Cultivating workplace culture: how migrants are enriching this Collingwood enterprise

Consumerism, fast fashion and immigration are issues that are fast becoming household discussions. The ever-increasing conversations surrounding these socio-economic and environmental topics are making them much harder to ignore.

As we all struggle to be better humans, to find a way to make a meaningful difference, one social-enterprise in Fitzroy has already done just that. For almost a decade, The Social Studio has been employing a globalisation of a different kind using an untapped resource many Australian employers are ignoring – individuals of migrant and refugee backgrounds.

In February of 2017 it was reported that the unemployment rate of East African and Middle Eastern immigrants was averaging 33 percent in the first five years of settlement; six times higher than the national average. While, most migrants will cite employment as an integral part of their settlement, they often face hurdles in getting into the Australian workforce.

The Social Studio, situated amongst the cultural crucible of Collingwood’s Smith Street is a not-for-profit social enterprise on a mission. Founded in 2009, what originally began as a provider of design and sewing classes has since evolved into a successful, multi-faceted organisation intent on improving the lives of those most marginalised in our community. According to CEO Eugenia Flynn, the enterprise’s objectives are simple; “We use the vehicle of a fashion and hospitality business including a clothing label, retail shop, digital printing studio, café and a catering business to create meaningful social change”.

Through its fashion label, textile studio, and café, The Social Studio employs young refugees and immigrants, or those hailing from migrant backgrounds, offering employment with a creative twist. Employees are encouraged to express and share their culture, forging links between refugee and migrant groups and the wider community. Clothes sold in the Social Studio’s Smith Street store are produced locally, with sustainable resources to minimise environmental impact. Designs are affordably priced and feature vibrant, bold prints with significant cultural meanings behind each piece. The adjoining café, The Cutting Table, is also staffed by young refugees and migrants and serves a menu featuring a blend of East and West African fare.

The label’s designs feature vibrant prints all produced locally and sustainably. Photo: Alice Wilson

In addition to providing employment opportunities, the Social Studio makes it possible for refugees to get certified within the areas of hospitality and design. “Our purpose is to create meaningful and long-term pathways into employment for young people from a refugee or migrant background, and who may have experienced barriers to accessing education and/or securing employment.” Says Ms Flynn. “We provide TAFE level training, work experience, volunteer opportunities and employment in fashion, manufacturing, retail and hospitality, creating imperative education and employment opportunities and pathways.”

Since its beginning, the Social Studio has provided education and employment for over 580 people from refugee and migrant backgrounds. One such individual who has benefited from this enterprise is Abuk Bol, who worked as a seamstress in Sudan before she came to Australia in 2004 as a refugee. Abuk came across the Social Studio, after several failed attempts to get into the Australian workforce. She has since gone on to work for Brunswick-based bridal designer Mariana Hardwick and is now the owner of her own enterprise, Twich Women’s Sewing Collective, which sells clothing and homewares in her home town of Dandenong. “I was interested in clothes making and wanted to do something that could get me a job, being an immigrant and hardly knowing English, I decided to do the Certificate III in clothing production with the Social Studio.”

Abuk’s story is a great example of how increasing just one persons skill set can, in turn, work towards increasing many. The Social Studio champions multiculturalism and demonstrates that these individuals contribute to, rather than diminish the economy. “I now have my own store and space where I can help women like me get certification and jobs.” Abuk says.  “I would like to provide women, especially ones in a minority, the opportunity to get an education and a job. Or just somewhere they feel they belong.”

The Social Studio and Cutting Table Cafe, located on Collingwood’s Smith St. Photo: Alice Wilson

This sense of belonging is perhaps the most important contribution the Social Studio provides. “For students it’s developing friendships and broadening their community, branching out and become more open to everyone else.” Says Helen Kelabora, a teacher for the Certificate III clothing course the Studio offers. The benefits of an organisation like the Social Studio are as diverse as the services they offer to those they employ and to the Yarra community. For Eugenia Flynn, the is much more work to be done, “we would love to consolidate our work across the past eight years and create a deeper social impact” and it’s through the help of the Yarra community that this can be achieved.

Written by Alice Wilson

Coffee date with: Sonam Sherpa

Shopfront Coffee is just as the name suggests: a small aesthetically designed shop-front cafe with space just for the beautiful white coffee machine and a handful of customers. The intimate space, designed and built by barista and owner Sonam Sherpa, invites conversation: a perfect fit for his vibrant and welcoming persona. With the myriad projects Sonam has on right now aside from his main gig Shopfront – we’re talking pop-up cafes and small sustainable farms – I was lucky to get in for a chat. Here’s what went down.

Yarra Reporter: So tell us about your background in coffee and how you got started in the industry.

Sonam Sherpa: So I started making coffee parallel to when I went to Uni. I started when I was about 19 and I kept doing it while I was at Uni, and then I traveled intermittently as well. I actually went to Uni for 7 years and made coffee at the same time. I got offered an opportunity to open a shop at the same time I was finishing Uni, so I thought I’d try and open a shop.

YR: What were you studying at University?

SS: I did my Masters in Landscape architecture. I still do stuff related to it; I’ve started a little farming project out in the Yarra Valley. So my studies do fold back into it, [for instance] I’ve designed and built all of the cafes I’ve opened.

YR: Where are the other cafes you’ve opened?

SS: There’s another one in Brunswick at the moment, It’s a pop-up called Phase One Coffee, and there’s another one out in the Yarra Valley called Manna Lane. (Like Manna Gums, an Australian eucalypt, he explains).

Shopfront coffee from the front. Photo: Roxanne Fitzgerald

YR: Where did you learn to make coffee?

SS: So my first job was at Gloria Jeans, that was just making coffee. Then when I was living in London I actually learned how to make coffee properly with some hard-core career baristas… that’s when it started. That [cafe] is called Climpson & Sons.

YR: How did you establish Shopfront?

SS: When my pop up on Smith Street (Place Holder) finished it was just logical to open up another [cafe] nearby. I was looking around this area for a space and I found this place for rent. I just went for it. (The old building was apparently previously a butcher, but now co-exists as apartments and the relatively new Shopfront Coffee).

YR: What is it you love about the coffee industry? (Customers walk in for a coffee just as I finish my question and he greets them enthusiastically).

SS:  This part. Hanging out, catching up with everyone, the social aspect. That’s why you do it. If you don’t like people, then you’re in the wrong industry.

YR: And on the flip side, what don’t you like?

SS: Probably the early starts. You kind of miss out on a fair bit if you’re starting work at 6:30 every morning. And then you have to go to bed early. I live with my girlfriend, and it would be nice to wake up with her and do stuff with her in the morning before going out to start the day. We have people who come in and they have their morning coffee together before they go out and start their day. I miss that I reckon.

YR: If you could work anywhere in the world as a barista where would it be?

SS: I would really like to try Mexico. It’s a heavily prolific coffee producing area and you get to eat Mexican food!

YR: Have you ever dabbled in roasting and would that be of interest to you?

SS: I’ve seen enough of it, done enough. I’ve been into different producing areas, like, I’ve been to Kenya and other coffee farms. The roasting part doesn’t really have any interaction with people, which is what I enjoy. I completely respect it as an art. But for me, it’s not thrilling.

YR: What do you think makes a good barista?

SS: A good attitude and a steady hand.

Baristas at Shopfront. Photo: Roxanne Fitzgerald

YR: If you weren’t making coffee what would you be doing?

SS: I’d love to be a dive instructor, I think that would be awesome! I love to go diving and snorkeling. A tour guide or something would be fun as well.

YR: Where’s your favourite place to get a coffee?

SS: There’s a place around here called Long Street Coffee. I love those guys. Whenever I’ve got a day off I go there. They’re such nice people and what they’re doing is really respectable. Not many people are that ethically minded.

YR: What’s next for Sonam Sherpa?

SS: Next up I’m starting a furniture trading company with my partner. Just to spice things up a little.

Written by Roxanne Fitzgerald 

Coffee date with: Ruby Kerrison

Meet 20-year-old Ruby Kerrison, the super sweet and positively vibed barista at Richmond’s slightly outlying cafe Long Street Coffee. In a converted garage – complete with the industrial-minimalist look Melbournians love and basketball hoop out front – Long Street serves up sensationally good coffee using beans from Proud Mary and fights for positive social change with a hospitality traineeship that empowers refugees and people seeking asylum.

Yarra Reporter: So tell us a little bit about Long Street

Ruby Kerrison: So, Long Street [opened] last year and it was started by Jane and Francois Marx. They started it because they wanted to use their activism for refugees and channel that in a way that has real life outcomes for people. So, the principles of Long Street are that we offer paid hospitality traineeships for refugees [and asylum seekers] so they gain real life hospitality skills in Melbourne, which is awesome because it also gets them used to this dynamic hospitality industry that we have in Melbourne.

YR: How many trainees are involved in Long Street?

RK: So we have [3-month long] traineeships. At the moment I work with a girl called Malisha from Papua New Guinea.  She [works] two days a week and then we’ve also got another person who comes in on the weekends; I only work with Malisha. We start them out on the floor and from on the floor we start teaching them about filter coffees and get them working their way up to the coffee machine. They get to experience everything. [I get] to help with training, which has been awesome, and we all do coffee training at Market Lane. There is definitely an emphasis on how much of a team we are.

Entrance to Long Street Coffee. Photo: Roxanne Fitzgerald
Entrance to Long Street Coffee. Photo: Roxanne Fitzgerald

YR: How did you start working at Long Street?

RK: I found an add and had a couple of trials. It just worked out perfectly well for me. The values here are in line with my values because I’m quite passionate about social justice as well. It’s really awesome to be part of a team that’s all on the same level [and] all want the same thing. [We are all] really passionate about providing an awesome service for people and also creating a community of sorts. It’s just an awesome place to work.

YR: Where did you learn to make coffee?

RK: I worked at a cafe previously for a year. It definitely wasn’t like this – as in they didn’t have a strong set of values. Here we have a real emphasis on being professional and also being individual. I learned to make coffee in my first job and I got used to working independently because it was quite a small cafe. [Long Street] is bigger, so it has been good to be able to up my skills both in volume and also consistency. Francois has been making coffee for maybe 10 years, so he’s been able to really guide me through and, like, tell me how I’m going, and basically train me.

Inside Long Street Coffee, where staying for a while and relaxing is encouraged. Photo: Roxanne Fitzgerald
Inside Long Street Coffee, where staying for a while and relaxing is encouraged. Photo: Roxanne Fitzgerald

YR: What’s your favourite part of your day working at Long Street?

RK: I genuinely love coming to work with the people I work with. It’s such an awesome place to be because my colleagues are great people. North Richmond kind of feels small because we have so many regulars and we’ve created a nice little community. The other night we had our Christmas party [with] all of the regulars and it was so lovely to hang out with everyone. It was just nice and super chilled.

YR: And the worst part?

RK: I’m super prone to anxiety, so whenever it gets busy I do tend to get a bit flustered, however… always improving.

YR: If you weren’t making coffee at Longstreet what would you be doing?

RK: I’m also working at a Call Centre, which is all right, but I honestly much prefer doing this…[I love] being in this fast-paced environment, working with people, helping people, and really feeling like you’re getting something from other people.

YR: Do you see yourself doing this for the foreseeable future?

RK: I reckon so. I’m also studying Gender Studies and Australian Indigenous Studies at Melbourne University at the moment, but I have no concrete plans in terms of a career. Right now I’m really happy doing this because I feel comfortable and I’ve finally found the perfect balance with uni, work and having a social life.

YR: Awesome, so you study, you work at Longstreet and the call centre, what do you do in your spare time?

RK: Okay, what do I do… I love reality TV. I’m also a ferocious reader. I’ve been getting into pottery a bit, which has been really awesome, I also just, like, enjoy getting out and cycling. I’ve just moved house, so I’ve been enjoying getting out and about and exploring.

YR: Where is your favourite place to grab a coffee?

RK: I live in North Melbourne and at the moment I’m really enjoying going to Counter, which I’m pretty sure is owned by Auction Rooms, but it’s a much smaller place. It’s really lovely, though, super chilled – not as busy.

YR: What’s next for Ruby Kerrison?

RK: Oh my gosh, I don’t know. I think I’m going to do Honours in Gender Studies. Hopefully. And then go travelling a bit. But, in terms of the next year I’m so happy to be working [at Long Street Coffee] and studying. I feel like I’m in a really good place at the moment.

Read more about Long Street Coffee here.


Written by Roxanne Fitzgerald

Coffee date with: Olmer Bollinger

Olmer Bollinger
Olmer Bollinger, Head Barista at Industry Beans.

Tucked behind Fitzroy’s trendy Brunswick Street, among some of the best street art in Melbourne, is Industry Beans – a roastery and award-winning cafe in one. Within the old warehouse that Industry Beans calls home, the kitchen serves up seasonal food that is described as refined and progressive, and coffee travels mere meters from the in-house roaster to cup. Behind the counter, serving up some of Melbourne’s best coffee is 29-year-old Olmer Bollinger: Barista and Roaster. We were lucky enough to score five minutes with him to chat about Melbourne coffee and his love of the job.

Yarra Reporter: How did you get into coffee?

Olmer Bollinger: I’m from Wellington in New Zealand, I started making coffee there at our family-owned cafe, Ministry of Food, using Allpress coffee. I’ve been making coffee on and off since then. I’ve done a bit of bar work, but I always come back to coffee. When I started out I didn’t really expect to still be doing it now.

When I started at Industry Beans I got more into the technical side of coffee and just got really into it from there. I liked that it was treated the same way that I’d seen cocktails and wine treated at bars that I’ve worked at, and once I was working with people who knew enough about it to teach me about it, it just took off.

YR: How long have you worked at Industry Beans?

OB: Over two years

YR: What is the best part of your day?

OB: Well lunch here is always awesome. They look after us real good. I smash the burgers here, they are both really good; the chicken and the wagyu beef. Most of us here have to put restrictions on ourselves to how many we’re allowed to eat a week. I allow myself one of each a week. That’s it. If you see the burgers you’ll see what I mean. They’re massive.

YR: What about the best part of the job?

OB: I always enjoy learning and I enjoy the challenges. At the moment I have a dual role: learning how to roast, as the most junior in the roastery, and then out the front I’m the head barista. So in one element I’m learning and the other one I’m teaching. I guess it’s just that transferral of knowledge that I find really awesome. And I get to drink delicious coffee all day.


YR: And on the flip side, the worst?

OB: Hmm … (there is a long pause and I’m about to scrap the question and let him off the hook when he says,) Large milk spills are really annoying. We have a machine called the juggler, it basically has a bunch of trays holding about 10 litres of milk each. If one of those bursts, it’s not pretty. And cleaning out the flues sucks, (he points behind me to large silver chimney-like pipes climbing up the wall above the roaster.) It’s basically exhaust from the roaster that builds up with oils and we have to get up on the giant ladder and clean it with a chimney sweep.

YR: If you could work anywhere in the world as a barista where would it be?

OB: Melbourne definitely. I’ve worked as a barista in New York and New Zealand and now here in Melbourne and my experience here has just been awesome. In New York I worked at a couple of places: a little cafe called Oatmeal in Greenwich Village, Public bar and Public restaurant.

YR: Where is your favourite place in the City of Yarra to grab a coffee?

OB: I really like Assembly, I haven’t been to their new place, but whenever I manage to get over to the old one in Carlton it’s always great.

YR: What about it do you like?

OB: It’s got a really nice vibe. They treat coffee with respect. I like that they showcase coffee from outside of Melbourne that I don’t get to try very often too.

YR: And what would you be drinking at said place?

OB: I mix it up, I can’t really go past either a short black or a pour over.

YR: If you weren’t making coffee what would you be doing?

OB: Well, I used to work in interior design, but I don’t think I’d be doing that. If I wasn’t doing this I’d probably be playing music or teaching.

YR: You play music? What do you play?

OB: I play lots of things, but guitar has always been my main instrument.

YR: What do you think makes a good Barista?

OB: Caring about it. Caring about the quality of coffee. Attention to detail. You get people who let a lot of shit slide and that can be a problem with quality control. I guess as well, the ability to keep calm under pressure is key. It sort of depends on where you work. There are lots of different environments and different baristas are better suited to certain roles. Here, for example, we’re quite a high-volume place but at the same time we have a very strict level of quality control. We don’t let sub-standard coffees go out. A lot of high-volume places don’t go to the same effort. It is pretty difficult but we’re also blessed with really great staff.

YR: Most ridiculous coffee order you have ever received?

OB: We get a lot of ridiculous orders. I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but we have tasting notes on our menu, right, (we open up the elaborate coffee menu, to take a look, showcasing coffee from around the world) and people misinterpret the menu sometimes and think the tasting notes are actually things that we’re adding to the coffee. They’ll ask for the “Fitzroy Street” without the plum. I mean it’s not that ridiculous, the coffee menu is pretty full on.

Coffee Menu

YR: Who are you listening to right now?

OB: I listen to a lot of old ’70s disco stuff, like a few of my friends DJ that music and I’ve just gotten really into it. My friend’s band from LA, Roses, are really good, and Frank Ocean’s new album is pretty cool too.

YR: What’s next for Olmer Bollinger?

OB: I’ve always wanted to go to outer space. Maybe I’ll get to that one day. Other than that I just take it day by day. Eventually, like everyone else who’s been working in hospitality as long as I have envisions opening up their own place … I haven’t conceived the idea yet. I’m still at that point of accumulating knowledge to the point where I feel comfortable and really ready to do it. Up until then I’m really just content working somewhere I enjoy myself and I feel like I’m still learning and I’m surrounded by people who know more than me. In that situation, I feel happy and I feel like I can progress.