Melbourne café and roaster Market Lane Coffee has always had its focus on the ground on which it stands. First founded in Prahran Market and now with eight locations across inner Melbourne, each one is close to director of Market Lane, Jason Scheltus’s heart.
“They really are in locations that we have a connection to,” highlights Scheltus. Whether that is in fond memories of going to the Queen Victoria market growing up, where Market Lane has two outlets, or spending time while studying at Melbourne University on Faraday Street in Carlton, another spot on the Market Lane map, there’s a story or a history to each place.
Since opening in 2009, however, new stories are beginning to be told by locals and regulars who frequent each of the cafes. Not designed to be a akin to a sermon, Market Lane allows for visitors to enjoy each cup at their own pace.
“For us, it was really important to be able to just come in and order a coffee,” points out Scheltus. “You'll get a good coffee and if you want to know more about it, it's really easy to get that information.”
Using the coffee bean and the resulting brew as a vehicle for connection, Market Lane saw a gap in understanding about the actual processes by which coffee travelled from the place in which it was roasted to the café in which it was consumed.
“There was very little information about who grew the coffee, what quality it was or how they were paid, anything like that, so we really wanted to change the conversation and focus on the producers,” described Scheltus.
Through brew classes which allowed for customers to discern the unique characteristics from varietals, processing methods and origins as well as a coffee club which regularly alternated origins, Market Lane began to connect their home to the homes of coffee.
In doing so, a world of questions and discoveries could be made, breaking down the mystique behind each cup of coffee and allowing for a more in depth understanding of the developing issues in coffee cultivation.
“If we specify where the coffee is from it lets customers ask the question, ‘Well what are their environmental practices on the farm?’” noted Scheltus, who identified that the alternative allows for disintegration. “If there's no name or there's no place associated with the coffee, it's really easy for standards to drop.”
Broadening the focus of sustainability beyond just ecological sustainability, Scheltus is keen to remind us that social and economic sustainability are important components.
“The biggest risk to the coffee industry is the income of coffee farmers and creating a wage which keeps the people who are doing it at the moment happy, but also entices new farmers, their children or a younger generation to come in and start coffee farming.”
With current commodity prices of coffee low, farmers are turning to more lucrative crops, or moving to the city in search of alternative economic opportunities. This is compounded by the complexities of coffee growing, which requires multiple inputs at the farming stage.
“It's really difficult for [coffee farmers] to work out what it costs them and the yields change every year, [and] costs, labor shortages, input, fertiliser, appliances, all of that is fluctuating,” highlighted Scheltus.
When buying from small holder farmers in particular, the lack of transparency and consistency in prices allows for exploitation by buyers to take place, and in buying direct, Scheltus and Market Lane seek to restore some balance into the relationship between buyer and grower.
“Listening to a producer where they say ‘We need this price for our coffee,’ I think that's a really good start. That's our approach, to go and listen to what they say and work out from our perspective whether that's viable, and obviously if we love the coffee we do try and make it work for us.”
Such a collaborative approach leads to a seasonal and dynamic range of coffees at Market Lane’s outlets, while also working at origin to ensure that the needs of coffee farmers are listening to, and not only when it comes to price. Market Lane supports social initiatives at origin that help coffee producers.
“When we talk to Ricardo Zalaya of Santa Clara in Guatemala he really stressed that one of the most useful things we could do is help the people who work on his farm, help their children be supported when they go to school,” recalled Scheltus. “For him that meant really basic things like buying books, buying clothes, making sure they have access to the right materials so they can go to school.”
In supporting this initiative, Market Lane connects to the place in which it operates, just as their Melbourne stores contribute to social initiatives such as Scarf, which provides hospitality mentoring and training to young people. It’s this connection with people in the communities they live in that defines Market Lane Coffee.