Coffee, COVID and Community

How a makeshift cafe in a suburban front yard became a hub for the community

Early one morning in the first anxious days of Canberra’s coronavirus lockdown, two men rang a doorbell in the greenfield suburb of Lawson. “Isn’t there a coffee shop here?” they asked, confused, when the door opened. The men had expected to find a cafe rather than a normal, unassuming family home. Nevertheless, those two men would become SV Coffee & Bakery’s first ever customers. And on that first day of trading, Sovithyea “SV” Sar would sell a grand total of two coffees.

Six months later, as summer approaches and the city cautiously returns to some version of “normal” life, the front porch of SV’s rented house has turned into an unlikely community hub for the residents of Lawson. 

If it weren’t for a couple of signs and some mismatched outdoor furniture, SV Coffee & Bakery would be hard to spot. But on closer inspection you notice spent coffee grounds fertilising the patchy grass on the nature strip and hear pop music coming from a bluetooth speaker on an extension cord running from inside. Take a few stairs down from the gate and you’ll feel steam blasting from an espresso machine inside a kit shed on the porch.For locals like Mihir Shah, a postgraduate student at the University of Canberra, SV Coffee & Bakery is an essential part of his suburb. Mihir discovered the cafe during the COVID-19 lockdown and is now a regular customer. He could drink five coffees a day if he let himself, but one of SV’s triple-shot iced caramel lattes each morning does just fine.

Were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, Lawson residents might still be without a local caffeine fix. At the start of the year, SV was managing a chain of well-known cafes, working long hours taking care of stock control and rosters. But when COVID-19 struck and forced him to re-assess his priorities, he decided to take a risk and start his own business.

SV is seriously passionate about coffee. He’ll talk to you forever about selecting the right beans, grinding them to perfection, and the exact number of seconds to let the espresso extract. Sitting on a shelf of his shed is a trophy for coming third in the National Barista Championship Finals.If starting a small business is risky at the best of times, then opening a new hospitality joint in the first weeks of a global pandemic might be akin to madness. But SV believed in himself.“I trust myself because I trust my skill in coffee,” he says. “I know that customers would drink my coffee.”Lawson is one of Canberra’s newest suburbs. A mixture of low- and medium-density housing with front gardens and nature strips still not looking completely established. The suburb is built around a central treeless hill with a couple of walking paths and a children’s playground. The closest facilities are in neighbouring Kaleen. Needless to say, there’s never been a cafe in Lawson.

With his letter of resignation submitted, SV and his wife got to work setting up the business. They installed a coffee machine in the front room of their house and purchased baking ingredients in bulk. SV would take charge of the coffee and his wife would look after the sweets. SV designed and printed a pile of advertising leaflets to let the neighbours know about their new local coffee shop.“I got my scooter and I letterboxed all houses in Lawson, one by one,” he remembers. “I wrote a letter which said, ‘please do not mind, I know that this letter should not belong to your letterbox because it says no junk mail but I really need your help.’”

SV Coffee & Bakery slowly but surely built a loyal clientele of dozens of regulars from the streets of Lawson and beyond. As part of his focus on customer service, SV even did COVID-safe home delivery on his scooter to residents stuck in self-isolation, taking their order via text message and leaving the coffee on top of their letterbox.After a couple of months, SV decided to move the cafe outside because he knew that trading from inside the house would not be sustainable in the longer term. He bought a kit shed and installed it on the front porch of the house. And with COVID-19 restrictions now relaxed, he placed a few chairs and tables on the artificial grass front lawn for customer seating.

“I’m on long-service leave at the moment and it’s now part of my routine. I get up, I come here, chat to whoever’s here. Sometimes there’s other doggies. And I’ve also got a friend who’s working from home and once a week we come down and we’ll just sit out the front and have a chat. She’s got a colleague in Lawson and they’re both working from home feeling a bit isolated. But they can come here and have a meeting because it’s local.”Leesa Herbert and Sparky

As winter wore on, business thrived — from those two lonely coffees on day one of trading, SV was now selling 150 a day. But in August, ACT Government authorities visited SV after receiving a complaint. They informed SV that he could only trade as a mobile food service and advised him to buy a van and park it out the front. SV and his wife weren’t in a position to make such an investment so they reluctantly decided to close the cafe until a solution could be found.Regular customer Will Redmond remembers learning about the closure via social media. “It was crazy,” he says. “First thing we heard is he posted on Facebook and said he had to close down. We thought, ‘nup, this isn’t good enough.’”

SV’s customer army swung into action, launching a letter writing campaign to the ACT health minister, while a local political candidate lobbied on SV’s behalf. Quite quickly, with resident sentiment clear, the government offered a solution. SV was given a list of modifications he needed to make to his setup and procedures which would allow a license to be granted.A couple of tradie customers donated their time and skills to properly plumb and wire the shed. Takeaway containers were stocked for the home-cooked muffins and slices of cake so they weren’t placed into customers’ bare hands. Government inspectors returned and gave everything a tick. In the space of less than two weeks, SV’s front yard coffee-van-without-wheels went from shut down to officially licensed.

“To be honest, that was one of the best things about [the closure]. It meant the community had to buy into it. Everyone’s got their little investment in it because they wrote their letter or helped build the shed out there.”Will Redmond

Since the re-opening, SV’s customers have continued to support the cafe. One recently gave him a portable air conditioning unit for the shed which will be crucial over the coming summer. Others gave him a greenhouse and seedlings for the front landing — SV loves to take his customers’ kids in there to smell the chocolate mint and check on the progress of the strawberries. Now that the cafe is safely established, SV would like to start a franchise and expand his passion to other under-serviced areas of the city.

It’s only after chatting for a while that you learn that in addition to being a champion barista, SV was once a university law lecturer and the coach of a soccer team. For a relatively young man, he has achieved much. But what really drives SV is running initiatives and raising money to help children who live in poverty and lack opportunity in Cambodia. It’s those projects that get him out of bed in the morning.“This is a long story,” he says, “but to make it short … whatever I do here, I want to help kids.”SV hopes that it will be possible to travel to Cambodia in early 2021 to visit the many children who benefit from his various enterprises. But right now, he couldn’t be happier working 16-hour days brewing and baking for the little community he built in Lawson.Asked if any of this would’ve happened if it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, SV pauses and thinks hard for a few moments.

“I am happy, to be honest, for COVID-19 to happen for me. Not for Australia, not for the world, but for myself. I was too tired. I would just keep going without thinking about it too much. So, I stepped back and realised that I should do something better. So, I’m happy for COVID-19 to come and stop me."

Coffee, COVID and Community

Words and pictures
Scott Bridges

13 October, 2020