How COVID inspired a barista to go online with his coffee biz
Ryan Spaccavento grew up in an instant coffee family but his Italian roots harbored a love of the real brew, so it was inevitable that he would follow his dream to become a barista.
Ryan runs a successful business, Coffee On Cue, serving specialty coffee from hipster carts throughout the Australian events industry. He’s currently focused on the two biggest markets—Melbourne and Sydney.
When COVID hit Australia in March, Ryan’s coffee events business ground to a halt overnight, and he was left with 750 kilograms of beans in his warehouse.
He quickly mastered the art of the ‘pivot’ and shifted The Cue (his nickname for the business) online for the first time. He’s hoping his new eCommerce business model—complete with a digital education element—will continue to thrive beyond COVID.
Sendle’s small biz quiz
Name, title, and location
Ryan Spaccavento, Founder & CEO | Melbourne, Australia
How would you describe your business in a nutshell?
In a nutshell, we’re an event coffee company that has recently pushed into the at-home coffee market.
And what about in just three words?
Exceptional coffee delivered.
When did you get started? Do you have a particular origin story or were you always going to start a coffee business?
Before I worked in coffee, I had a very different job working in the tech industry.
It was an interesting job, a great employer, and challenging work—but I found myself spending more time at local cafes making friends and asking baristas about their fancy machines than I ever spent at work.
Something had to give.
I made the transition from the tech industry to hospitality in 2012. I opened a little neighbourhood pizza shop in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville with a mate of mine, Dave.
We found and leased an old cafe that had gone broke.
It had seafood-shop blue walls and a daggy interior, but it was in a cracking spot with great exposure to passing traffic.
Dave and I quite literally flipped a coin to decide what kind of business we’d open—a cafe or a pizza shop—and the coin turned up pizza shop.
Still determined to serve coffee, I worked as a barista through the day and worked at the pizza business at night (and I convinced Dave that we needed an expensive espresso machine for there too).
Working in coffee helped me pay my bills and get a feel for how other people ran their hospitality businesses. I was a complete noob back then, but I picked up plenty of helpful tips in between banter sessions over extra hot cappuccinos and three-quarter long blacks.
For me, coffee has always been a passion and something I loved to talk about. I haven’t looked back since.
How does Coffee On Cue work? Are you serving and selling coffee from bricks and mortar cafes or online?
We serve coffee in a few different ways.
We got started with setting up and running bespoke coffee carts at small and large corporate events but found ourselves expanding in scope as our internal capabilities got more sophisticated.
In 2016, we developed a retail concept for semi-permanent retail pop-ups that we called Showcase.
Showcase was an experiment in what we could achieve by selling coffee directly to customers in a retail environment, and it became a great success that taught us a lot.
We still have one showcase site open permanently at the Toyota head office in Altona, Victoria.
When COVID really began to hit Australia hard in March 2020, the events industry was one of the first to suffer.
Cancellations started coming in thick and fast and we were forced to move to an online model just to survive. Today, 50% of our revenue comes through online retail—something we never even came close to before.
How did you manage the process of pivoting online and getting your brand name out there?
After several major event cancellations in March and April, we found ourselves with 750kg of high-quality beans sitting in our warehouse and nothing to do with them. We had to move that stock fast, so we launched our online store and haven't looked back.
We’ve roasted our own coffee for the last three years, so it was a natural and inevitable evolution for us to sell it directly to consumers—COVID just brought our pie-in-the-sky idea into reality several years early.
I knew how competitive it is out there, but I’m not really one to want to go into a new industry or market unless I see a blue ocean.
There has been a lot of talk about being resilient during COVID. How have you coped as a business?
We’re still coping.
The Cue has changed dramatically: we’ve said goodbye to a lot of great people, we’ve closed two of our retail kiosks, and we haven’t rolled out a coffee cart in Victoria since April.
Our move into eCommerce is just ‘Part One’ of our pivot; one that we’ve leaned into with a startup mindset of “test, test & test.”
‘Part Two’ was to transform our outstanding barista service and deliver virtual barista masterclasses for virtual events.
Imagine getting a box with all you’d need to make great filter coffee, learning about the coffee, and then brewing along in real-time with me, your colleagues, or some new people you’re networking with.
We’ve been playing with the idea of mixing physical and digital experiences for a while now, and we think this is a really great innovation on the concept.
The virtual element of the business has been super important for me personally. It helps to keep on top of my connection to people, my craft, and our customers.
I always leave the sessions feeling emotionally full.
What sets you apart from other coffee sellers?
I’ve sat with this exact question for quite some time.
There are a lot of other coffee companies out there, and many of them have really great quality operators too. But there are a few things that I stand by that really set us apart.
Firstly, we have a super-focused stance on at-home coffee.
Our events business was built on the back of home coffee machines that we deployed for events, like the La Marzocco GS3.
Our coffee has been tested and tailored to taste fantastic on all types of home machines, so you don’t need anything too fancy or expensive to get great results.
The second part is that we really bloody care.
Everyone says that, but caring about what our customers want is really central to who we are.
We made the move to online retail to survive, but our key driver has remained the same: making a great experience for our customers.
What it has led to is some great feedback about our service and I’ve seen our team go deeper on customer service than ever before.
What is your top seller?
Our Elevate Blend.
It’s a mix of 50% Colombian & 50% Peru with tasting notes of chocolate, toffee & plum.
Most people buy the kilo bag and our most popular subscription is the 1kg blend, with an added 250g rotating mystery single-origin—only available to our subscribers.
And Australia’s coffee capital, Melbourne, must be your top-performing market?
I ran a report for this, it’s Melbourne. But I think we have a little bias as we’re based in Melbourne.
We do have customers all over Australia though and that’s something I’m really excited about.
With events, we could only ever reach the east coast, but now we can go anywhere.
Australia’s modern coffee culture dates back to European migration. What impact did that have?
It's no secret that migrants brought a lot of culture and "flavor" (as we say in our own household) to contemporary Australia.
From the first Greek immigrants to bring espresso machines into Sydney milk bars back in 1948, through to the establishment of the famous Pelligrini's espresso bar in Bourke St, Melbourne; migrants paved the way for the coffee culture that we enjoy today.
Our taste preferences have changed with the times, yet the roots definitely go back to those brave few that wanted to share the magical beverage they longed for from back home.
Even without these entrepreneurial few, the makeup of our coffee culture would have still come—but it may not be as ingrained into our daily lives and culture.
With a surname like Spaccavento can we assume you’ve got coffee in the blood?
While I have an Italian surname—which, to the delight of Italian-speaking Aussies, translates directly to "break the wind"—I'm Australian through and through.
I'm a fourth-generation Aussie who grew up in the suburbs of Sydney's South West. My dad and his parents were born in Australia, with his mother of Lebanese descent and father from an Italian background—hence my surname.
My mum's family is mostly of English descent, but they've been in Australia for generations, with deep roots in rural New South Wales.
What's funny is that our family (like a lot of others until the mid-late 2010s) used to drink mostly instant coffee, with a French press and a big bag of pre-ground Illy coffee reserved for special occasions.
In other words, my family is full of coffee drinkers, just not very sophisticated ones—that's long been my charge.
All that said, my immediate family, has certainly embraced drinking better coffee since I started Coffee On Cue and have bought four espresso machines between them during COVID.
What are your favorite small businesses out there? Ones you always go back to?
The modern nightclub for me—where you dress up, stand in line, then have a rush of endorphins when you get served—is actually my local bakery in Spotswood, Candied Bakery.
They have a lineup on weekends that passes by the three stores next to them, the product is fresh and tasty, and the staff still manage to smile in challenging times.
I’m also a fan of:
- Sample Coffee Roasters, for their coffee (Sydney)
- Bloomfield Cafe, for their service (Sydney)
- Cocobei, for their extreme passion for hospitality (they are pushing the standard of Melbourne cafes for me—and in Docklands of all places!)
What does sustainability mean to you and how does it play out in your business?
Sustainability means a lot to us.
We are in the business of using and creating consumables, so we have to be mindful of how much we contribute to waste and show our customers what options there are—although since starting the mindset has changed dramatically.
Sustainability goes beyond what we do in people’s homes or even our warehouse, so we’ve made commitments to improving our environmental and social responsibility throughout our supply chain.
Beans: We only buy products from coffee farms that we can see are receiving much higher than C market price for their coffee (this is a global way of pricing coffee as a commodity—like shares on the stock market), which allows farmers to create a sustainable life from farming coffee.
Events: We’ve partnered with Huskee Cups to provide a non-disposable cup option for events. This has significantly reduced the volume of single-use cups used at events.
eCommerce: We now ship to our customers using satchels. This has significantly reduced the amount of cardboard and paper we use when compared to our previous method of using boxes. They also occupy less space and are more lightweight for more efficient shipping.
We also have some other larger pieces we’re working on in the pipeline that will help us unify our sustainability efforts.
Are you hoping to grow your business despite all the COVID challenges, or keep it about the same size?
Even throughout the pandemic, our hunger for growth hasn’t changed.
I still see a lot of opportunity in the home coffee market—there are still a lot of people drinking instant coffee—and we’re still looking at ways to continue partnering with corporate customers once offices reopen.
I’m well aware that people’s coffee habits are likely to change once we get a little closer to a new normal.
I’ve got a few hypotheses about what that might look like, so for us, it’s all about doing a really great job of what we’re doing now so we can have a lasting impact on them.
How did you find Sendle?
When our previous shipping provider started to experience challenges with order fulfilment, I posted a video on Linkedin and Facebook to apologise to our customers.
I expressed our understanding of people’s frustration with the lengthy delays and committed to upgrading all of our customers to the next tier of express with the same provider at our cost.
Almost instantaneously, I was inundated with messages from other customers who had used Sendle and were recommending it as a much better option.
We made the change two weeks later, were immediately impressed with Sendle’s delivery results, and we haven’t looked back.
Having all your technology platforms streamlined is key to running a successful online business. Do you use any Sendle integrations?
Tight integration between the three services means that we’re not manually creating shipping labels.
The tracking information is automatically sent to our customers and it just works.
Our fulfilment team was able to create a brand new process for managing the fulfilment process within just 48 hours, so that was super impressive to see.
When you’re building an eCommerce business, the applications you build your foundation upon really need to integrate with one another seamlessly.
With Shopify, Stripe, and Sendle all working together as a stack, we’ve built an eCommerce powerhouse that’s ready for scale.
Photos courtesy: Coffee On Cue