners went about scouting locations in New York City, where he felt there was a burgeoning specialty coffee scene with the likes of Oakland's Blue Bottle and Portland's Stumptown already taking residence in Manhattan.
The Toby's crew initially secured a place in Manhattan, but the deal fell through. And like a lot of New York transplants, they ended up expanding their search for a home to Brooklyn.
"I heard from a lot of expat Australians that Williamsburg is where it's all happening, but I had never been there myself," says Smith. "But after a couple trips over, I'm really glad we’re there—not just because we found a much bigger space than we would have had in Manhattan, but it’s also a really creative, fresh scene. Somewhere where you can throw something new like Vegemite on toast at someone and they’ll give it a go."
Location set, Smith and his team needed to make sure their quality controls and brewing practices survived the trip overseas.
"The coffee we deliver is only as good as the person brewing it, so the training element is really important to us," says Smith, who set up a training room and espresso lab in the Williamsburg space, as well as regular quality control checks on the equipment and machinery. "You can't clean your machine and grinder enough—it only takes a machine an hour to get dirty," says Smith. "You can have perfect coffee, perfect brewing but if you don’t have a clean machine, that's a flavor defect."
Toby's Estate Coffee opened in January, with a mix of staffers from New York, Los Angeles, and Australia, and has enjoyed bustling business so far. Smith takes a typically laid-back approach to managing once the initial systems are in place.
"Baristas might have slightly different ways of doing things, little idiosyncracies that I think are very important to allow because brewing is so diverse—and different methods can still result in a great cup of coffee," he says.
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