Our Story

CAFE LAB

Café Lab is a group of hospitality professionals specializing in helping café owners make the most of their businesses.

It was founded by Fiona Smart, an expert in all facets of café operation and a contributor to the evolution of Australian café culture for more than 25 years.

The Cafe Lab team can offer expert advice on everything from designing and starting up a cafe to refreshing or rebooting your business. We also offer barista training, as well as owner and leadership coaching to help you get the most from your cafe, and along with our network of collaborators we can help you with every aspect of your business, from marketing and social media strategy to business analysis.


Our Story in Cafes

Fiona has established, owned and operated 4 successful cafes.

The first two in Melbourne were Espresso Bar in St Kilda and Las Chicas in Balaclava, the latter became known as  one of the best cafes in the city.

Moving back to her hometown of Newcastle in 2007, she opened two more with her husband Phil, Rolador in Hamilton and Saluna in the CBD.

ESPRESSO BAR

Espresso Bar had been an iconic 90s cafe that had since become a failing business at the tail end of a 15 year lease.  With 18 months left on the lease and at a minimal cost, it was an easy decision to take it on.

In this prime Acland St location, the business was turned around within weeks, with no changes to the modern Italian fit out, but with a complete overhaul of the menu, the coffee and the team.

This was in the days before everyone had a camera in their pocket so we don't have any photos. Fiona remembers that anyone who entered the building was always intrigued by its incredible angular polished concrete bar and the nuovo red space chairs that were highly sought after for people watching - right up front of the store.

The team made exceptional coffee, like this >>>


LAS CHICAS

Las Chicas was an absolute feat of great timing on so many levels and was Fiona's first venture into real cafe ownership.
 
The 'chicas’ were represented by four talented hospitality professionals, including Fiona, who all held a passion for quality everything, and with the drive to make it happen. The cafe also had a killer location, adjacent to the Balaclava train station and across from one of Melbourne’s most famous cafes. Built from the ground up, it became one of the busiest and well known brekkies on the south side, with multiple features and editorials in various magazines and newspapers.
 
Las Chicas, aka ‘The Girls’ in Spanish, were famous for great coffee & food but also for its legendary team, most of whom have gone on to their own successful businesses.

ROLADOR

Built from scratch in an empty shell of a shop that had stood empty for over a year, in a ‘no man’s land’ area between the regular cafe strip of Beaumont St, and Maitland Rd in Hamilton, Newcastle. Being right next to the train station, however, and sitting right on the carpark, the place had a lot of potential.

It was a bigger space than Fiona and Phil had been looking for when scouting for sites, and they hesitated for quite a while, until one day while sitting outside on the kerb a man approached them. He was a traveller from out of town, waiting for his train to Sydney, and he asked if they knew of somewhere to get a cup of coffee and something to eat. They figured that if he was looking for this, then there would be others, so they figured it was a good omen, took the plunge and the rest is history.

"We decided that we wanted to make a place where everyone would feel comfortable" says Fiona, "where an art student could bring their grandma, or a business meeting could happen, and mums could bring their bubs. We got resourceful with materials like plywood and pallets (inspired by the truck loaded with pallets that would go past every day on its way from the pallet manufacturer around the corner) and upcycled objects. We knocked a hole in the wall to face the carpark and installed a roller door (hence the name)."

When they finally opened the doors. the whole thing just took off, faster than anyone ever expected, and before they knew it, they had a thriving cafe!


SALUNA

Located in Newcastle's CBD, Fiona and Phil had looked at buying this cafe while contemplating taking over the space that was to become Rolador. The particular location hadn't been successful for a long time, but once upon a time it had, and with the revitalisation of the city taking place, when they were thinking about opening another cafe and found that it was on the market again, they took a chance and dived in.

They bought it, renovated it with a fresh new look using concrete blocks, pegboard, Fijian cedar plywood and an internal perspex window exposing the original wall and brickwork. They used a traditional Australian green for the floor and brought in orange and off-white. With a horseshoe as its totem symbol, and a name inspired by the saloon theme (as well as the sun and moon), they took a deep breath and opened the big glass doors for business.