For someone so synonymous with coffee, Mark Dundon is surprisingly laidback. Exhibiting none of the caffeine addict’s agitation, let alone any strain from heading an international coffee empire, he’s as calm as peppermint tea.
Dubbed ‘The Godfather’ of Melbourne coffee, Mark is better known as ‘The Dude’ to colleagues past and present. And with his relaxed disposition and longish hair falling in soft waves, there is certainly a resemblance to Jeff Bridges’ iconic character from The Big Lebowski.“I’m pretty chilled out,” admits Mark. “There’s nothing to get too upset about.”
Sixteen years after opening his first cafe, Ray, in a Brunswick backwater, Mark’s seated at Seven Seeds, the spacious Carlton cafe that’s but one of numerous businesses he now owns, wholly or in part. In Melbourne alone, there are also three city coffee houses Brother Baba Budan, Traveller and Hortus) and a Fairfield roastery.
In Sydney there’s Paramount Coffee Project, which led to a Los Angeles cafe of the same name. He even has a 50 per cent stake in a Honduran coffee plantation. Along the way, he has sold other businesses, including the legendary St Ali, to fund new ventures and feed the curiosity that drives him to do coffee differently, and better.“I was always a fairly independent kid so I never had any trouble doing things by myself,” says Mark, who grew up in Mentone.
After reluctantly completing an applied science degree at his parents’ behest, he switched to art then banded with some fellow artists to open Troika, one of the city’s pioneering small bars, in 1998. “It was a really nice time in Melbourne, when that whole bar scene was exploding,” he recalls. He enjoyed the sociable vibe at Troika, which attracted artists, architects and fashion designers, but working until 4am had little long-term appeal for someone contemplating fatherhood.
After selling his share in the bar, he opened Ray in Brunswick in 2001, a month after his son’s birth. “I wanted to do something that was fairly small, that almost had a bar feel,” he says. At Ray he worked 12-to-14-hour days to create a neighbourhood meeting place in an area he remembers was a bit rough, or “old school”. For instance, he once reported an abandoned car that had copies of police files inside (including a photo of Carl Williams). He recalls it was driven away – not by the constabulary.
Meanwhile, he became increasingly focused on the coffee he served. “It was an espresso-based Italian market, very dominated by brands; it was stagnant from the 1950s,” he says. “Back then it was, ‘Use the silver bag or use the gold bag and it’ll all be OK, leave it to us.’ From a scientific point of view, I really wanted to know what was in the bag: where it was from, when it was roasted.”
He began recording batch numbers, and noted that coffee with the same batch number was consistently delivered throughout the Christmas period. Large quantities were evidently roasted before the holidays, and Mark noticed the older product’s inferior taste. He changed roaster. He ultimately sold Ray – by then a by word for good coffee and hospitality – so he could find out what was in the bag: “I really wanted to roast.”
He attended a coffee conference in the United States, where speciality coffee was emerging, and found opportunities there for education that didn’t exist in Australia, such as cupping – the caffeinated equivalent of wine-tasting. With hitherto rare knowledge about bean quality and provenance, and brewing methods including cold drip and pour-over, he opened a roastery and cafe in South Melbourne in 2005. Again, it was off the beaten track, and again his mother cried, fearing he was throwing away his savings.
“St Ali was difficult to get up and going,” recalls Mark. “A lot of people thought I was arrogant believing I could roast coffee. They thought I was crazy, stupid, arrogant.” But his curiosity and belief paid off, and St Ali formed the crest of Melbourne coffee’s third wave (following instant and espresso).He expanded his portfolio of businesses, with names reflecting his scholarly approach: St Ali, for example, was named after the 14th century sufi who introduced coffee to Arabia; Baba Budan is said to have smuggled seven coffee seeds out of Yemen; Gabriel-Mathieu de Clieu was the naval officer credited with bringing coffee to the Americas.
Mark has been making his own forays into the Americas lately, including the plantation in Honduras. The sale of his De Clieu cafe funded his share in the venture, which brings the former scientist even closer to what’s in the bag. “It’s a good opportunity to try things,” says Mark, who has planted various coffee crops and run experiments that he would not ask often cash strapped farmers to risk. He also spent two years living in Los Angeles to establish a Paramount Coffee Project cafe there. Now back in Melbourne, he describes his plans to open a second, larger establishment in La-La-Land as “full-on”, but says it in a tone of voice more suited to planning a nap.
When I suggest he has achieved so much over the years, he responds with a dead-pan, “Not really.” This relaxed, self-effacing attitude seems ill suited to LA’s bustle and bling. Having regularly found himself there on coffee business, however, the Melbourne coffee pioneer couldn’t resist the challenge of bringing his hometown’s cafe culture to what he describes as a “new frontier”.
Since returning to Melbourne last December, he says he has noticed a decline in the quality of food and coffee in local cafes, as proprietors struggle for profits in an increasingly crowded market. Still, he says the “level is extremely high compared to anywhere else”. In fact, he describes Melbourne’s coffee scene as the “best in the world”. Of course he won’t take any credit for this. “I think it’s the public that has made Melbourne the coffee capital of the world, because they do really enjoy the process and enjoy coffee and are really passionate about what’s good. Everyone’s a critic and everyone’s ready to tell you what you’re doing wrong, and that’s great because it makes you keep going, trying to do great stuff.”
Taking it to the world Mark Dundon’s LA venture isn’t the only Aussie-inspired cafe abroad. Try these on your travels.
Father Carpenter \ Berlin
An Australian with Danish heritage, Kresten Thøgersen worked in Melbourne hospitality
before opening a pop-up coffee bar in Berlin three years ago, then this cafe in 2015.
All-English signage and menu items including smashed avocado means it’s recognised
by locals as Australian. ● fathercarpenter.com
Coutume Café \ Paris
Canberra-born Tom Clark and Frenchman Antoine Netien opened Coutume in 2010
with a hybrid of French and Australian style. Food leans towards healthy, organic, even
vegetarian (rare in France), but coffee is the raison d’être. ● coutumecafe.com
Little Collins \ New York
Melburnian Leon Unglik, together with New Zealander Nicholas Curnow, opened this
small, bustling cafe on Lexington Avenue in 2013. A few months later, Melbourne Lord
Mayor Robert Doyle walked in with a genuine Little Collins Street sign, which has been
hanging above the counter ever since. ● littlecollinsnyc.com
Sisterfields \ Bali
After growing up in his family’s Melbourne restaurant then working at various bars and
hotels, Adam McAsey brought ample experience to his Seminyak cafe, which opened in
2014. It’s part of an expanding empire that includes Expat. ● sisterfieldsbali.com