Red Parrot Coffee owner Mike Roycroft on changing the way Australians do business after the coronavirus

OPEN FOR BUSINESS: Red Parrot cafe owner Mike Roycroft, left, with roaster specialists Katie Wells and Rosco Buchanan. Photo: Simone De Peak
OPEN FOR BUSINESS: Red Parrot cafe owner Mike Roycroft, left, with roaster specialists Katie Wells and Rosco Buchanan. Photo: Simone De Peak

How do you convince a truck driver to give up the average instant coffee they've been drinking for years, and extol on them the virtues of a cappuccino?

Twenty years ago, that was the question Mike Roycroft and his wife, Debra, were grappling with. They had been in the hospitality business for years by that time. In another life, Mike was a country music singer-songwriter. The pair became franchisees when Mike took a career shift, and by the year 2000 they had become the founding directors of the chain of highway-side restaurants called Coolabah Tree Cafe.

Mr and Mrs Roycroft, over nine years, built the business into more than a dozen roadhouse cafes on the Australian eastern seaboard. But the coffee was only so-so, and the truckies drank instant for free.

"At that time, there was no bean-to-cup coffee available," Mr Roycroft says. "It was all brewed, pour-over and instant coffee."

The couple's first cafe was at Goondiwindi on the NSW-Queensland border.

"I just saw a need for fresh beans and espresso coffee but we had to find a way to do it economically," Mr Roycroft said. Baristas in remote areas were scarce, as was the equipment they needed to work with. But the Swiss, Mr Roycroft soon discovered, were making commercial-grade automatic espresso machines that took some of the manual work out of the equation. The machines sold at that time, he recalls, for around $17,000, but it was easy enough to use, made close to the same quality espresso as the average barista and was, more importantly, consistent.

"We had to find a bean and a supplier that we thought would be suitable," Mr Roycroft recalls, "And then we had to educate the truck drivers to drink espresso."

Now is the time to diversify

Mike Roycroft, Red Parrot Coffee

Incentives were offered. After the machines arrived, a cup of instant coffee went for $2. Mr Roycroft would make you a cappuccino for $2.50.

"We had very little resistance on that," Mr Roycroft said. "Most times when people are getting something for free, their conscience gets the better of them. And once they started tasting cappuccino, the instant coffee went out the door.

"Now, a truck driver will pay $4 or $5 for a cappuccino and won't even blink."

Highway-side chains like Coles Express soon followed, and by the time Mr and Mrs Roycroft sold out of the Coolabah Tree chain in 2009, roadhouse coffee had shifted.

Australia's coffee culture is unlike any other in the world, Mr Roycroft explains. It's part of the fabric of our social lives.

"It's the second most-drunk beverage in the world next to tea," he said. "Beer and wine are down the list.

"But coffee has been given to the Australian consumer the same way for the last 50 years. We stretch the milk and put it in the espresso and that's it."

OPEN FOR BUSINESS: Red Parrot cafe owners Mike Roycroft and Debra Roycroft. Photo: Simone De Peak

OPEN FOR BUSINESS: Red Parrot cafe owners Mike Roycroft and Debra Roycroft. Photo: Simone De Peak

Mr and Mrs Roycroft are now the owners of Red Parrot Coffee at Islington in Newcastle, where the average coffee connoisseur can order a coffee from one of 11 beans on the menu, from single-origins to blends and a decaf, roasted in-house and served by the cafe's trained baristas.

The next evolution of Australia's coffee culture, Mr Roycroft says, needs to be about consumer choice.

"You go to a hotel and you get 18 different types of beer," Mr Roycroft said. "Why can't you have 10 different types of coffee?"

Like so many businesses, Red Parrot suffered during the pandemic, and during the bushfires before the virus arrived. As cafes shuttered around the state, the wholesale part of Mr Roycroft's business slowed down, but the stagnated demand - and a new market of coffee-drinkers looking for coffee in different places - forced an expedited shift in the front of the Islington outfit.

Even without the virus, and the bushfires, Mr Roycroft would still have pursued his 11-bean menu, he says.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS: Red Parrot cafe owner Mike Roycroft, right, with roaster specialists Katie Wells and Rosco Buchanan. Photo: Simone De Peak

OPEN FOR BUSINESS: Red Parrot cafe owner Mike Roycroft, right, with roaster specialists Katie Wells and Rosco Buchanan. Photo: Simone De Peak

"Debra and I had an agenda, we had a business plan," he said. "We opened up the cafe in the front with this in mind - this is what we intended to do.

"But COVID-19 and the bushfires probably created a bit more of a demand on us. We had to do it a little bit quicker.

"I still would have done it, but it has been accelerated a bit because cafes were closed and people were out looking for coffee. And it has paid off."

There is no denying that the pandemic and the fires have put near immeasurable strain on local businesses, but Mr Roycroft said it has also provided an environment for business owners to innovate and diversify.

In his words, the virus "put the pressure on us to get our act together."

"The consumer is getting savvier about what is going on and they are expecting more variety," he said.

"And this is going to become a very essential part of the market going forward.

"They expect more choices; they are expecting better coffee and they're expecting the people selling it to them to know what they're talking about.

"If businesses haven't taken this opportunity to step outside their business and have a good look at it and say, 'Right, where am I going to take this after this is all over?', then they are going to struggle.

"This is the time to diversify."

This story How the impact of coronavirus could force a shift in the way Australians do business first appeared on Newcastle Herald.