Having been at the helm of café-cum craft roaster Pablo & Rusty’s for the past fifteen years, CEO Saxon Wright has had a front row seat to the rapid transformation of coffee in Sydney and around the world. This has meant that Saxon has had to take on many hats, from roasting, to green bean sourcing to technological innovation. We had a chat with him at Pablo & Rusty’s headquarters in North Ryde about the history and future of our favourite beverage: coffee.
BYO: Pablo & Rusty’s have been around for a few years now, how do you see the different stages in the history of the company?
Saxon: Originally it was just a café, we had one shop and then a couple of shops and then transitioned to selling wholesale to other cafes, roasting and building our own roasting plant and now we're pretty much entirely focused on wholesale. We do a lot more back at origin, we work with farmers and to get good green coffee and participate in the environmental things that we want to have an impact on.
BYO: As a company, what are some of the values that have kept Pablo & Rusty’s going for the past fifteen years?
Saxon: So Pablo and Rusty are my two brothers-in-law and it was named after them because we wanted to give them a birthday gift one year and came up with the brand just for fun. They became representative of what we were trying to do, which was to serve people better coffee. The transition from retail to wholesale was good in the sense that we could actually serve a lot more people better coffee through wholesale than we could ever by building our own stores. Our priority was always making coffee taste great and to do good on the other side. We weren't saying, ‘You should buy our coffee because it's sustainable,' 'Buy our coffee because it tastes really good [and] by the way it's sustainable.'
BYO: The wider coffee industry market has changed a lot in the last fifteen years as well, how has the meaning of “better coffee” changed in these years?
Saxon: Customer expectations have not only increased but changed as well. Fifteen years ago, that first wave is just about better coffee. Quality was the first step. The next five years was a significant transition to experience. Better quality service, a story about the coffee, a better overall interaction. So we saw a lot of change in café design and service levels. The last five years has been this shift towards value. There's a tension point between, ‘I want all that’ but ‘I also want it at a pretty good price and I want to know that it's sustainable.’
BYO: Before we go into innovation, you mentioned going back to origin and I wanted to know what have you been able to take back to growers and farmers in terms of developing better coffee.
Saxon: Well, the first thing is actually taking their coffee back. Going back and having conversations with them and saying this is what we need, this is why we need it and working with them together to find out how we can get a better product. For example, size; coffees that are all the same size, density and moisture level will roast all the same, but that's not necessarily obvious to a producer. You've gone to all this effort to make the green coffee good but if the sizes aren't separated out into different lots then it's not that the coffee is better or worse it's just blended size is never as good as individual size. Those kind of conversations can be a really simple conversation and we can have a significant improvement in quality and we're willing to pay more for that. So the ability to have a conversation with people and break that kind of divide has been amazing.
BYO: For yourself and the company, what have you learnt by going back to farmers rather than going through traders or brokers?
Saxon: I learn so much. It takes a lot of work to make coffee. We have cherry picking competitions with the locals and it's embarrassing how bad we are at it, and one of the things on the flipside of that is that I can't stand it as a roaster [when] we see people wasting coffee because you've just wasted an hour of somebody's labour for nothing. I see baristas not caring about the coffee and overdosing or seasoning grinders, [and] a lot of roasters previously have gone, ‘It's good, we're selling more.’ No, it makes my blood boil. What I want from our cafes is to sell more coffee, but I don't want any of it wasted. You can't talk about that stuff with as much vigour if you haven't been there, if you haven’t seen how much work goes into it.
We do fixed term contracts. We commit to buying and putting in a contract for five years no matter what the market is doing. I've just come back from Yunnan, in China, where we've got some partner farms. We've got a rolling five-year contract and off the back of that contract they've now upgraded the wet mill, put stainless steel tanks in. We've been able to improve a whole bunch of things on the farm that basically guarantees so much more of the production will hit the quality level we need and then we can then buy more from them because more is going to hit the quality point.
Then projects like Huskee come out of it, because we're there on the farms we can see what their needs are and we can go ah, maybe there's something there we could do to solve that problem.
BYO: There seems to be a real appetite to incorporate innovation into the company, for you as a leader of this company, what drives you to push for those things?
Saxon: Part of being in business is to have a positive impact in the world. So many of our problems in the world are the result of business and so I think, surely if business can be the problem, business can be the solution. That's not to mean we're charity; we're not, we're a business, but at the same time if every dollar we make actually has a net positive effect as well, that's great. Having that as a fundamental driver means we are backed into a corner to do things differently. We are forced to innovate because we can't do things the same way.
The other side of it is I just want work to be interesting and if I find trying new things fun and interesting maybe other people will. We have guys doing experiments all the time, just random things and sometimes they don't work and that permission to fail, that permission to try, we want to enable that.
BYO: Where’s the next frontier in the innovation cycle for you, where do you innovate next?
Saxon: The café industry has been pretty slow to adopt new technologies and changes and so we see our role as dabbling in the tech space to really understand how tech could influence the café world. Going cashless [in the Brisbane store] forces us into a position where we're dependent on the tech. We have to use different technologies — we might have to develop our own technologies — to try and do that.
We want business to be fun, we want to experiment, we want to play around and we'll get it wrong but it's worth trying.