Yesterday afternoon, Victorian high-school students flooded into Tara Conron’s Aberfeldie cafe with apologies and condolences, having minutes earlier stepped out of their VCE English exam.
“We had no idea what was going on,” the small business owner told SmartCompany.
But then, moments later, the negative reviews started to flood in.
“Burnt, bland coffee. The wifi was free but those teenagers and twenty-somethings were slowing it down with their tablets. Also, it doesn’t fit in with the vibrant streetscape in my opinion,” wrote one reviewer.
“I’m serious you are responsible for my ATAR,” wrote another.
These oddly specific negative reviews were due to a devastating blunder by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), which manages and writes the questions for Victoria’s high school exam curriculum.
In this year’s English exam, a question featured a local cafe called Calmer Coffee, where students were asked to analyse a scathing review left of the cafe. The review included accusing the cafe of having burnt coffee and “tablet-wielding employees” with man buns.
“Calmer Coffee is another example of an ever-creeping shift toward soulless franchises that can be found in airports around the world,” the exam question read.
As VCE exam questions go, it’s not the weirdest, but those who wrote the question failed to take into account Conron’s business, which shares a remarkably similar name to the fake cafe: Calmer Cafe.
Within minutes, the business was ambushed by hundreds of VCE students leaving the cafe poor reviews, some believing the cafe in the exam was the same as the real one in Alberfeldie. Calmer’s Google business rating quickly dropped from near five stars to under 3.5.
“We’ve got about five high schools in walking distance of where we are. We didn’t know until one of the students showed us the question and we started getting all these Facebook messages,” the owner says.
The business has tried to counteract the negative reviews by offering any VCE student who mentions “that exam question” a free coffee, but Conron says its too early to know if it will swing the pendulum back in their favour.
“I’m hoping that post will get shared and we’ll save a bit of business,” she says.
“I’m studying for my own uni exams at the moment, I don’t need this shit.”
“I just want to return to business as normal.”
Conron says she has contacted the VCAA via her lawyers, and also says the authority has tried to contact the business many times, calling up her staff who don’t know how to respond.
“We’re trying to see what can be done, but obviously it can’t be taken back now,” she says.
In a statement to SmartCompany, a VCAA spokesperson said it had been in contact with the cafe and understood the negative posts “caused the business considerable effort and inconvenience”.
“The VCAA had checked and confirmed that there was no registered business with the name ‘Calmer Coffee’ prior to today’s examination,” the spokesperson said.
“The VCAA has apologised for the inadvertent similarity in business names that led to the surge of social media and web posts, and has offered its assistance to have these posts removed as soon as possible.”