There’s no desk in Saša Šestić’s office. The owner of Ona Coffee has instead fitted out his room in the heart of the expanding Ona premises in Fyshwyck, Canberra, with a long brown couch, a low coffee table and another chair for visitors.
“Of course admin and accounts, they need their computers, but I don’t,” mused Šestić. “I’m ok with my laptop,” he noted, a charger slung across the back of the couch.
Not that a computer would get much use in Šestić’s office. Ona is not only a national coffee distributor with five locations in Canberra and Sydney, but also owns three farms in Central America and has its own green-bean sourcing arm, Project Origin. On average, since 2014, Šestić has spent 180 days each year overseas.
“These days we're working with [over] 100 farms in ten countries. Every time we go to these places, you fly for twenty four hours in a plane and then maybe you're in a car for another ten hours and then in some farms you need to go on a horse to get to a place but when you see the people that grow these awesome coffees and taste the coffees you say, ‘Wow, it's worth it.’”
Communicating this experience of transcendent wonder born out of coffee has been the mission of Ona coffee and its founder, and one that the organization is continually chasing whether at the farm, roaster or behind the bar at a café.
Šestić’s story from newly arrived immigrant, to Olympic handballer to world barista champion has been told before, most vividly in a movie directed by Jeff Hann which entitled Šestić simply as The Coffee Man. Today, however, Šestić is deepening his connections to each link in the coffee chain, starting out at source.
Back in 2012, after tasting coffee from a small farm in the mountains of Honduras, Šestić knew he had to come back.
“Standing on top of the farm I thought, ‘I'd love to be part of this community so I can experiment with them even further so we keep making these coffees,’ and at the same time I wanted to be part of the community so I could actually help to promote their coffees worldwide.”
At the time, coffee from Honduras was not very well known, and not particularly popular in Australia. These beans, however, went on to win the cup of excellence, and since then, Ona has continued to spotlight coffees that come from unexpected regions. The second farm that Ona and Šestić committed to was in Nicaragua. Unlike in Honduras, with its high altitudes and perfect conditions, this farm was at a low altitude and was farmed with poor practices. Setting themselves the goal of turning that around through controlling the processing and fermentation processes has seen the beans overcome their initial setbacks. The most recent farm purchase is in Panama. At 2300 metres you can’t get agriculture much higher and having planted the most expensive varietal, Geisha, Šestić is looking forward to trying the first shipment after four years of development this year.
While coffee is what leads to these relationships, the connections have only deepened since then, and highlighted the close connections needed for successful partnerships between roasters and growers.
“There's a lot of people you become close with,” highlighted Šestić, who refers to each of the farmers as his family, “but the beauty of that is that if you know where your coffee is grown and how it's grown, if the producer is honest with you to say, ‘Hey I had a really bad harvest.” Then because they're family we look after them, we're still going to buy the coffee and we also offer them advice on how to make it better for next time.”
As we’ve seen elsewhere, as coffee’s price for the customer has increased, the amount paid to the farmer has only lowered, particularly as commodity prices for coffee have dropped. Šestić hopes that his own success can lead back into that for farmers.
“Roasters, we do well, baristas, we do well, but you go to the coffee farmers they're the ones who are struggling.”
While Šestić often sees roasters applauding themselves for the higher prices they pay for premium coffees, he has been left wondering what happens to the other 95 per cent of coffee that gets left behind.
While changing attitudes of roasters and green bean buyers is one thing, getting Australian consumers to pay more than three or four dollars for a cup of coffee is a whole different challenge, but one that Šestić and Ona have taken on. After opening their Marrickville brew bar in mid 2018, Sydneysiders were up in arms at the sight of a coffee sold for $16. While Ona Marrickville still did standard lattes, flat whites and cappuccinos for four dollars, the extended list of premium range coffees is designed to get people thinking about what other possibilities are out there for coffee.
“A lot of people look at coffee as a morning fix,” highlighted Šestić, “but coffee goes a lot beyond that. Coffee can taste like unbelievable chocolates and then it can taste fruity as well.”
Having competed at the highest levels of coffee himself, Šestić sees value in these competitions pushing coffee companies to get more out of coffee, even for the daily customer.
“It’s kind of how we are looking to predict the future of specialty coffee and that really pushes all of us to see what we can get out of the coffee,” Šestić explained.
For Ona, this has led to the development of equipment such as coffee distributors to get a more even extraction, but also new ways of approaching customers who have their set coffee order.
What this all comes down to, is Šestić’s own drive to improve the coffee experience, whether that’s in a café or on a farm. Stretching back on the couch, Šestić reflected that when he’s done, “I'd love to leave coffee in a better place than I found it. That really drives me.”
To find out more about Ona Coffee, click here: https://onacoffee.com.au/