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 Jonny Gillett from The Salt Mill – a community-minded cafe situated in two beachfront locations in Currumbin and Kingscliff.
How long have you worked at The Salt Mill, and what did you do before?
We started The Salt Mill six years ago. I had worked in sales in the surf industry for the previous 12 years and was ready for a change. My wife worked in the aviation industry. I randomly met the owner of the previous clothing store who told me they were vacating the space. I always thought I would love to start a small coffee shop, and thought Currumbin could be the perfect location.
Tell us about The Salt Mill. What inspired you to start the business?
We started with the Currumbin store six years ago, and opened our second location at Kingscliff two years ago. We started with both of us plus one barista, and we now have 19 staff. It was a huge risk at the time. We had a three year old and a 10-month old, and we weren’t sure if the concept or location would work. My wife kept her role in aviation while we tested the waters. We couldn’t put all our eggs in one basket so to speak. But we always knew we wanted to do something for ourselves. We were always coffee lovers, hunting down great coffee at home and on holidays, always trying new places.
What’s the ethos behind The Salt Mill – what drives you guys?
I guess you could say our ethos is about combining coffee, community and connection with a love of the ocean. We wanted to create an environment where people could meet for a sunrise swim, walk and chat over their morning brew. Where people could walk straight in from the surf, still sandy and order an acai bowl, or pull in for a quick takeaway coffee on their way to work.
We also wanted to provide healthy food that was easily accessible and at a reasonable price point. Because we operate out of such small spaces/locations, we are able to offer that and keep our costs and prices down.
I guess you could say our ethos is about combining coffee, community and connection with a love of the ocean.
What kind of food and drink do you serve, and what are your most popular dishes?
We are a takeaway-based hole in the wall, so keeping it simple in terms of our offering has always been our priority. We pride ourselves on producing amazing Allpress espresso coffee.
Our acai bowls are probably the most popular menu item, in particular our chocolate granola acai bowl. A granola recipe passed on from best friends that is made and baked by my mother-in-law! We also have a few key menu items that people visit us especially for. Avocado toast, vegan muffins, cacao fudge slice, fresh juices, smoothies – just to name a few. Simple, healthy food done well.
Why is it important to you to source food from local suppliers?
We try and source all our ingredients locally, and off local businesses. We want to support the locals that look after us, and in turn are some of our best customers! Our local butcher in Palm Beach is the best in the business, and has our order ready before we even know we need it. Our pasties are made about 800 meters down the road in Currumbin, and our beautiful sourdough is from the guys at The Bread Social in Tweed Heads. Our ingredients for our homemade granola come straight from our local health food shop. We also use Byron Bay macadamia muesli and Byron Bay peanut butter. We are lucky to have some of the best suppliers around from the Tweed Heads, Northern Rivers and Gold Coast. We also serve Allpress coffee, and have done so from the very beginning. Having a great coffee brand behind us was incredibly important. They have been very supportive over the years and offer the best beans in the industry.
We try and source all our ingredients locally, and off local businesses. We want to support the locals that look after us, and in turn are some of our best customers!
In what ways do you operate sustainably and why is this important to you?
We have cut out single-use plastic a long time ago. All of our packaging is either biodegradable, compostable or recyclable, and is made from sugarcane, wheat, bamboo or cardboard. We also have little to no food wastage. We are pretty spot-on on our food prep, and if we run out, we will remake during the day. Anything left over is either given away, taken home by staff, or packed in our kids lunchboxes the next day. We are always happy to see reusables being brought from home for coffee, smoothies or acai bowls. We offer our coffee grinds for people to grab from our driveway, so many of our customers take them. We have set some huge goals for 2020 in terms of becoming a more sustainable business. We are on our way, but recognise there is still so much more we can do as a business.
You’re housed in two locations on the coast – what do you love about your locations?
Both of our locations are by the ocean. Currumbin is in plain sight of the surf and sand. I can make a coffee and watch the waves at the same time. Kingscliff is also situated across from the beach, at the far end of town, near some beautiful parklands and an amazing estuary. Both locations feel really coastal and refreshing, and both have a real community and family vibe.
What do you look for when hiring people?
Attitude is everything. We have found that if someone is willing to learn and has a great attitude then they will be a great employee. We also want staff who can chat to people, get to know the customers they see every day. Over the years we have watched our staff build beautiful and lasting friendships with customers, and that is amazing to watch. We also have three children, so it’s important to us that our staff are flexible and willing to help out in an emergency. We are so lucky that our staff have a great relationship with our kids, from braiding our girls hair, or offering to babysit so we can have a night off.
Tell us about the community that’s built up around you.
We have incredible communities in both Currumbin and Kingscliff. We realised early on that without community support, you have nothing. The loyal customers that turn up at 5:30am on a rainy winter’s morning are the people who keep our business churning. We have a diverse range of regulars and I love chatting to them about different topics.
In what ways do you give back to your community?
We are always sponsoring or fundraising for local clubs and individuals, and we regularly donate gift vouchers to charities in both our communities. We give free coffee to all customers at both locations to celebrate each time we celebrate the anniversary of our opening. We host an annual Christmas party at Currumbin for our community and shout a night of drinks, nibbles, live music and a visit from Santa. It’s a chance for our community to catch up before the festive season and it’s become a tradition for us to host a crowd of up to a hundred people that spill out onto the road.
How do you think food and drink brings people together?
The connections that are formed over food and drink are immeasurable. It’s a great way for friends, family and strangers to stop, catch up and get to know each other. It’s about gathering, talking, sharing, connecting and creating memories.
The connections that are formed over food and drink are immeasurable.
What do you love most about what you do?
Meeting people and the friendships I’ve formed over the years would have to be the best thing about starting The Salt Mill. The relationships I’ve formed with people who were strangers who are now some of my best friends. Working with likeminded people who love to have a laugh and a good time make it easier and much more enjoyable to go to work and run the business. There are of course crazy times where you think everything is falling down around you, and running two busy coffee shops can be 24/7 – but we also have the flexibility to go surfing when the waves are pumping, or attend our kid’s important events.
What are your hopes for the business in the future?
We hope to continue to grow our business and communities in both locations and possibly add a new location.
How do you fill your own cup?
Surfing! As often as I can. I always feel better both mentally and physically after some down time in the ocean. Plus spending time as a family – simple things like being at the beach until dark, or all getting up early for a surf together.
Finally, what’s your own coffee order?