When I first made my way to the family run Meni Cafe back in 2013 for coffee, the space was just one room to the naked eye, or my eye at least. An espresso bar almost, with food available. But now, a few years on, Meni Cafe has grown, and has seen not one, but two extensions since opening its doors.
Running Mecca Espresso’s Dark Horse blend and their always changing single origins (currently an Ethiopian Duromina), Meni Cafe have built a solid reputation when it comes to specialty coffee.
Food is also a big part of the cafe, with love a star ingredient throughout the menu. Expect hearty pots of beans, fans of avocado mash, poached eggs and all that the breakfast celebs punters cherish, in a homely, Spanish fashion.
Owned and operated by sisters, Ximena Jaque and Raquel Jaque, the siblings are the faces of Meni Cafe, with Ximena – or Meni for short – mainly focusing on coffee and Raquel on the other side of the cafe, while their mother and aunty hold fort in the kitchen.
Situated across from Wollongong Hospital, you will often find doctors, interns and nurses at the cafe – and all other folk from all around Wollongong coming in to sit on the dapper leather lounge or on one of the three communal tables for coffee, food and a friendly conversation with Meni, Raquel and brother-come-manager, Harley Jaque.
Meni and I sat down together for a chat about her cafe and things alike.
When did you first really get into coffee?
I was 18. I dropped out of uni and started out as a dishy and becoming really passionate in the cafe I worked at. They chucked me on the coffee machine, which I didn’t like at first but then I realised how much I enjoyed it.
Your cafe started off as more of an espresso bar and has now expanded into the space we see before us. When you first opened, did you imagine the cafe to grow this much or was it natural progression?
I didn’t expect it at all. I think it was something that we did because we had to. If it was up to me I would still have it a third of the size. When we started, we said if we have a coffee machine, coffee cups and some chairs we will be fine. That’s what we set out to do but it just grew.
What was the greatest challenge when it came to expanding?
We were mostly worried about extending while still taking on what we initially created, and fitting in with what customers would be happy with. The first extension it went really well, so there was a certain expectation.
Coffee and the coffee culture has obviously evolved over the years. How have you seen it change since opening your own cafe and have you had to adapt to it?
We have constantly evolved since we opened. We started off as a cafe that served one blend through one grinder and one coffee machine. People striving for great coffee is something that was never a thing five years ago. It was coffee is coffee, coffee is just bitter, coffee is that morning drink that wakes you up.
Where as now coffee has become so much more, especially to people in Wollongong. We’ve been a little bit behind as a town or city. You go to Melbourne and there’s filter coffee and there’s espresso bars dedicated to just coffee.
You don’t see that around here. That’s still to come. We still have a long way to go when it comes to coffee and educating people about it – experiencing coffee as itself and not just part of a cafe, rather on its own.
As far as coffee goes in your cafe, have your customers adapted and become willing to try it’s different forms opposed to the usual cappuccino or latte?
Definitely. People see it as something on its own now. It’s not just a cappuccino, with extra froth and extra chocolate. It’s sort of like, ‘what am I drinking’, ‘what is coffee without sugar’ and ‘what is coffee without milk’ – something that was never really considered.
We’ve found even with our location being so close to the hospital, people are busy but we’ve still found a happy medium with talking about coffee and people appreciate it.
So coffee is becoming more enjoyable rather than a need.
For sure. It’s still a need and people want coffee and want it quick, but there is a new appreciation. It’s nice that the standard is raised and people are starting to appreciate it.
Would you say your focus is coffee or have you found that food is a big part of your business as well?
Opening up we were young individuals and young in the coffee industry. Initially, coffee was our driving passion and it still is, but coming into hospitality and learning more about it, it goes beyond just your cup of coffee.
We strive for excellent customer service and the staff that we have meet those standards. On top of that, the food – using good quality produce and serving great food.
We have my mum and aunty in the kitchen, so its all genuine food if you can say it like that – what we’ve grown up with, what we’ve eaten at home. Love is sort of what we serve. Love is number one. Coffee and food is a bonus.
If you had to pick your favourite item of food on the menu, what would it be?
The ‘Breaky Bowl’. It’s got sprouted lentils, quinoa and rocket, and then its topped with roast pumpkin, a slaw and vinaigrette. Also, feta and a poached egg, but being vegan I take that off.
It must be tough being a vegan and owning a cafe?
It makes it hard. You have to cater to people. In time, I’d like to push vegan food and gluten-free food a bit more. It’s definitely hard trying to integrate it into your menu. Not impossible but hard.
Although you’re not based in the centre of Wollongong, your cafe is often very busy. Did it take a while to get the customer base you have today?
Yes and no. Not to be said in a boastful way, but we were busy straight off bat because of our location being so close to the hospital. Although it has taken time to get anybody not from the hospital on board.
We’re on the upper side of town, so people have to walk up a hill if they’re in town to see us. We’ve seen our customer base grow as far as variety of customers.
That being said, the cafe has a very warm and friendly feel to it with a real sense of friendship with the customers. Since expanding and becoming busier, how have you managed to maintain that feel?
It was initially hard when we expanded and when we took on more space. Not so much to greet and talk to people, but to be sort of involved with each customer. In saying that, we’ve had to counter that with more staff – and we’ve got really great staff who know how to do that.
At the end of the day, we do want a relationship with our customers.