Hot in the suburbs: Community spirit on the menu at SV Coffee & Bakery in Lawson

Sovithyea ‘SV’ Sar was a cafe manager and an award-winning barista before the pandemic hit. When restrictions closed his workplace he found himself stuck at home with a small coffee machine.“

So I just made a coffee for my neighbour. And we were all staying at home so he would come over and I’d make coffee and eventually he said, ‘Why don’t you start a cafe here? There’s nothing else around’,” SV told Region.So SV bought a small shed to put on the corner of his block and started selling coffee to his neighbours with wife Zanine Te. 

Within two months the health department intervened. There were no options for SV to get a licence for his home cafe because the category simply didn’t exist. So SV wrote a post on social media explaining to his regular customers that the little neighbourhood coffee shop would have to close.

But the good people of Lawson really love their coffee, and it turns out they also love SV and Zanine. Hundreds of people started writing letters to local politicians to ask for their help to get SV Coffee back up and running. It wasn’t long before SV heard from ACT Health Minister Rachel Steven-Smith and within a few days their block had been rezoned, they had a licence and coffee was back on the menu.“It’s the power of the people that made this happen,” says SV.“It’s even on our signs: SV Coffee, the place the community belongs.”

Although he acknowledges it probably didn’t hurt that it was all happening during an election year.Despite the fairytale ending to their licensing woes, SV warns that there are still significant challenges for anyone thinking of doing the same in their own home. He says they are ideally positioned on a corner block, with no houses opposite which means that – despite their popularity – there is minimal disruption to the surrounding houses. Their closest neighbour is the one who suggested they start a cafe and has remained their most loyal customer.

These days SV Coffee & Bakery have moved into a custom-built coffee trailer out the front of their house and are also serving freshly baked muffins, cakes and a few breakfast items. SV’s wife Zanine is a pastry chef so she is also offering catering boxes and cakes for sale through their website.

Even as pandemic restrictions ease and people return to offices, the neighbourhood cafe has remained a hub of activity in Lawson, with plenty of repeat customers from locals and those travelling across suburbs for their excellent coffee, slices of green pandan coconut cake, and the friendly atmosphere.The morning I visited, SV was flagging down a garbage truck to offer the driver a cup of coffee, cheekily stalling them as he raced to put his bin out. The person mowing lawns on the verge across the road also had a coffee hand delivered by SV.These acts of generosity seem to be par for the course here. A regular customer commented that this was nothing unusual: “Oh yeah, he does that all the time.”

It’s the kind of cafe where the staff know your name, and the name of your dog and the names of your kids. There’s a real connection happening here as neighbours and friends meet regularly and the community is giving back to the cafe as well. The verge garden is cared for by a neighbour, and a few customers who are Justices of the Peace set up at a table regularly to sign documents.

SV and Zanine celebrate milestones like their permanent residency, birthdays, and anniversaries with their customers. During the month of Ramadan SV extended the opening hours past sunset for people who were fasting during the day. I commented on the large shelf of loyalty cards and SV told me:“We don’t use the word loyalty card, we say family card. Because when you’re family you support each other.”

SV Coffee and Bakery can be found at 23b Swagman St, Lawson, ACT.
They are open from 6:30 am to midday on Monday, 6:30 am to 2 pm Tuesday to Friday, and from 8 am to 3 pm on weekends.

Lucy Ridge