Flick through the gallery above for a look at some of the Illawarra’s best coffee shops.
In main streets, in place of old corner stores and deep in residential areas, Wollongong's trendy inner-city cafe culture has spilled over into the suburbs. KATE McILWAIN charts the rise of the neighbourhood cafe.
Off the highway, opposite rows of houses and around the corner from two primary schools, and right next door to the traditional-style suburban corner store, Reay’s Place does a steady morning trade.
It’s busy early, at 6am, when tradies stop for breakfast, then at 8am, when the office workers duck in to grab takeaway lunch and coffees.
Coffee orders spike again after nine when parents on their way back from school drop off arrive, and by mid-morning – before the lunch rush – a few of Fairy Meadow’s retirees might be sitting in the window seats, or on one of the tables on the footpath outside.
The simply decked out cafe, run by husband and wife Garry and Nicole Reay, opened “almost by accident” about a year and a half ago. It was designed to be a shopfront for Nicole’s catering company, but it quickly became evident that the suburb had been crying out for a local caff.
“We got to about four weeks in and I said to my husband ‘you have to quit your job, we need to get a full team in here, it’s not just a quiet little coffee shop’,” Nicole said.
“It was like a line out the door that didn’t stop until about two o’clock each day. We thought we might sell a few cakes and have some customers come in to talk to us, but it became so much more.”
Wollongong’s caffeine obsession is nothing new – a strong coffee culture has thrived in the inner city for well over a decade.
In 2004, Bar Pellegrini brought a taste of Melbourne to Keira Street and Diggies made sure North Beach-goers could grab a decent cup of coffee.
Then, in 2006 the homegrown Swell Coffee opened in the city centre, and in 2008 Lee and Me was a game changer, making sure Wollongong had its very own hipster cafe, complete with Surry Hills coffee beans and trend-of-the-era mason jars. In the industrial centre along Montague Street in North Wollongong, Delano cafe has been putting the city on the bean roasting map for years.
Each of these front runners remains open, having shifted and updated to meet changing trends and ever more adventurous coffee tastes.
There’s also been an explosion of other cafes – in shipping containers, holes-in-the-wall, laneways, rooftops – ensuring workers and shoppers are suitably, and stylishly, caffeinated at all times.
But more recently, the cafe boom has spread outwards – north and south, and into more and more suburbs – meaning residents don’t have to travel far for their espressos and lattes.
Swell co-owner Mike Starr has noticed the suburban spill, and partly puts it down to the changing expectations people have had about their coffee, as well as the friendly competition within the local industry which has kept coffee standards high.
“When we opened, there wasn’t much around even in Wollongong,” he said.
“There was that period where things were a bit stunted across all development because of the problems with the council, but then suddenly you saw this growth spurt and places popping up all over the place.
“There’s been a lot of confidence and new ideas – and social media means you can see exactly what everyone is doing and that just encourages people to keep doing better.”
Mr Starr supplies beans and equipment to coffee shops up and down the coast, and says the new breed of suburban cafe has “character, rather than just volume” to cater to more sophisticated tastes.
“One part of our business which has grown recently is domestic machine sales, which tells you people at home are making great coffee,” he said.
“I think from there it spreads to the suburbs, and it’s not good enough now just to open up a shop and stick a coffee machine at the end of the counter, you’ve actually got to come up with something that’s designer quality, has a good feel to it, somewhere you want to be on your day off or after work.”
Main suburban centres, like Thirroul, have had a smattering of decent cafe’s for some time, but even there – in the northern suburbs’ largest village – there’s been a surge of trendy cafe openings in recent times.
Elsewhere, from Shellharbour to Stanwell Park, Balgownie, Bulli, Tarrawanna, Mangerton and Dapto, the number of “cafes with character” located deep in the suburbs just keeps growing.
One of the newest is Russell Vale’s Flat White With One, which – in a sign of the times – took the place of an old hamburger joint in the tiny northern suburb.
With experience running the former Thirroul cafe The Tin Shed, Kelly Field noticed when the shop across the road from her house became vacant early last year.
“A lot of people want these little general store, homemade-style things and Australia has become such a massive coffee culture, so people want to be able to come in and get a good coffee close to their home,” she said.
“It’s actually classed as a neighbourhood shop – so I sell things like bread and milk and things people might need.
“The whole neighbourhood comes here – and I think having lots of different places in different suburbs creates a local atmosphere for each one.”
Ms Field said some of her customers – who followed her from Thirroul – had remarked they “didn’t even know where Russell Vale was” until Flat White With One opened its doors.
“A few real estate agents have said to me that this place has put Russell Vale on the map – and some even think house prices might go up because there’s a real feeling of community,” she said.
Suburban cafes to try around the Illawarra
Stokes Lane, Bulli
A community-minded cafe (they serve free coffee for emergency services workers on Christmas Day and shut in the recent heatwave for the health of their workers), this place serves Campos along the Princes Highway in Bulli.
At all and Sundry, Woonona
An artsy little space on the highway at Woonona, At all and Sundry has been leading the high-quality suburban cafe trend (along with Franks ’n beans at East Corrimal) for several years.
Alexander’s Cafe, Dapto
Good coffee in Dapto’s CBD run by enthusiastic young businessman Chase Murray, who is intent on breathing life in the town’s main drag. He recently commissioned a colourful new mural for the laneway at the back of his shop that’s invigorated the old lane next to the “Old Pub.”
Village Fix, Shellharbour
Serving Byron Bay Coffee Company beans in Shellharbour Village, this place has won a number of coffee popularity contests.
Broken Drum, Fairy Meadow
Perched along a row of shops facing Daisy Street (surely the prettiest address in Fairy Meadow), this place serves good Campos coffee and simple fare. Next door to a lovely florist, it’s a great place to while away Saturday mornings.
Bill & James, Balgownie
A peaceful and beautifully designed spot to grab coffee and brunch in Balgownie Village – the range of sweets and breads is mouth-watering.