For so many of us, the local cafe isn’t just a source of essential caffeine – it’s a daily dose of connection as well. Feeling part of your local community can raise your spirits and fill your cup – but what about the lovely people behind the counter? In this very special series, we take a look at six beautiful cafes both in Australia and beyond – speaking to the owners and staff to find out what their cafes mean to them, and how they manage to fill their own cups. For this instalment we chat with Kymberlee Strow, co-founder of Flock Espresso and Eats – a community-centric cafe that had to start from scratch after the devastating Lismore floods.
Tell us about Flock. What drove you to start it?
Flock started in a little arcade with eight seats. When we moved to the Northern Rivers the plan was to have a quieter life after running a cafe in Brisbane for three years. We felt like a life change, so my wife Sarah took a year off work and I went back to youth work. However, I hugely missed cooking for people and working with Sarah, and we decided to open a cafe in Lismore because we felt at the time there wasn’t anything available that ticked all the boxes. Creating a space that was accessible for all members of our community and was super inviting was an epic must. Opening an espresso bar in a rural town that was still enjoying having old school ‘dinners’ and ‘charcoal chickens’ was a risk, so for the first two years of Flock I worked as a youth worker on weekends and nights while cooking for Flock during the day. It was hard but we loved it and were determined to make it work.
Flock gradually grew, and we ended up with a team of 10 and 30 seats over four years. We stayed in our little arcade and I continued to cook while Sarah smashed it on the coffee machine. We had a lot of offers of bigger spaces and second venues but we were young and content – we had our little business that turned over enough to live a comfortable life.
Then in March 2017, in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie, Lismore was hit by a horrific flood that inundated our beautiful town and we lost our little cafe. A lot of people lost a lot of things. Luckily, Sarah and I are both stubborn and resilient and, with the support of the incredible community, reopened Flock in a larger space on the main street. We now seat over 120 and have a team of 40+. On the second anniversary of the reopening of our Lismore shop, we opened Flock in Mullumbimby, where we now we sit about 150, have a huge outdoor garden space and an accessible playground.
What’s the ethos behind Flock?
Flock is all about community for us. We left Brisbane in a time when the Queensland Premier was not supportive of LGBTQIA+ people – to be honest he wasn’t very supportive of anyone who wasn’t male, white and wealthy. I was 24 at the time and furious that our state government didn’t treat people fairly. We worked really hard, and I didn’t want to continue to contribute to a place that didn’t support us back, so we moved to the Northern Rivers.
We’ve always said that Flock is an extension of our kitchen table, and that’s our ethos. We pride ourselves on being welcoming to all and have close relationships with our suppliers and our team. Although the size of our business has changed, I never want Flock to lose that – being in the position to offer employment to people from all walks of life regardless of sex, ability, race and age is something we feel very privileged to do. Our kitchen table is welcoming to everyone, just like our cafes.
Although the size of our business has changed, I never want Flock to lose that – being in the position to offer employment to people from all walks of life regardless of sex, ability, race and age is something we feel very privileged to do.
What kind of food and drink do you serve, and what are your most popular dishes?
Our food is abundant, fresh and made in-house. We’re known for our colourful cake cabinets that are overflowing with daily-baked pastries, vegan cakes, salads and a selection of wraps and sandwiches. One of our most popular dishes at the moment is ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ – a hot smoked salmon whipped fish on toasted sourdough with a poached egg and guindillas – and we’ve been making our biggest seller, ‘Sam Senior’, which is plenty of greenage with local scrambled eggs on toasted sourdough with grilled halloumi and local avo, for seven years now.
We also proudly serve Allpress Coffee, and have done the entire time we’ve owned Flock. We’re huge fans of their ethos as a business, the quality of beans and their incredible team, and we’re equally as proud to support HRVST ST juice – they support Aussie farmers, and we 100% back that.
Why is it important to you to source food from local suppliers?
We’re very lucky to live where we do and be surrounded by great farmers and producers. I know the whole “paddock to plate” concept has been over-marketed and, with big companies like Woolies using it now, I feel like it’s even more important to know where you’re getting your produce from and the fair prices you’re paying for it.
A chunk of our fresh produce is brought to us from my family’s farm, Sandy Creek Gourmet Produce, on the Sunshine Coast, and I love knowing that the Bread Social sourdough we use is from a bunch of champions who buy Aussie organic wheat and love what they do. Pat, our butcher, has owned his shop with his wife Pauline for nearly 40 years. Our egg supplier really loves his chickens and really doesn’t love being around people. Food for me is not just about nutritional nourishment, it’s about the connection and emotions it can evoke, and I always hope our products support that theory.
In what ways do you operate sustainably?
Living as sustainably as possible has always been a huge part of my life and our businesses, and with the current sustainable living trend I feel it’s really important we talk about where our rubbish is going and how we can live sustainably, long-term. I’m always so happy to see reusable cups, and even a surge of people bringing their own smoothie cups and containers for takeaways from our cabinet.
I grew up in my family’s fruit and veg shops, where it was common practice for all food scraps to end up in separate bins for the farmers to collect. Rubbish collection for businesses is expensive, so as well as being better for the environment it’s also a better business decision to have someone who can collect and use your by-product. As soon as I opened our first cafe it was at the top of my list to find people who would use our scraps and, between the local community gardeners group and the mushroom farmers collecting our old coffee grinds, our food wastage is minimal. All of our takeaway packaging is biodegradable in a compost, which means it’s made from cardboard, paper, wheat or bamboo, and a local wildlife rescue organisation and the potters’ club take all of our big buckets that we receive bulk yoghurt in. Living as sustainably as possible is a great financial decision, and also great for creating a community around you.
Living as sustainably as possible is a great financial decision, and also great for creating a community around you.
Tell us about how the Lismore floods affected Flock…
It still surprises me that after two years and a happy ending, talking about the flood still brings me to tears. When it hit, our beautiful town was inundated with water over 1.5m deep, and we were all evacuated with very little notice. For three days we watched our town fill with water, sit in water and then slowly drain away, and I felt completely naive in not knowing what water had the strength to do. I remember when my wife opened the door to our beloved little cafe and quickly closed it, she turned to me and said, “I just want you to know that it will be OK”. Opening the door again I was in complete shock – it looked like a scene out of an old movie. Everything had this tea-stain colour to it, and all of our equipment, including three-door commercial fridges and ovens, had been toppled over. Glass was smashed everywhere, and wood was twisted and bent; I’ll never forget the smell. We lost all of our equipment and our beautiful shop looked like an empty shell. I was scrubbing the walls when one of the council members walked past telling me to stop – the walls had all cracked and bowed, which was exposing asbestos, and I had no idea. We very quickly came to the realisation that Flock would not be the same again.
For three days we stayed at home devastated by our loss and mourning for our community – and then we got resourceful. Sarah and I are incredibly stubborn and hardworking, and we weren’t interested in letting a flood be the end to a story we felt we’d only just begun to tell. There was an empty old diner on the main street that had been vacant for years. Sarah and I had never run a cafe that big before, but with the only alternative option being bankruptcy and moving back in with my parents, we set about opening Flock again. We had no income and felt responsible for a team who currently had nowhere to work, and we needed money to open a space, so I begged for help. Friends started GoFundMe campaigns and local hospitality businesses in the area held fundraisers for us. People donated furniture and crockery, and we maxed out our credit cards to pay our team. I also bartered with the owner of the building (who hadn’t cleaned it since the flood) that we would clean the building in return for cheaper rent. I’ve never been one to ask for help, barter with people or anything of the sort, but we had no option. I got good at budgeting and negotiating very quickly, and within six weeks we’d lost a business and rebuilt another one. With the support of the incredible humans of Lismore, Flock went from a team of 10, to a team of 22, and then to a team of 50+ within one month. Our business in an absolute credit to the community of Lismore, and the continual support Lismore shows Sarah and myself is something I will never forget, nor take for granted.
You have a diverse workforce – can you tell us what you look for when hiring people?
Offering employment to a diverse selection of people that represent what society really looks like is at the core of Flock’s success. Real life isn’t just one type of person. Hiring regardless of age, race, sexuality and different abilities really creates a larger demographic of patrons who want to visit your establishment, so as much as having a diverse team is morally something I feel very passionate about. From a business perspective it’s imperative as well. If I had 60 male, white, straight team members in their early 20s that would really pigeonhole us to a certain type of customer, whereas at the moment our team comprises 70 people who are 14 to 67 years old, multicultural, ability-diverse, straight and LGBTQIA+. I believe our customer demographic is significantly wider because of that.
I hire humans. I don’t hire based on someone’s qualifications – I hire based on someone’s desire for employment, their personality and their passion. I can teach you how to run three plates and use a point-of-sale system, but I can’t teach you to be friendly and welcoming of all. It brings me a lot of joy to see our team members mingle. I love that we’ve created a culture where diversity isn’t noticed – it’s just humans working with humans – and I love that I can offer a place of employment for people who, unless they worked together, realistically probably wouldn’t have become friends. I adore that we have a team member who has four children, is married, a meat-eater and lives the suburban dream, but he goes to the gym with another team member who identifies as cis, has no children, is vegan and is in the middle of creating art for their up-and-coming show. I love that one of our juniors is a principal dancer, loves jewellery, is rather sassy and has Down’s Syndrome, but when she’s working she’s treated just like all the other 18-year-olds. I love that when she has a show on, a group of our team will turn up to watch her dance and then it’ll be spoken about for weeks. It’s not special treatment because she has a disability – she’s treated that way because she’s fun, friendly and has created relationships with her work peers. Isn’t that what life really is about – forming relationships with people? I’m not going to be on my death-bed wishing I only had friends or relationships with other fat, white, loud lesbians… that would be boring!
I hire humans. I don’t hire based on someone’s qualifications – I hire based on someone’s desire for employment, their personality and their passion.
In what ways do you give back to your community?
Giving back to our community is something I feel very passionate about and very privileged to be able to offer. We proudly sponsor and engage with our local AFL female football team, The Lismore Swans, and sponsoring and fundraising for local art events including the Reel Abrupt Film Festival every year is something I make sure we budget for. We’ve held many fundraisers with the NGO ‘Forget Me Not’ and, on more of a grassroots level, we support people within our community who struggle to find employment.
How do you fill your own cup?
I love, love, love being at home with my three dogs, cooking yummy things and making my home beautiful for my wife. I think because our work life is super-busy and people-focused that on our downtime I really spend limited time out in the big world. I go for country drives in my old Kombi (aka Otis) listening to Janis Joplin; we go for swims in the Brunswick River; and spend time with our godchildren. I read a lot of cookbooks, get up early and go to the local markets before the rest of the world does, write letters to my grandma and take afternoon naps.
Finally, what’s your own coffee order?
A small soy flat white.