From an e-commerce site to a café: it’s not the typical expansion that a business undergoes. But then again, the creative (and strategic) thinkers behind matcha tea suppliers Matcha Maiden aren’t creating a typical brand.
Sarah Holloway, a former mergers and acquisitions lawyer at an international commercial law firm was desperate for a passion project and business partner Nic Davidson, who juggles a creative agency, tech start-up and aerial asset capture business found a gap in the market and filled it: they created Matcha Maiden, a powdered tea supplier that provides the antioxidant-rich Japanese ceremonial tea to over 1000 stockists worldwide, with a bank of over 70,000 followers on combined social channels.
The business is rapidly expanding and not through additional product offerings: they’re opening their first physical extension of the brand, Australia’s first speciality matcha café: Matcha Mylkbar in St. Kilda. Inspired by the five global “blue zones”, where people live the longest due to a primarily plant-based diet (not to mention a high consumption of their hero product, matcha), non-vegans Sarah and Nic developed a completely vegan menu, with the innovative options like beetroot or mushroom lattes and the world’s first vegan eggs, Matcha Mylkbar vegan eggs™ which boast the same nutritional value as a regular egg. And of course, a lot of matcha.
“I think that’s one of the really unique things about the Mylkbar – it’s vegan dining done by non-vegans. Unlike what you might expect from a wholly “vegan venue”, the focus is not on any particular political/value-based factors but simply on the statistics surrounding sustainability, both in terms of individual longevity and the broader environment.”
The discovery of the effects of matcha on health (137x of the nutritional value of green tea, anyone?) was one of the reasons Sarah and Nice became interested in the product on their travels but bringing the drink home proved a little more difficult.
“Nic and I had enjoyed matcha on many of our overseas adventures but were unable to find a product back home that struck the right balance between the exorbitantly expensive ceremonial special occasion tea and the generally low quality and quite inaccessible ingredient grade options that often came without English labels and without organic certification.”
After research revealed that the product they were looking for could only be purchased in bulk, Sarah and Nic had a light bulb moment. “[We started] to think that there might be at least a handful of other people in our position who might also like to see a new product hit the market,” Sarah tells Collective Hub. “It turns out, more than a handful of people were interested and it’s been matcha madness since then. I quit my job six months in when we locked in our first US stockist, Urban Outfitters, and we haven’t looked back!”
With little experience in the hospitality industry, why the expansion into a café? “One of the things we have really tried to demonstrate about matcha is its incredible versatility,” Nic explains. “It has traditionally been used as a ceremonial tea by Zen Buddhist Monks in meditative practices, but we figured that its powdered form lends it to much more creative uses such as smoothies, desserts, stir fries, dressings, even face masks. [It seemed though] the more we considered adding things [to the product range], the less creative people could be with it. And since our main challenge early on was simply to explain what matcha was to begin with, we decided it’s better to do one thing well than many things half-heartedly. Plus, from a purely logistical standpoint, you can’t put matcha cheesecakes into an Australia Post envelope!”
And despite never considering opening a permanent space, Matcha Mylk was born, with a helping hand from two business partners well versed in the hospitality industry: the brothers behind Il Fornaio and Brighton Schoolhouse, Mark and Attil Filippelli.
“Their previous venues have all been great successes and there is no way we would have ever contemplated a hospitality venue without them,” Nic explains of their relationship. “When it comes to the hospitality side of things, they completely take the lead and we are guided by their expertise and experience. On the flip side, we are probably deeper into the health and wellness space (particularly the matcha world) and also bring the marketing/PR/social side of things to the table. So we are all continually learning from each other and combining forces to make the ultimate dream team!”
But what does it take for a team who has finally got a handle on the online supplier business to move into the hospitality space? “I don’t think you could have a more drastic change of business focus than going from a one-product e-commerce store to a fully blown, very innovative, seven days-per-week physical venue,” Sarah says. “I think the biggest shift in mentality for me personally has been going from running the entire business between the two of us to having a full team. While it’s wonderful to have more hands on deck it also adds more work too in terms of reaching consensus, delegating, oversight, avoiding overlap in tasks, you have to be so much more organised and plan ahead.”
Are there any grey areas of the hospitality business that they’re still figuring out as they go? “I would say every area is grey at this stage!” Sarah says. “A wholly plant based menu is a pretty bold starting point, with quirky additions such as beetroot and mushroom lattes or vegan eggs. None of us really know how it is all going to be received, but that’s part of the thrill and excitement of doing something that hasn’t been done before – someone has to, right?”
Matcha Mylkbar opens today at 72 Acland Street, St. Kilda. Read the in-depth interview with Sarah Holloway on Matcha Maiden’s success in our upcoming June issue, released May 2nd.