I love coffee. A lot. Some may call it an addiction…a daily ritual, I love the smell of the freshly ground espresso beans, the sound of a busy grinder and the whir of the steamer every morning. Nothing beats the satisfaction that comes from drinking a perfectly made cup.
Needless to say, when I had the opportunity to sit down with Brisbane icon and coffee king Dean Merlo (the man responsible for legalising alfresco dining in Brisbane and making the branded coffee cup “a thing”) at the Merlo Coffee Torrefazione on Thompson Street, Bowen Hills, I was buzzing like I’d just downed a triple shot Grande.
It was a conversation in coffee, business and true entrepreneurship…
When and how did you realise your love of coffee?
We’re an Italian family; we’ve always loved coffee! The plunger would always come out whenever we had people over and it’s just something that was always in my life.
I understand a bit of the history of Merlo and the background of your father introducing Queensland’s first Italian espresso machine, but in your own words what is the history and background of how the Merlo we all know today came about?
My father brought the first espresso machine to Queensland when he opened Milano in Queen Street Mall in 1958. Every time we wanted it serviced he had to fly people up from Sydney because there wasn’t anyone here who could do it! I worked at Milano in my teens and I even served the Queen when she came for the Commonwealth Games. I remember she asked for a Gordon’s Gin and Tonic and we didn’t have any Gordon’s Gin…so I had to madly run down the mall and find a bottle. When she took it the G&T, smiled and thanked me that was it. In one lunch she won me over.
I worked at Milano while I studied to be a lawyer. Then when I graduated I moved to Sydney to work at Commonwealth Bank and from there made my way overseas where I sold Driza-Bone coats for a living. I tried a heap of different things. When I was a driver for those portable billboards in LA I saw how cool coffee places occupied the ground level of city buildings and thought, “no one in Australia is doing that. No one is catering for the business people”.
So in 1991 after I came back I decided to do something about it and opened Bar Merlo in Queen Street in 1992.
Is it true that without you we wouldn’t have al fresco dining in Brisbane? Can you tell me a bit more about the battle with the Brisbane Council to get permission to serve al fresco?
Yes I suppose that is true! No café or restaurant had the permits to place tables and chairs out on the footpath and when I approached the council to do it for Bar Merlo they told me there was “too much smog”. I said “but we’re a tourist city and just had the World Expo!”. They said no. So I rang David Hinchcliffe and said, “I want this place to be a modern metropolis city”. He reversed the decision in day and we were the first venue in Brisbane to have al fresco dining.
And what about the branded coffee cups? Did you start the trend?
I was the first person I know to have branded Styrofoam cups. Back in the early nineties no cup had branding – they were all white. I thought “imagine if they had our name on it. People would be promoting your coffee brand everywhere they go. This has got to be a good thing”.
When I first had to place an order for them the minimum I could make was 25,000. It was daunting! Now we go through 18 million a year.
You started with Bar Merlo – what made you decide that a roasting house was to be next?
In 1995 we expanded to the roasting house because we weren’t happy with the quality of the beans we used in our blend and wanted to roast our own. We were only ever interested in the very best product. Money never came into it. We were after quality and consistency day after day.
Our philosophy is to keep it fresh. All our bags are time and date stamped. I’ve always been an advocate for buying small amounts often. In Europe, people go to the markets daily and it’s how you should eat so we roast every day.
After we started serving our own roast, cafes approached us – asking us to supply them. When James [Dean’s business partner and CEO of Merlo] joined the team in 1998 to head up sales, he went from four to five clients to over 800.
How do you take your coffee? Do you have a favorite bean?
I like trying everything that comes in. Our bean of the month is always great. During the day I like a 30ml/30ml espresso and in the afternoon I’ll have a short black. But you’ve got to make your coffee accordingly. Our Private blend is best with milk and the Arriba Arriba is great for plunger coffee.
Merlo Coffee has five Bar Merlos, six Torrefaziones or roasting houses and can be found in over 1000 distinguished cafes and restaurants across Australia. Where to next?
We’re going to be opening two more Torrefaziones where it will be ALL about the coffee, no food.
Really we just want people to buy and enjoy fresh roasted coffee everyday.
What do you feel has been your own greatest personal achievement when it comes to the Merlo name?
I never set out to have a big business. I thought “a little roasting house with two – three cafes” but it became much bigger than I thought!
I love that with the success we can support the community. We support Vinnies and OzHarvest – they take the food leftover from the day and turn what would have been waste into food for those who need it – the Red Cross and the Red Ride for Life – this year we raised $13,000 – and we help fund the Prince Charles Hospital to keep hearts alive during the transplant process.
Finally, what advice would you share with people when it comes to following their passion and living out their dreams?
It’s not about world domination. I just love coming to work. Making people happy everyday is a good feeling.
Interview by Mimi Hyll