Trouble brewing | Detour Espresso being forced to close

Michaela and Manny are beloved by their customers who make a detour from near and far for their coffees.
Michaela and Manny are beloved by their customers who make a detour from near and far for their coffees.

After only two years operating her own coffee cart, Nambucca Heads' Michaela Bush has earned a reputation of being a crema queen.

"I think she makes the best coffee in Australia," one truckie who pulled off the highway to get his daily brew told the Guardian News.

She has attracted a loyal latte following of hundreds of customers, a few who make the detour to the coffee cart at the Nambucca Industrial Estate several times a day for a cuppa and a chat.

So when Michaela was given two weeks' notice (on March 4) to move it or lose it, it sent a shot of anger through the coffee-loving community.

"I was so shocked - there was no warning. I'm devastated at the thought of having to close down the business I've worked so hard to build over the past two years," Michaela said.

"I love what I do. And my customers, they're not just customers to me - they're a big family."

According to council, Michaela has been contravening a section of her permit.

"The Section 68 approval the council issued to Michaela Bush in March 2019 included condition 3 as follows:

Unless approved otherwise by council, the vehicle is not permitted to set up, stand, nor remain at any one selling point, for more than 15 minutes at a time, unless serving customers, and must keep moving once customers have been served. A vehicle must move a minimum of 500 metres between each selling point.

"The reason for this is that the approval is for mobile food vending, much like a Mr Whippy or fish monger. It's not meant to allow the business to remain stationary," council General Manager Michael Coulter said.

Michaela said the wording "unless serving customers" was ambiguous, as there is never an interval on any given day where she is idle for 15 minutes.

"I'm serving customers constantly. And even if there are no customers physically in front of me, I'll be making coffees for phone orders. What really confuses me is why, after two years, there is now a problem," she said.

Mr Coulter said there had been "complaints to council about the coffee cart from shop-based businesses in Nambucca Heads".

Michaela said she never set out to affect other businesses and has made her business sufficiently different from others in town to minimise competition.

"I'm the first to open in the morning, and I have tradies waiting to be served as soon as I open. I only make take-away coffees - I don't sell meals, and I don't have tables. I shut at 12pm, and I'm closed on weekends - my customers are mostly people on their way to work," she said.

When we asked some of Michaela's customers what they would do if Detour Espresso was no longer able to operate, several said they'd forego coffee altogether.

"I just wouldn't get a coffee. I live in Bowraville and work at the high school here in Nambucca - this spot is so conveniently located for me. Plus it's such great coffee. I won't be making a trip into town even if this place closes," one customer said.

"If people in town want to complain that they're losing business, then they need to start offering more - that's the way competition works," another said.

"I stop in here on my way from Sydney to Brisbane. If this isn't here I'll go to another town. It seems like short-sightedness by your council, if you ask me," a delivery driver said.

Other customers were angry to hear of Michaela's predicament, but admitted they probably would make the journey into town again.

"I'm so addicted to coffee that I would go back to the cafes in town. But I'm not happy about it - it's out of my way," one customer said.

"I go wherever there's good coffee - I love Good Time Charlies and Wharf Street Cafe and I regularly go there too to sit down and have a meal with my coffee. But the only coffee I crave is Michaela's," another said.

One customer said the only business this decision would support would be McDonalds: "And like they really need the help, anyway".

It's frustrating to see a young start-up business from Nambucca being squashed like this.

Michaela has had a long love for coffee, and learned her craft on a little Breville machine at home, before working for other cafe owners.

Once she learned everything she could, she was ready to stretch her wings and set up her own business.

"I used to work at the Nambucca Building and Hardware shop, and people used to come in and say we needed to put a barbecue or a coffee cart on out the front - I guess that's where this idea was hatched," she said.

"And I knew I wanted to open a business in Nambucca because I've grown up here my whole life.

"But as a young person, there's no way I could ever afford to start up a cafe. I couldn't even afford to pay for the trailer - my brother Jacob loaned me the money, and I'm paying him back. It's really nice to have Jacob be a part of the business."

Jacob has Down syndrome and is a regular worker at the coffee cart. For many customers, grooving out with him to his favourite rock songs is a highlight of their day.

"I think to have someone with a disability be an entrepreneur is really powerful. It's a great thing for people to see," Michaela's mum, Annette said.

Michaela is unsure what to do now. She said one of the reasons her business is successful is because of the convenient location - moving around constantly would affect sales dramatically.

"People tell me I can't leave. I've learnt so much through this business over the past two years that I could easily move to a big city and make a lot more money than I do now. But I want to be here.

"Imagine how much unemployment would go down in Nambucca if young people were encouraged to grow businesses."

We asked council if there was any way they could help find a solution to keep Detour Espresso brewing.

"The council could consider a lease of the road reservation to allow her to remain stationary," Mr Coulter said.

"Without pre-empting what the council may think about this, the issues with this are firstly weighing up the public interest in terms of the benefit the coffee cart brings versus the trade lost from other retailers with a similar offer who are burdened with higher overheads and (usually) longer trading hours.

"The second issue would be the appropriate site rental seeing other retailers have to pay rent and the council shouldn't be subsidising a competitive advantage.

"A third and lesser issue is other mobile vendors seeking similar semi-permanent arrangements. We do get a lot of requests from mobile vendors to go to highly visited places in summer. But the shop based retailers in those locations have to operate across the whole year - not just when there are plenty of tourists."

We asked if there would be a problem with Michaela trading on private land.

"I'm advised that under the State Environmental Planning Policy for Exempt Development that Michaela could locate her coffee cart on private land in the industrial estate," he said.

Edit: Since publishing this article online, Michaela has arranged a temporary solution. She is leasing and operating from a Norco-owned site two doors up from where she usually trades as part of a three-month trial.

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