Innovating the partnership

I had the opportunity to meet with Leon Kennedy, operations manager of Proud Mary Coffee, and we discussed the coffee roasters brave start and the hard work behind the scenes that leads the business into the future.

Leon has shared valuable insights into what has successfully built this world class brand.

Here are 3 key takeaways from our conversation:

  • Define your story.

Understand the why behind what you do and actually do it.

  • Innovation is not glamorous, but the result of hard work.

Innovation is not found in the shiny veneer of a shop front, but in the epic and steady work taking place behind the scenes. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

  • Always be learning.

The team that works behind the scenes should not only be operating the engine of a business, but consistently taking steps to understand the product at great length.

Partnerships are more exciting and worthwhile when both sides are growing and developing. Even more, these partnerships reach new levels when they are willing to pioneer into new territory to find valuable tools and solutions that improve those relationships.


You can continue scrolling below to read the full interview with Leon.

Pat: Could you tell me about your journey with Proud Mary?

Leon:

It’s really connected to my journey in coffee overall. I used to own a few cafes when I was younger. In one of the cafes that I owned, and how I met Nolan, was through buying a Synesso.

When I need it serviced I was told, “Look go and speak to this guy Nolan (currently Liar Liar cafe) because he’s got one. He’s probably taken it apart 15 times. Go chat to him.” That’s how we met. I went in thinking we were doing a really good job until I got to his café. I was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” Then I became that annoying guy that would come in all the time and chew Nolan’s ear off for information on how to make coffee better. That was how our relationship started.

Later on I was able to connect with Nolan and his new business, Proud Mary, and to become part of the team full-time as Operations Manager.

Pat: Proud Mary brings a unique personality to the coffee scene in Australia. Whats the story behind such an influential brand?

Leon:

Everything we do here is all about trying to tell a story, but it’s not about us, it’s got nothing to do with us.

The story is about the producers, the farmers. It’s up to us to represent what they do.

It’s not about buying coffee and then bringing it back here and going, “Look how good we are at roasting,” or “Look how good we are at brewing coffee,” we’re just a vessel to bring the amazing work that is happening at the farm to the customers here in Melbourne, and around the Western World.

That attitude just spawned everything that you see around you now. We instantly said, “You know what? We need to get into a bigger space, and we need to connect it to the café. We need to get the story right,” because if we have any confusion of it internally, how can we expect people to understand it externally?

That was the point that we very ambitiously took the lease for our huge roastery space. Going from a 300 square foot building to a 1000 square foot building is a pretty big leap. I think trying to do it on the budget we had, 99% of people would say, “Thats suicide,” but we backed ourselves to be in that 1% and we’ve made it work.

Great things have happened here on the back of that growth. Yet, the real metrics for us, the question we ask is: How much are these stories having an impact on the public?

We can quantify that in some pretty great ways now. Irrespective of what the Profit and Loss says, what we think is the most important factor is the impact those stories have and the culture that we’re creating internally.

Pat: Great to hear about the connection the business has with the farmers.

What are the benefits for both Proud Mary and the farming communities as a result of these partnerships?

Leon:

On a practical level, it’s an impact that we’re seeing here that directly ends up benefiting what’s happening at origin. One thing in particular is Geisha. It’s a difficult thing to stock and sell because it’s something that is really expensive. There isn’t quite yet a big enough market in Australia for really expensive coffee.

For us, we made a decision to buy some Geishas and keep developing them, commercially we can’t really make it work but we made the call to do it anyway.

Back then it was those decisions we made that are giving us and our customers the perceptions that we have now.

We just ran a menu at Aunty Peg’s for two weeks which was Geisha only, and people didn’t even bat an eyelid. Customers came in and paid $15 for a brew or $11 for a shot of espresso, and not questioning it. There’s no way we would have those customers now if we hadn’t have made the call back then.

The impact on the farmers is massive because now they can cultivate this difficult but amazing product. The fact that we’re able to build the basis for that market for us really completes the circle.

By telling the story right we perform well as a brand and are able to bring everything back to the farmers.

Nolan encapsulates this well in a talk he did for Grow Assembly in Melbourne (watch here).

Pat:

Pioneering the coffee industry means introducing new ways of building a business, in other words: innovation. These partnerships you have described meant new steps for the business.

How do you see Proud Mary being innovative in its business partnerships?

Leon:

It goes back to the exisiting relationships. One example, we held an fundraising event for a farm that was having issues with electricity. We raised money for a new generator and gave them electricity, potentially for the 1st time, in their home. Thats a really rewarding outcome of these partnerships.

When you go visit these coffee farms it puts everything into perspective as to what we should be seeing from the crop to the cup. We would love for all of our staff to have exposure to the farms as a form of training and they become the best ambassadors for what we’re trying to do. That kind of program benefits everyone.

When the idea of innovation comes up the ones that don’t seem to be talking about it, are the ones that are just living and breathing it, the reason they’re not talking about it is because they’re too busy doing it.

We implement innovations throughout the entire business which mostly no one sees as its behind the scenes. The innovations we have back of house means our small production team can operate like a large scale production team.

The truth is, innovation is not glamorous. It is the result of a lot of hard work.