People & Human Resources

Melbourne café owners give refugees a fair shot in the coffee industry and believe other SMEs should do the same

Kirsten Robb /

Long Street Coffee is hoping to help refugees (Pictures: Gold and Grit Photography and Robyn Daly)

Small business owners could reap unexpected benefits from employing refugees, according to one Melbourne café owner.

Jane Marx, who is preparing to launch a social enterprise café to give employment opportunities to refugees with husband Francois within the next few months, told SmartCompany business owners would be surprised by the payoffs of training refugee applicants with no previous experience.

“Once you give somebody that first chance – and these people are very eager for that chance – all business owners would be quite pleasantly surprised what they get back from them [refugees],” says Marx.

Marx’s business, Long Street Coffee, housed down a laneway in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, will be the permanent bricks-and-mortar home of a program launched by the couple early last year, which saw them cater coffee for Melbourne’s popular Laneway music festival.

Due to open by March, Marx says the process of opening the café as a social enterprise has been much harder than the couple, who both comes from a long background in the hospitality industry, could have ever anticipated.

“We set out to start a small business, I didn’t even know what a social enterprise was,” she says.

Initially the pair decided to register the café as a not-for-profit to make their “motives clear”, but reneged on the idea after deciding the potential board, most of whom were refugee advocates, simply did not have the business acumen needed to run a small business.

“They were brilliant candidates for the board in terms of what they knew about refugee issues, but they didn’t know that much about running a small business,” Marx says.

“They knew nothing about wages and running costs. When we showed them budget and how much we wanted to pay the staff, they thought that was too much. That was the final straw, because I thought, if we work 70 hours a week to get this off the ground, I’m going to pay them what I want to pay them.”

Marx says the cafe will pay the staff the exact same wages any Australian might expect from a job in hospitality.

With Long Street Coffee now registered as a normal business, Marx says she and her husband will draw a wage from the café and put the remaining profit back into the business to teach and train more refugees.

The café has partnered with refugee settlement services that Marx says help to find the best candidates for the hospitality industry, such as those with high levels of English and an interest in coffee and food.

“[Finding refugees] is actually the easy part, there are lots of them out there,” says Marx, who spent time volunteering within the local refugee community in Melbourne with her husband.

Although Marx says there are several obstacles to employing people with little to no hospitality experience, such as extra training time and overcoming issues of confidence or cultural difference, Marx believes refugees bring an unrivalled work ethic to a business.

“Generally speaking, they are really hard working. We’ve found people who come from refugee backgrounds are generally survivors and not scared of hard work,” she says.

Marx says one of their employees at the Laneway festival, Dawa, a refugee from Tibet who has since gone on to find part-time work, showed a work ethic far beyond most hospitality employees.

“He was employed to work 10am to 5pm, but he stayed until quarter to one in the morning helping us pack up. We told him we couldn’t keep paying him, but he stayed and helped until the end, wanting to see the job through,” she says.

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Kirsten Robb

Kirsten Robb is a former journalist at SmartCompany. Previously, she worked at News Corp as a property reporter for Leader Newspapers and the Herald Sun, and holds a Masters of Journalism at Melbourne University.

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