Why it’s so hard to get a coffee in Melbourne after 3pm
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It is a conundrum that has long perplexed international visitors and bleary-eyed afternoon workers in Melbourne’s CBD.
In a city renowned for being one of the most coffee-obsessed places on Earth, why is it so hard to find a cafe that’s open past mid-afternoon?
Market Lane co-founder Fleur Studd says there’s a growing market of people wanting coffee later in the day.Credit: Eddie Jim
Fleur Studd, co-founder of Market Lane Coffee, said Melbourne’s coffee scene was unlike any in the world and closely tied to the local foodie culture.
While other cities enjoyed their espressos and lattes as a pick-me-up later in the day, mornings ruled for Melbourne’s caffeine addicts.
“We’ve got a big brunch culture in Melbourne,” Studd said.
“How we consume coffee has definitely been anchored to our breakfast and lunch culture developed over many years. People meet over coffee and connect at those times.”
At Tukk and Co on Bourke Street in Docklands, metres away from corporate offices for NAB and Medibank, there is a mad surge for takeaway coffee that starts at 7.45am each weekday.
Cafe manager Suwadis Chantakam calls it the “super rush”.
“I have lost count of how many coffees I make in the morning,” Chantakam said.
But by the middle of the afternoon, Chantakam said the cafe was a ghost town.
Like many cafes across the city, Tukk and Co closes its doors at 3pm, Tuesday to Thursday, and 2pm on Mondays and Fridays.
“We have tried staying open later, but there is just nobody around,” Chantakam said. “It is not financially viable.”
It’s a far cry from the diners in the United States, famous for pouring big mugs of filter coffee at all hours.
So, why is Melbourne’s cafe culture so different to other places in the world?
“In New York, coffee shops often act like a third living room,” Studd said. “They are a communal space because people are often living in tiny apartments or very condensed living situations.”
Five places to get coffee after 5pm in Melbourne:
Brunetti Classico, Carlton: open until 10pm Sunday to Thursday and 11.30pm Friday and Saturday
Pellegrini’s, Melbourne CBD: open until 9pm most weekdays and 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays
Puzzle Coffee, Melbourne CBD: open until 6pm Monday to Friday and closes 7 pm Saturday to Sunday
International Cakes, Melbourne CBD: open until 10pm Sunday to Thursday, midnight Fridays and 1am on Saturdays
Cathedral Coffee, Melbourne CBD: open until 11pm Wednesday to Saturday
American-style cafes were overflowing with power points to plug in laptops, allowing people to work remotely, she said.
“They play a different role in New York and I think are active at different times of day because of the nature of that.”
Australia’s coffee scene, born out of the influx of European migrants decades ago, is driven by small operators and independent cafes that open early in the morning, producing high-quality coffee.
Fabio Angele, owner of Brunetti Classico.
Other countries are dominated by major chains, such as Starbucks, that operate for longer hours.
Fabio Angele, director of Brunetti Classico on Lygon Street in Carlton and at Melbourne Airport, is filled with a sense of nostalgia when he reflects on the bygone era of Melbourne’s home of Italian cuisine.
He remembered when the world-famous strip would thrum late into the night with hundreds of people sitting outside at cafes, sipping coffee.
“Thirty years ago, every second place was a coffee shop,” he said.
“But times have changed. The number of people that get takeaway coffees in Melbourne now is just astronomical. In Italy, that just doesn’t happen – people sit at the cafe and have their coffee.”
In Asian countries, there are a growing number of late-night cafes popping up, driven by a trend in socialising over a dessert accompanied by coffee, hot chocolate or matcha.
Studd noticed during a trip to Japan that many coffee shops did not open until 9am – a trend she attributed to people brewing their initial morning coffee at home.
But the coronavirus pandemic has also shifted how Melburnians consume coffee. Traders are increasingly observing micro-trends: people are wanting coffee later, gravitating to booming suburban cafes, or just brewing their own at home.
“There’s definitely a growing market that is now seeking out a coffee later in the day and they are baffled by the Melburnian culture to shut a coffee shop at 4pm,” Studd said.
Studd says Melbourne’s speciality coffee scene is unlike any other in the world.Credit: Eddie Jim
There are plenty out there who want a late-night caffeine hit.
Angele said he was considering extending Brunetti Classico’s opening hours until midnight on Fridays, due to roaring night trade.
Market Lane Coffee, which has eight locations, is also paying close attention to shifting customer behaviour based on location. Its Collins Street cafe in the CBD closes at 2pm, while the Queen Victoria and South Melbourne markets stores close at 4pm.
But when Market Lane opened its Sydney Road cafe in Brunswick in 2020, customers were still pouring in for coffee after 3pm, prompting them to extend the opening hours until 5pm.
Market Lane also installed a 24-hour vending machine in Brunswick, packed full of coffee beans and filter papers. Their data shows people are coming to buy coffee even after midnight.
Bill Bitz, the owner of International Cakes on Lonsdale Street, said the daytime rush for coffee had never recovered from COVID-19 lockdowns. But night trade was the busiest he’d seen it in the more than 50 years he had worked there.
His peak hours are between 8pm and 1am. People who have gone to the cinema or out for dinner flock to his warmly lit store, where shelves are full of Greek-style sweets including chocolate pistachio rolls and baklava.
“We get all different customers at night,” the 73-year-old Greek-born pastry chef said. “We have lots of Asian customers, Italians, Greeks, you name it.”
Bill Bitz, owner of International Cakes, says demand for coffee is booming in the evenings.Credit: Justin McManus
The most popular dessert is the galaktoboureko, a creamy baked custard pastry. The beverage of choice for night owls is a latte.
“Demand for takeaway coffee and cakes at night is now at the point I can’t keep up,” Bitz said. “But it is the best job. I love the people I get to meet.”
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