Mahalia Layzell was 12 when she got her first taste of hospitality.
“I started washing dishes in fine dining restaurants in the late 80s … [where] my brother was an apprentice chef,” Mahalia says.
“In the 90s and early 2000s hospitality was a very serious career choice.
She worked her way up to waiter and then chef’s apprentice at a time when the industry was changing.
“And then cafe came … [and it] took over from fine dining.”
As a result a new culture of eating and drinking out often formed, changing the standard of service and professionalism.
“I think Australians went through a stage of looking down at service staff, especially in the corporate world,” Mahalia says.
A perception Mahalia has managed to smash at her roastery and cafe, Mahalia Coffee, based in Robe on South Australia’s Limestone Coast.
She represents a growing cohort of Australians who have made making coffee into a career, venturing into roasting and eventually starting their own business.
And unlike the businesses where she was “treated badly”, she’s determined to make hospitality a better and more sustainable career for her staff.
Others are seeking the same.
Building a better culture in hospitality
In Melbourne, pastry chef and business owner Boris Portnoy gives staff permanent roles where possible.
“We thought that to retain talent, we would need to work with them but we need to also pay them fairly.
“So we try and have a minimum of three days.”
Having worked “very hard” as a pastry chef in a three-star Michelin restaurant in the United States, he knows the difference good management can make.
“What I really liked about working there, in that formal environment, is that you can be a professional,” Boris says.
“What I hate about it is how advantageous it is, especially for young people. Because they feel they need to eat a lot of dirt [to progress] in hospitality.”
Secure employment, team building and career progression have become staples for the staff at his businesses, Gray and Gray Bread and Wine and All Are Welcome.
“When everyone feels they’re on the same kind of ground, we can start team building and culture building,” Boris says.
“You don’t have to spend all that time training your staff, instead you can work with the current staff and make better processes and decisions.”
While becoming more common, Mahalia and Boris’s efforts aren’t the norm.
As director of the United Workers Union, Karma Lord sees the very worst of the industry.
“They’re often suffering from wage theft in one form or another, high instances of sexual harassment, and, especially now during COVID, really high instances of mental health problems.
“It is unfortunate that for a lot of people they don’t stick around in the industry because their early experiences can put them off.”
As well as fair pay and a respectful work environment, room for progression is key for ongoing work.
Sanremo’s Victorian manager Tim Sweet had no idea his start in hospitality as a dishie at age 14 would lead to a long and passionate career in coffee.
“The place where I worked allowed me to drink coffee if there was a mistake with [it],” Tim says.
“I used to enjoy playing a bit of a game with a barista that I had a very good friendship with at the time. I would come out and try and guess what was wrong with the coffee.
While being a barista wasn’t as glamorous or trendy, or as well paid, back then, Tim says it’s a very good and financially viable job today.
“You think that what you’re doing is just going to work and making coffee, that can be slightly defeating at times,” Tim says.
“[But] you’re actually doing a lot more.”
The industry is full of professionals, from the representatives working behind the scenes, machine technicians and financial advisers.
“It’s a great avenue for baristas later on in their life,” Tim says.
“I know plenty of baristas that have worked their way up in the industry … because they took their skills and applied for relatable positions.
“You’ve got to have that kind of mentality. Whatever you put into coffee is what you’re going to get out later on.”
All about people
That’s certainly been the case for Bryce Lehmann, a humble Adelaide barista turned roaster and trainer.
Like Tim, he was inspired by one particular barista whilst working at a Cibo.
“I saw his servant attitude and that was the most sustainable part of the cafe,” Bryce says.
It was an eye opener for Bryce, who saw greater potential than “just making coffee”.
“It’s not just a transaction … I want to do this so this person can have a good experience,” Bryce says.
“I wanted to shine as an artisan of what I was doing.
“I [started] thinking ‘how can I actually carry this through? Could I open my own cafe?'”
Nowadays Bryce works for Adelaide’s b3 Coffee and adjoining Settlement, which hires out the space to other roasters.
A recent addition has been training young people to barista, a partnership with the local council.
The program targets students who might be struggling at school and teaches them the necessary skills to pick up a cafe job.
“Some kids have hated it and then some are shining in it.”
Like some of them, Bryce didn’t know what he wanted to do as a teenager interested in bands, coffee and skateboarding.
“There’s no way I would have known what was to come,” Bryce says.
“There’s so many opportunities for people in coffee … that can all stem from becoming just a humble barista.”