Meet Red, she’s like a bus driver, except she runs a cafe and doesn’t have an actual bus licence…

The power of one

What makes you choose your coffee shop in the city? (Don’t say it is the colour of the takeway cups because that is wrong — you know they are not recyclable right?) For the purists, it is the taste of the coffee. For the time poor, it is most likely convenience. For the hipsters, it is the taste of the coffee but also where the coffee has come from and, especially, the size of the barista’s beard. For my “friend”, it is based solely around how cute the barista is. But what if the coffee shop had a business model that focused heavily on contributing to environmental and social causes? Would that entice you?

The conscious economy is a growing movement worldwide. It’s all about making your dollar count in more ways than just a straight transaction, ie., I give you money and you give me coffee. Instead, carefully choosing from where and on what you spend, the transactionally nature of the purchase kind of disappears. You buy into a story that lasts a lot longer than your coffee, or the initial joy that you may get from purchasing anything. Examples of conscious businesses include: a toilet paper company that is 100% forest friendly and provides 50% of its profits to build toilets (Who Gives a Crap — that is its name, totally not my commentary); Toms, a shoe business that that donates a pair of shoes for every pair you buy (one for one); and buy a FEEDbag and donate 10 meals to the World Ford Program.

How does this relate to your morning coffee? Well, let me introduce you to Xpress Coffee on Akuna.

I was first dragged to Xpress Coffee on Akuna by a work friend. She had recently realised she knew Red, the owner, through Roller Derby and, in the true spirit of Roller Derby friendships, had decided to buy her daily coffee from there instead of the shop that is conveniently closer to our offices. Work friend’s suggestion was timely: I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the closer coffee shop, finding their non-eventuating promises of decreasing prices for patrons who bring their own cups and their often lukewarm coffee to be disappointing. So, I tagged along one morning. Just expecting coffee. That would hopefully be hot.

It’s a rectangular spaced shop. You enter to immediately face a long, crowded counter, holding a coffee machine and a pie warmer, and a few, slightly scary, Groot figurines from Guardians of the Galaxy. Yesterday there was a ukulele for sale on the countertop too. There is a fridge half full of muffins and cold drinks at one side and four white leather stools at the other and a red couch tucked up by the door. Perhaps it is not an interior that would win best cafe design of the year, and it definitely doesn’t fit the current, dominant asthetic of hipster grunge that you find in most inner-city coffee shops at the moment, but then you talk to Red, and remember that it’s what is going on inside that counts.

Red owns the joint, and has done since beginning of 2016. She’s a big fan of wearing all black, except for designated dress up days that her and Paul, her husband and co-worker, embrace, (St Patrick’s Day was entertaining). She is very unassuming. A little shy even: Red tells me that, in the early days of the cafe, she was petrified standing behind the counter and serving people. But she persevered and today, Red is equally friendly with the steady stream of labourers in hi-vis vests from the building site across the road, the power suit people who rock up between 830 and 1030 ,(and, again, after lunch), and the ones who are a little down on their luck and come in at all times of the day for a chat and a free coffee from her ‘Suspended Coffee Tree.’

What is the suspended coffee tree, you ask. Wind back from thinking it’s Jack’s Beanstalk or the Faraway Tree, (although some might say it comes close), and imagine instead a rather simple hand drawn tree outline in black, sitting on a white wall above the white leather stools. Stuck up on the outline, kind of like leaves, are disposable coffee cups that Red sticks up — once a customer purchases a coffee for someone else. It’s Red’s version of the pay it forward idea.

Red set up the Suspended Coffee Tree after having many “raw and real conversations with people” frequenting her cafe — the kind of conversations where “you can’t help but feel touched by their stories and inspired by their resilience.” And once you have had those conversations, it makes you want to do more. So the free coffee is one of her many socially conscious ideas that she has incorporated into her business. Red believes that having a visible and obvious donation system helps to highlight some of the needs of Canberra’s disadvantaged and provides a manageable way for anyone to contribute. And people do. Red tells me how she has a number of regular customers that donate frequently. She says, “Most customers recognise when the tree is running low and will say “chuck another on the tree for me”.”

One anonymous dude, a serial donator to the Suspended Coffee Tree, took the giving tree to a new level one Friday last month, paying Red in advance for free coffees all day for anyone who entered her store. Let me just repeat that: Free coffee all day for everyone. Coffee for free. Why? Red said simply because he could — he told her that he had a win at work and wanted to celebrate. He could have just bought himself a glass of champagne but he did this and I think Red, with her giving attitude, probably inspired by him to carry out his generous act. As she says:

The shop has made me realise the importance of community and how much people need people.

Red genuinely seem to like everyone who comes into her shop wanting coffee, a pot of local honey, her home made soup, using ingredients from local farm Burra Bee Farm, (you can also organise weekly fruit and veg BurraBee Farm picks ups from Red), or her home made pies, (please consider pre-ordering as some pie aficionados that I know will regularly hit up Red’s for a pie as a pre-lunch snack, fearful that they might sell out before it’s officially lunchtime. But whoever they are and whatever that are there for, Red makes them welcome, saying that she feels so very lucky to have such lovely people walk through her doors every day.

“… I am overwhelmed everyday by kindness and love from people who first started out as strangers but I find myself falling in love with them a little more each day.”

Red’s desire to contribute extends to assisting to curb Australia’s our of control waste issue: like encouraging people to stop using disposable coffee cups. 113 disposable coffee cups are used in Australia every four seconds (it says so here) and Red, having grown up on a farm in Young, (just outside of Canberra, they grow amazing cherries), therefore being all too aware of sustainable living and protecting what it is you already have, wants to stop this. She has set her cafe a target of halving amount of disposable cups used by 2018. Already she offers a 10 cent discount for customers who bring their own reusable coffee cup and she is also, currently, the only coffee shop around town that runs a mug exchange — you can borrow one of Red’s mugs to take with you if you have forgotten your reusable cup (just bring it back later).

I asked Red about whether she has thinks her social and environmental initiatives are making a difference. She answered with a theory:

“…if we all work together on a small scale that equates to major progress and major change.”

This is a good theory — lots of people doing the right thing does add up to major things and, hopefully, major impact. But, for the theory to really work sometimes there needs to be a few directors around, who, through their own actions and ideas, can influence collective action on a grander scale. I see these people as kind of like bus drivers, the good bus drivers, who know to stop at all the stops, to wait for the runner, and to encourage would be passengers others to get on board and join the ride. That’s Red. She’s a bus driver, (just of a cafe, and not an actual bus). You can buy a coffee at Red’s and help someone else at that same time, you can eat great food locally sourced, you can borrow a mug if you need to run away in a hurry or sit a while and chat to someone who you may never usually interact with. You can buy a ukulele. So, next time you are in Canberra city and want a coffee (or a pie or an egg and bacon muffin) think about spending your dollars in a cafe that is environmentally friendly, socially aware and makes you feel good. Red says she is looking forward to meeting you.

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