Carmela Baxter knows all about the barriers disadvantaged members of the community encounter in the workforce. She was inspired to open Silky Oak Espresso in 2015 after seeing her husband’s battles with disability discrimination and the lack of opportunities for their teenage foster children.
“One of the main focuses of the business is to support people that have suffered disadvantage,” Carmela explains, when describing her café with a difference.
“We offer people with disability and the long-term unemployed a safe place where they can learn and gather business skills which can assist them find further employment.”
Growing from a hole-in-the-wall coffee nook in Gordon Park to two shopfronts (in Chermside West and Strathpine) within four years, Silky Oak Espresso’s coffee with a conscience is improving the lives of people in need, one cup at a time.
What is your professional background?
I spent 10 years working for a major coffee chain, eventually managing and training franchisees in the local area about processes and procedures. I then took time out to become a full-time foster carer, before launching Silky Oak Espresso.
How did you get the idea to start your business?
My husband, Glen, is vision impaired and found there was a lack of opportunity when looking for a job. As a foster carer, I also saw the difficulty young people encounter when transitioning out of care in regards to employment opportunities. I used a simple business model to show them you don’t need a uni degree to create a working future for themselves.
How did you raise capital to finance your business?
It’s all been self-funded. The business model I created was very simple; the first Silky Oak Espresso was in a 3m x 3m hole in the wall. It was as big as a broom cupboard! I just sold coffee and a couple of muffins. I wanted to show [my foster kids] that you can start off with just a little. My motto has always been, “If you can’t afford it, you don’t get it.” We used the money that we had to start small and grew the business from there.
What value do you place in business plans?
You definitely need to have a business vision and plans, but they have to be fluid and move with the times. My plan was very simple at first, but it has grown and it changes all the time. You need to be able to update it to be able to take advantage of new opportunities.
What are some unexpected benefits of owning a small business?
For me, it’s seeing how a community can come together. When we moved to the location in Chermside West, it was to a vacant shop and there were other vacant spaces around us. But I have seen it come back to life since we’ve been here and now it’s full. As other small businesses come in, we all work together. We have created this opportunity for the community to socialise, and people come here to just sit and engage.
What is the biggest challenge in running this type of business?
Balancing running a small business. I’m not just making coffees. When I’m not at the coffee machine, I’m paying bills, keeping up with policy changes… I also have a commitment to my staff.
How do you market your business?
I don’t do a lot of marketing, but we are on social media. My ‘marketing’ is looking after the person in front of me. If they have a good experience, they will tell someone else about us. It’s all about word of mouth.
Whom do you seek advice from for your business?
In this industry, everyone is very supportive of each other. You can just go to another coffee shop and talk to the owners. We also have social media groups for baristas and coffee shop owners where we share tips or talk about what’s happening locally or in the industry. It’s nice that we support each other by being so open. It’s not a competition.
How do you stay up to date with the latest business information?
Suppliers are the best source of industry news. They are the first to know when trends are changing – for example, which milk is selling the best.
I also know my own strengths and weaknesses. The first thing I did when launching the business was engage a good bookkeeper, accountant and lawyer. It just makes sense to turn to the professionals; they’re worth every cent.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned in business?
To be humble. I used to shake it off and say, “This is just my job.” But the longer I’m in this industry and the more recognition that I get, the better I understand where I sit within it. I do feel now that I am an advocate for people with disability. I’ve worked with various community groups, like the Lions Club and Meals On Wheels, and we all support each other. The biggest lesson is that we can all work together to achieve a common goal.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
The one thing I would have done differently is to understand that I wasn’t just opening a coffee shop; I was starting a small business. It doesn’t matter what you sell, whether it’s coffee or cupcakes, you need to have your small business head on and switched on. No one is just going to forgive you when you forget to lodge a BAS statement or when you forget to pay a bill.
What three things should someone consider before starting a business?
- Ask yourself, what do you love to do? You’re going to spend a lot of time and effort doing it, so it should be something you really enjoy or are passionate about.
- Talk to other business owners in the area and be open about accepting information from others. You need to build a good support network around you.
- Remember that you won’t make any money straight up.
Where do you see your business in a year’s time? Five years’ time?
Still growing. We’re in a brilliant spot right now, after experiencing a couple of years of good growth, and I hope it continues.
I also recently launched Silky Oak Support Services, which will benefit the wider community. I want to try to empower other small businesses to do the same and create a support network.