Hospitality executives trade kitchen nightmares for career advancement and better conditions

Mahalia Layzell was 12 when she first tasted hospitality.

“I started washing dishes in fine dining restaurants in the late 80’s… [where] my brother was an apprentice chef,” says Mahalia.

“In the 90s and early 2000s, hospitality was a very serious career choice.

Mahalia started out in coffee roasting in the 2000s.(Provided: Mahalia Layzell)

She rose through the ranks to become a waitress and then an apprentice chef at a time when the industry was changing.

“And then the coffee came… [and it] has taken over gastronomy.”

As a result, a new culture of eating and drinking out has often formed, changing the level of service and professionalism.

“I think Australians went through a stage where they looked down on service staff, especially in the corporate world,” Mahalia says.

A perception that Mahalia has managed to shatter at her roastery and café, Mahalia Coffee, based in Robe on the Limestone Coast in South Australia.

A woman stands in the aisle of a business chatting with a man in a postal uniform delivering a box.
Mahalia Layzell chats with a regular delivery man in Robe.(ABC Sud-Est SA: Bec Whetham)

She represents a growing cohort of Australians who have made coffee making a career, ventured into roasting and eventually set up their own business.

And unlike companies where she has been “mistreated”, she is determined to make hospitality a better and more sustainable career for her staff.

Others are looking for the same thing.

Building a better culture of hospitality

In Melbourne, pastry chef and business owner Boris Portnoy is giving staff permanent roles where possible.

A man in a chef's apron stands against a brick wall holding a bread, smiling.
Boris Portnoy at his Melbourne bakery and cafe, All Are Welcome.(Provided: Boris Portnoy )

“We thought that in order to retain talent, we had to work with them but we also had to compensate them fairly.

“So we try to have a minimum of three days.”

Having worked “really hard” as a pastry chef at a three-star Michelin restaurant in the United States, he knows the difference good management can make.

“What I really liked about working there, in this formal environment, is that you can be a professional,” says Boris.

“What I hate is how advantageous it is, especially for young people. Because they feel they need to eat a lot of dirt [to progress] in hospitality.”

A young woman wearing an apron stocks a shelf of baked goods in a cafe.
All Are Welcome is a Fair Plate Accredited Employer, a certification given to companies that pay their staff properly.(Provided: Boris Portnoy)

Job security, team building and career progression have become staples for staff at his companies, Gray and Gray Bread and Wine and All Are Welcome.

“When everyone feels like they are on the same pitch, we can start building the team spirit and the culture,” says Boris.

Five young people in chef's uniforms sit around a wooden table and eat under a lamp.
Gray and Gray Bread and Wine staff share a meal.(Provided: Boris Portnoy)

“You don’t have to spend all that time training your staff, instead you can work with current staff and make better processes and better decisions.”

Although becoming more common, Mahalia and Boris’ efforts are not the norm.

As director of the United Workers Union, Karma Lord sees the worst in the industry.

A cup of coffee sits on a table next to a can of sugar.
Hospitality has the highest level of precariousness according to the ABS.(ABC Sud-Est SA: Bec Whetham)

“They often suffer from wage theft in one form or another, high instances of sexual harassment and, especially now during COVID, very high instances of mental health issues.

“It’s unfortunate that a lot of people don’t stay in the industry because their early experiences may put them off.”

Career progression

In addition to fair pay and a respectful work environment, room for progression is essential for continued work.

Victorian Sanremo manager Tim Sweet had no idea his start in the hospitality industry as a flat-out at 14 would lead to a long and passionate career in the café.

A man wearing a hoodie stands next to lush green coffee plants.
Tim Sweet at Tamborine Mountain Coffee Plantation, where he worked for seven years producing coffee. (Provided: Timothy Sweet)

“The place where I worked allowed me to drink coffee if there was a mistake with [it]”, says Tim.

“I used to like to play a bit with a barista who I had a really good friendship with at the time. I would go out and try to figure out what was wrong with the coffee.

While being a barista wasn’t as glamorous or fashionable, or as well paid, back then, Tim says it’s a very good and financially viable job today.

“You think what you’re doing is just going to work and making coffee, it can be a little confusing at times,” Tim says.

“[But] you do a lot more.”

The industry is full of professionals, representatives working behind the scenes, machine technicians and financial advisers.

“It’s a great avenue for baristas later in life,” says Tim.

“I know a lot of baristas who rose through the ranks in the industry…because they took their skills and applied for relevant positions.

“You have to have that kind of mentality. Everything you put into coffee is what you get out of it later.”

all about people

This has certainly been the case for Bryce Lehmann, a humble Adelaide barista turned coffee roaster and trainer.

Like Tim, he was inspired by one particular barista while working at a Cibo.

“I saw his servant attitude and that was the most enduring part of coffee,” Bryce says.

A young man in a black t-shirt works at a coffee machine in a cafe.
Bryce Lehmann has been working with coffee since he left school.(Provided: Bryce Lehmann)

It was an eye opener for Bryce, who saw greater potential than “just making coffee.”

“It’s not just a transaction…I want to do this so that person can have a good experience,” Bryce says.

“I wanted to shine as an artisan of what I was doing.

“I [started] thinking ‘how can I actually carry this out? Could I open my own cafe?'”

Today, Bryce works for Adelaide’s b3 Coffee and neighboring establishment, which leases the space to other roasters.

A recent addition has been training young baristas, a partnership with the local council.

The program targets students who might be struggling in school and teaches them the skills needed to land a job in a coffee shop.

“Some kids hated it and others shine in it.”

A man works at a roasting machine in a large workshop.
The Adelaide Settlement co-roaster space is also used by other roasters.(Provided: Bryce Lehmann)

Like some of them, Bryce didn’t know what he wanted to do as a teenager interested in bands, coffee and skateboarding.

“There’s no way I would have known what was coming,” Bryce says.

“There are so many opportunities for people in coffee…all of which can come from just becoming a humble barista.”

About Jimmie T.

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