A businessman sets up his in-tray on a table in a corner. Elsewhere, a grey-haired man throws his leg over an armchair while leafing through the Financial Review.
Two tables away, a down-at heel bloke accepts the scones, jam and cream offered by a gaggle of white-haired ladies. Two women sit, gossiping and knitting with equal gusto, on a leather couch. Toddlers in pink tutus eat rainbow cookies as they pore over a picture they are colouring in.
It’s an odd grab-bag of customers indeed, but each one of them is wearing the same serene glow. Their coffee fix is no hipster high, it’s more a sense of blissful belonging as they sip coffee against the warm, honey-toned backdrop of the century-old Peninsula Hotel in Maylands. Now four years into its new life as a flagship Dome cafe, the grand old building doubles as a second home, an office, a community meeting place and a drop-in pad for anyone who cares to cross its stately threshold.
You don’t have to sit long to witness a Dome moment in this sublime setting – where the slick headquarters of the multi-million dollar international franchise hums away upstairs.
They’re occurring in 120 cafes around the world – 67 in Australia – as the smiley faces on the cappuccinos kick in. And it is spreading across the globe with a raft of newbies having just opened – or about to open – their doors. Punters in Dubai, Bahrain, Butler, Bassendean, Banksia Grove, East Fremantle (on the old Red Herring site), Port Hedland, Katanning and Darwin are getting their daily buzz in shopping centres, old primary schools, historic houses, an old railway carriage and even a site where a pine forest once stood. Each site operates on the same tried and true franchise format – luxurious-yet-homey fit out, friendly service, simple food, and a welcome hug in a coffee cup.
There are around 14 million visitors to Dome each year in Western Australia alone. And three decades on from its humble beginnings as a coffee roasting business,
the franchise now extends into seven countries, where it holds its own amidst the giant coffee multinationals.
As Perth has become far more sophisticated and discerning in its communal coffee palate, the chain has also withstood an influx of too-cool-for-school baristas who trumpet their cold brew coffees and write clever chalkboard odes to the organic fair trade beans they’ve personally picked while donkey trekking in South America.
Obviously there’s longevity and pulling power in all-day eggs hollandaise, grilled chicken burgers and hearty Aussie pies, supplied for the entire chain by the same family-based producers. The simple menu staples are washed down with flat whites made from the same bean blends sourced by Phil May, the company founder who began importing beans and roasting them back in 1983 when most of Perth was still drinking instant coffee.
The story of May joining up with well-known, award-winning Perth businesswoman Patria Jafferies to open one of Perth’s first European-styled cafes in Napoleon
Street, Cottesloe, and the subsequent start of the franchise is now a well-documented part of Perth’s coffee culture.
Jafferies and May have long since moved on but customers still beat a path
to the door of their neighbourhood local where the soundtrack to their $4 coffee
is a constantly changing mix of snippets of life: gossip, tortured baring of souls,
infectious laughter of old mates, the tinkle of teacups and the occasional tearful sharing of sorrows.
The sounds linger long after their cups are drained. No one tells anyone to move
on. That would go against the company ethos that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, or how you feel… There’s always respite in a strong cup of coffee.
Managing Director, CEO
He’s energetic and upbeat, and speaks with the hyperactivity of someone overdosing on caffeine. For 13 years, Nigel Oakey has drunk gallons of his own brew while gently steering the company away from its branding as upmarket cafes in well-heeled suburbs, and towards an identity as all-inclusive, welcoming meeting places for people from all demographics.
It’s not just coffee that sees the former CEO of boutique coffee chain Il Gianfornaio work on a broad front. He’s also driven by a passion for history, civic pride and egalitarianism.
It was enough, last September, to inspire Navis Capital Partners, a private equity firm, to invest in Dome for the second time, injecting $50 to $100 million capital to grow the company in southeast Asia, China and the Middle East.
Oakey remains constantly on the lookout for potential new sites in Australia and overseas, all of which must fit his finely tuned criteria for what makes a welcoming community meeting place. Sites have included a derelict primary school in Midland and the old home of the District Medical Officer in Port Hedland. Even an old railway carriage he discovered one day sent his imagination into overdrive: after an expensive refurbishment and costly transportation, it ended up being incorporated into the new cafe in the Bassendean shopping village.
“We found the first railway sleeper carriage for the WA Government Railways, dating back to 1906, rotting in an old yard, and decided to restore it,” he says. “The railway system was very much part of Bassendean’s history. We wanted to help make the place and make a sense of civic pride in the railway. It’s our philosophy of ‘help make a place, not take a place’.”
Oakey’s philosophy was inspired by The Great Good Place, a book he was reading when he joined the company in 2001, after Phil May and Patria Jafferies had left their executive positions in the wake of soured plans for a stock market float. It was a time when the company had lost its way, and some of its identity.
Written by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place theorises that community wellness rests on the balance of home life, the workplace, and inclusively sociable places.
“The core of his (Oldenburg’s) work was at the core of my intuition,” says Oakey. “I could see that this was a loved brand. The points of pain being experienced by the company were not the points of pain being shared by the customers. The brand was much loved and the challenge was to figure out how to capitalise on that. While the company at that time was about competing solely on product, the product we were selling was as much about the many things that I observed people doing in the cafes.”
Customers in the cafes have grown used to Oakey stopping by their table to have a chat. “I sit in the cafes. I can tell you exactly what that lady is doing there with her two children. I know exactly why she came in today.”
He is the first to admit the company is not competing at the haute cuisine level. “We are not out to cut the lunch of others in the industry who are trying to lead the way,” he says. “We are more at home with the CWA cookbook, which goes back to providing a place of comfort, like an old friend.”
It’s a fancy title but, then again, Jonathan Cutt also answers to barista, staff trainer and just the plain old coffee guy. All add up to one thing – a passion for coffee which makes Cutt the ideal person to school the company’s 1000 employees driving the machines in cafes throughout WA.
As the macchinesti – master of the espresso machine – he is also obsessive about the Italian-made $18,000 La Marzocco machines which are standard equipment in every outlet.
“You can tell just by walking into a cafe whether the coffee will be any good or not,” says Cutt. “If the coffee machine is grubby, with fingerprints all over it and there are milk stains on it and the barista looks unkempt, you can be sure the coffee won’t be any good either.”
Good baristas don’t just know how to make a good coffee, they need to form a personal relationship their machine. Cleanliness is all-important, and the machine should be wiped down at least once every hour.
Cutt’s barista skills were already the stuff of local legend eight years ago when long queues – including visiting stars like Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters and comedian Dylan Moran – began winding through the Subiaco cafe on Rokeby Road when he was on shift.
Spotted by management, he was recruited to the office headquarters where he conducts online training for staff, and coaches baristas when new franchises are being set up.
Making a good coffee is a simple procedure, according to Cutt, which starts with a good machine and quality beans. So often the procedure goes awry, and that’s where the barista skills come in. Different baristas will produce a very different tasting coffee with the same machine. It’s all in the handling.
“You must have a clean machine and you must have a well-calibrated grinder. If the grinder is not calibrated correctly, the coffee moves through the machine too quickly and can make the coffee taste bitter or sour. Also the milk must be at a temperature of 65 degrees or it starts to burn and the texture breaks down.”
And of course the quality of the coffee beans is paramount. Five different types
of Arabica beans – from Costa Rica, Brazil, Kenya, Sumatra and Papua New Guinea – make up the blend the chain has used since its inception.
And while they are up with the latest machinery and trends, Cutt agrees Dome is certainly not at the pointy end of Perth’s coffee culture. “No, we are not about cold drip and that sort of stuff,” he says. “I look at those things sometimes and think they look like they belong in a laboratory not a cafe. We are popular because we are kind of whatever you need us to be.”
When Margaret Donaldson pulls up outside Dome Cafe in Subiaco at 6.30am every morning, there is a staffer standing in the doorway holding a cafe latte in her hand before she even gets out of the car.
The routine has been the same for 10 years, since Donaldson began driving 28km from her home in Hocking to Subiaco to have breakfast before starting her work day in administration at King Edward Memorial Hospital.
Staff there know she likes her eggs done over easy, her bacon not too crisp, her toast spread with a light wave of margarine, and also the names of her two daughters, pets and husband.
And when it’s her birthday, Donaldson’s regular table will be decorated with flowers and streamers and party hats.
Over the 10 years, a friendship with the staff has blossomed, and they have regular get-togethers to share a meal elsewhere. And, Donaldson says, she wouldn’t have been able to get through the journey of battling bone marrow disease and MS without their friendship and support.
“They know when I’m feeling tired. They will come and sit down and ask how I am. Sometimes they just know not to say anything. And you know they really care. I come from New Zealand and have no family here in WA. They are my family.”