Time flies when you're having fun.
For so many, Bec Bowie probably doesn't look a day older than when she opened the doors to Estabar cafe on The Esplanade 15 years ago on November 19, 2004, with her then business partner Ben McComb. She still radiates health and humour, sunshine and honesty.
And the coffee. The coffee has never faltered at this pioneering Newcastle coffee cafe with a priceless ocean view.
She has two young boys, Alby and Van, and a husband, Trent, but Estabar remains her baby.
In the beginning, it was only going to be about great coffee and great gelato.
"It started out in a different way," she says, in an interview on a sunny Monday morning, with her back to the cafe crowd, so she won't be tempted to clean a table or engage a customer (that keeps happening anyway).
"It kind of evolved as I matured and I understand more about why it was important to me.
When we opened, I would say, it's all about the love and every customer is a rock star. Because I wanted that for people.Bec Bowie
"It started out being important to me because I wanted to be part of something. I wanted to work with a team that were really cohesive, and really excited and into what they're doing and playing full-out, and really showing up at work.
"One-hundred and 10 per cent is what I always said to my people. You gotta give me 110 per cent. You gotta be two people in one. So that vibe has been really important to me."
She fully credits McComb with finding the location. He was considering an apartment in the new complex on the site, so he climbed a fence and scrambled up a hill of rubble to check out the view. He didn't buy an apartment, but he and Bowie figured the business unit on the ground floor might just work. It was too small for a cafe (it was supposed to fit a small business), so there was no competition for the site.
"It all felt like a risk," Bowie says. "Honestly, it was frightening."
McComb was unwavering: they would serve the best coffee and best gelato in town.
"We started at a really good time," Bowie says. "There weren't a lot of other businesses around like us. The golden years. Sure, there was Darby Street, Beaumont Street, The Junction. But it wasn't a big deal. Cafes weren't a big deal. We didn't venture into this really popular cafe lifestyle that we have now. There wasn't a huge amount of cafes."
Of course, besides really smart coffee, they brought something else.
"When we opened, I would say, it's all about the love and every customer is a rock star. Because I wanted that for people," Bowie says. "I wanted people to walk in here and feel really celebrated. Seen and acknowledged. Part of our space. And because we did that, people feel part of our space and they keep making their way back."
The formula still works. Bowie makes sure everyone gets the love. Estabar serves about 2000 cups of coffee every week; they are open 363 days a year.
They still serve vegemite on sourdough toast, like in the beginning, but the menu has expanded, as food, particularly ethical food, has become another pillar of their success.
"We didn't start doing food," Bowie says. "We started just doing gelato and coffee. We had beautiful pastries. We started to do food because customers wanted it.
"We had sourdough by Arnotts - Morpeth sourdough. And their fruit and nut loaf. With a toaster. We built the menu around a limited kitchen. At that time, we were looking for excellent, delicious ingredients. We had a small kitchen. We were working with suppliers that were taking it to next level. It evolved and evolved and evolved. And now, we still have an enormous menu."
The current menu includes Beetroot and Sunflower Salad, and the Estabar Enchilada with cultured buckwheat crepe, spiced blackbeans, avocado, feta, red capsicum salsa and dukkah. The oat porridge has steel cut and rolled organic and biodynamic oats, apple and rhubarb compote, granola brown sugar and cinnamon.
The coffee comes from Single O, Estabar's long-time supplier.
"We chose Single Origin Roasters," Bowie says. "To me, they are leaders in the field. They really invest in the back story of coffee.
"Single Origin vetted their people [retailers]. We had to prove we were capable of handling their coffee. I wanted to work with somebody of such a high standard.
I get people who say, 'I'm from Melbourne, do you make good coffee here?' I say, 'It's OK, we make good coffee, take a seat.'Bec Bowie
"The thing about coffee, it's long term. Really Intentional. It's values driven. It's not about the bottom line. The bottom line comes, the money comes, by doing the good work, holding strong values. For me, it's how the ship stays afloat."
Make no mistake: Bowie is proud of the city of Newcastle's coffee culture, not just her own cafe.
"We've got a really great coffee culture where we enjoy the coffee, but we also enjoy the community of it, the colour and the taste and my coffee date," she says.
And no apologies necessary.
"We have definitely become more sophisticated. People know what they want," she says. "I don't find too many people snobby. I get people who say, 'I'm from Melbourne, do you make good coffee here?' I say, 'It's OK, we make good coffee, take a seat.'"
Newcastle coffee roasters: Passionate about the planet and producers
At Estabar, you can order house-made plant milk with your coffee - made on the premises from Medowie-grown macadamia nuts and Australian hemp. The plant milk has been a project, switching from almonds to macadamias a considered exercise.
"We work with producers who are thoughtful about the way they conduct their business," Bowie says of her produce suppliers (she shops every Sunday at Newcastle City Farmers Market, too, for the cafe). "The ingredients they use, how they treat animals, how they treat the environment, how it shows up in our health."
At every turn, Bowie values relationships. Coffee supplier. Food suppliers. And customers.
"I call them my people," she says. "You know, customers is kind of a hard word, not emotive enough. We just call them our people.
"Tribe is a great word. So many of our tribe go gather their friends and their children and they bring them to the waterhole, so it really is that kind of tribal lifestyle."
As Newcastle's coffee culture has grown, Estabar has remained steady, consistent, ever-present, and a destination in its own right.
It has certainly contributed hundreds of staff along the way (there are 15 staff by the way).
Her staff expectations remain high.
What makes a good staff member?
"I guess i just look for those delicious, gorgeous people that love other people, that wanna serve, that wanna make other people feel great. But they can haul ass.
"They have to be two people in one. This is a hard job. There's a lot to do. And your eyes have to be up, and you need to be able to prioritise, work with other people, help customers, curate a customer experience that is particular to that person's needs.
"There's a lot to do. But it's entirely possible."
It takes one to know one.
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