Salvatore Malatesta has been both a pioneer and keen observer of Melbourne’s cafe scene for the best part of two decades.
As owner of the St Ali cafe empire, he is credited with leading both the second and third wave coffee movements, which has seen Australian coffee lovers flock to cafes in search of meticulously sourced, premium roasted single-origin, single-estate and even micro-lot coffee.
In that time, he has also seen a significant increase in the number of people using his cafes not just as a meeting place but as an office space – or a "coffice" – part coffee shop, part office. In fact, he’s one of them.
“I have an office but I spend about three hours a week there,” he laughs. “I have an iPad Pro so I can flick it open and work from anywhere.”
He’s not alone. A recent survey by the International Workplace Group (IWG) found almost 50 per cent of Australian employees work remotely for at least half of the week, while more than two-thirds work at least one a day a week outside the office.
Malatesta says the rise of the coffice worker – a growing breed of remote workers who sit on their laptops taking up valuable cafe space, sometimes for several hours and often sipping on little more than tap water and a couple of single-blend lattes – has created a “delicate opera of navigating commercial needs with community love.”
“We encourage people to move on when we need to, and at other times, when it’s quieter we encourage them to stay on. It’s a fine balance between being commercial and being community minded," Malatesta says.
“In saying that, most of our customers who come in to work will offer to move themselves if they notice it’s getting busy. And they certainly don’t come in with their laptops at 10am on a Sunday morning.”
Ben Rosenberg, who opened Freelancer Cafe in St Kilda in February last year, is more forthright about the impact coffice workers are having on cafes.
“It’s not great for business," he says. "Let's be honest."
"I’m lucky I don’t have very high overheads, but if you’re running a cafe and you’re paying a staff member $30 an hour to work the floor and you’ve got a guy sitting on their laptop and one coffee for two hours it doesn’t make a lot of business sense when you could be turning that table over three or four times. That's much more viable as a business owner.”
“But I certainly don’t discourage it. It’s just what happens now,” he says. “I’m happy for people to come in and do their work. If they order two coffees, it doesn’t bother me. If they order one, it doesn’t bother me. And if I need a table they generally can see that and they’ll get up and move.”
Rosenberg, however, is benefiting from Australia’s ever-growing nomadic workforce in other ways. He set up his cafe at the front of co-working space, Engine House, which seats up to 100 freelancers, start-ups, and small business owners.
“It was a really attractive location for me because it gave me a ready-made customer base,” he says. “I’ve got a guaranteed 60 people coming though my door every day... You need that guaranteed foot traffic these days… it’s too hard to turn a profit otherwise.”
Rosenberg adds that during quieter times of the day, having coffice workers in your cafe “can create a certain vibe and make the cafe look busier and more inviting.”
Malatesta is also cashing in on the boom in remote workers and the so-called ‘gig economy’. In addition to his multi-million dollar cafe empire, he runs Studio Everything – a co-working space across the road from his flagship St Ali cafe in South Melbourne, which hosts a range of creative professionals from architects to festival organisers.
“We charge $100 a week per desk and that includes everything from photocopying to WiFi and they also get a 50 per cent discount at St Ali,” he says. “And it also means I get to surround myself with some really great creative minds.”
A growing number of cafes, like Rocker, in North Bondi, are renting out their tables to remote workers on days when their venues are either quiet or closed.
Rocker, which also operates as a restaurant and bar, has teamed up with Aussie start-up TwoSpace to enable nomadic workers to use a designated area within the venue during office hours. Workers pay a subscription to use TwoSpace venues, who provide services such as power leads and high-speed internet connection. Rocker takes a percentage of that subscription.
"It works really well for us because we get a few extra people in each day and they'll buy coffees and lunch and it becomes a bit of a local for them, so they'll often come back with friends for dinner or drinks in the evening," says Rocker co-owner Stuart Toon.
"Sometimes it's not a huge spend but it fills the void and puts bums on seats during those quieter periods. So it's a win-win, especially because we are seeing this trend for more and more people working out of the traditional office space and seeking out cafes as temporary work places."