We continue our interview with the co-owner of Proud Mary Coffee, which made a name for itself in Nolan’s native Australia before heading Stateside with its unique and lauded concept.
BY SARAH ALLEN
Photos courtesy of Nolan and Shari Hirte
We started the week with part one of our interview series with Nolan Hirte, a man who—to many in the global specialty-coffee community—needs no introduction. The first installment of the interview examined how Nolan got his start in coffee and went on to build one of Melbourne, Australia’s most famous specialty-coffee shops along with his wife and business partner, Shari. Nolan was up against some hefty challenges from the get: When he and Shari launched Proud Mary, Australia was primarily an espresso-drinking nation; filter coffee just wasn’t a thing there, and specialty lots, award-winning coffees, and painstakingly brewed filter coffee in particular were absent.
A road trip along the West Coast of the United States changed Nolan’s mindset about what coffee—brewed coffee—could be, and he was among the first to bring it back to Australia. As if convincing a population to skip their morning espresso in favor of a brewed coffee weren’t enough of a challenge, Nolan also revolutionized what breakfast service could be, and was among a small group who made spectacular breakfasts served alongside phenomenal concepts not only popular but expected.
While he understood what specialty coffee could be in the United States, he knew the U.S. might not be ready to accept the brunch addition: brunches made by acclaimed chefs with impeccable ingredients, with a price tag to match. It wasn’t an easy sell at first when Nolan and Shari opened Proud Mary in Portland, Ore. Today, the company has become one of the coffee- and food-loving city’s favorites.
In today’s segment of our interview with Nolan, we chat about his allegiance to Cup of Excellence and determination to work with some of the best producers in the world to bring coffees to both his Melbourne and Portland locations—and soon Austin, Texas—and his and Shari’s bold decision to give life in the States a go.
Sarah Allen: When did you attend your first Cup of Excellence (CoE)?
Nolan Hirte: The first Cup of Excellence I attended was in 2011. It was the first-ever natural process Cup of Excellence program for Brazil. This was really important to me because often I would see really special coffees being overlooked just because they were a natural process. Brazil is a country that can produce exceptional coffees and does an especially amazing job of producing naturals. I have always been a strong advocate of Brazilian specialty coffee as well as natural process coffees, (and) this first experience at Cup of Excellence back then really opened my eyes to just how special these coffees could be.
Besides CoE, how do you learn about and partner with exceptional producers around the world?
Initially through exporters and importers. As soon as I started traveling to meet producers in person, that just kept opening doors to meet more and more farmers. It became obvious very quickly that there were more special coffees out there than we could handle. Some of the relationships were through mutual friends, other times we would discover that the producers’ family would be working with friends of ours also.
That next Brazil Cup of Excellence that I attended I became good friends with Raphael Braune from Comandante. He showed me the prototype he was working on and I was so excited to see someone taking a hand grinder so seriously. That same trip we shared a ride together to go visit the producers he was working with (to source coffee for his family’s roasting company, Supremo, in Germany) and I was going to visit the producers I had been working with. Little did we know that we had been buying coffee from the same family—they were brothers. I was buying incredible coffee from Jose Wagner Junqueira and Raphael was buying really special coffees from his brother Walter Junqueira!
When and why did you decide to move Stateside and open Proud Mary in Portland?
It was 2015—it was not long after opening Aunty Peg’s (readers, you’ll have to wait until Friday’s installment to learn more about Aunty Peg’s!) and our new roastery facility in Collingwood. We had finally built the mothership, our roastery headquarters around the corner from the café, including a commissary kitchen so we could bake our own bread and make all our cakes and prep, etc., off-site, training school, and offices. For the first time I actually had a desk to work from, an assistant, a whiteboard, bean bags, and a fireplace to sit next to. We had made it, right?
Well … I was brainstorming what’s next with Leon Kennedy, who has been my right hand in this journey for a really long time now. The idea had been (that) we hoped to open more satellite stores in Melbourne, and keep them really simple, hole in the wall, freshly baked bread, homemade cakes, killer coffees. For years people would always ask me, “When are you going to do another one?” But by the time we finally got the mothership built and had the desire to expand, it was no longer a good idea—it was such a volatile and risky landscape for hospitality in Melbourne by then. Not to mention saturated. We were no longer one of a few, we were one of thousands of examples of coffee shops like ours. There had been eight cafés opening a week in Melbourne for years and at that point, the market was clearly flooded—at least we could see that. It felt like a trainwreck was coming.
We love what we do and did not want to give up on it, but it felt like we were getting lost in all the noise of Melbourne. It was a ridiculously long shot but I said to Leon, “What about going to the States? What about Portland? The coffee mecca of the U.S.?” He was like, “No way, that’s crazy.” Leon was definitely unsure about this, but I felt pretty sure about it. So we got on a plane and did a tour of Portland cafés and brunch spots. He was blown away at how busy the breakfast places were, but also noticed those busy breakfast spots didn’t really take coffee that seriously at all. We could see a gap and felt like we had something to offer that would help bring something new to the already very well-established coffee scene in Portland.
What were the challenges and benefits of opening the style of café that was so successful in Melbourne in Portland?
There were so many—all of our contacts for suppliers, etc., all of that was out of the window and we had to start over. Having no credit history in the U.S. and having to pay cash for everything with a terrible exchange rate between Australia and the U.S. sucked hard. Helping customers understand what it was we were trying to do was also challenging. We had to learn how to explain ourselves better on the menu—a lot of our language was confusing for others. Our first impression also seemed to be “a cool brunch spot.” No one seemed to realize we were actually a coffee company. We made a lot of effort to rectify that and put coffee on the center stage.
What about Austin’s market convinced you to branch out there?
Austin’s love of food! We just love the food scene in Austin so much. They really know how to cook in Texas. There are also so many people flocking to Austin, it just feels like a great place to share our love of coffee and food.
How will the Austin space differ from Portland and Melbourne?
The biggest difference would be having our own dedicated parking spaces! People drive everywhere in Austin so parking spots are a must. The other big difference is going to be some of the really cool evolution we have coming behind the coffee bar. We are building something really exciting and cool for this bar that is an extension of some of the things we learned in Melbourne and tested in Portland. We can’t wait to share what we are working on but for now that is a secret!
To read part one of our interview with Nolan, click here. And stay tuned for the final installment of our “10 Minutes With Nolan Hirte of Proud Mary” interview series tomorrow—Friday, January 28, right here at Barista Magazine Online.