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Penny University: the study of a great cafe experience

Amanda Whitley

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“The first coffeehouses that originated in London in the 17th Century were called Penny Universities. People would pay a penny to come in, and once inside, had access to coffee, the company of others, newspapers, bulletins and the latest news and gossip.”

It’s this idea of a cafe as a place for a community to come together that’s behind the latest cafe soon to spring up in Kingston, Penny University. And the people responsible the new venture? Two students of the restaurant trade.

Effie Kochinos and Ellie Raymond are young women taking on the intimidating task of starting their own cafe and coffee roasters; but this is no ‘phase’ – both women have made a career out of providing high quality food experiences.

Effie has been in the industry since the tender age of 14, building up her experience in the hospitality scene in a number of venues owned by her father, industry stalwart, Soc Kochinos.

Ellie never pictured herself as a cafe owner. “I never thought this was going to be my path in life,” she says.

“I played competitive soccer for around 13 years, including for Canberra United. My biggest dream was to be a Matilda.”

But while she was playing soccer and studying, she needed a source of income, and so entered the Kochinos stable of venues. To date, she’s worked in seven of the group’s establishments – even more than Effie!

“Initially, I didn’t love it – it was just a job,” says Ellie. “But as I became more knowledgeable and more comfortable and became good at what I was doing, I started to really enjoy it. Soon after, I shifted my focus from soccer and put my priority on working.”

It was a combination of their move towards seeing hospitality as a career, and Effie and Ellie’s positive dining experiences, that made them want to take the best of what they’d seen – excellent staff knowledge and great quality food – and emulate it for their own customers. And then build something of their own.

And so Penny University was born; and much like its 17th century forebears, it doesn’t discriminate when it comes to those it will welcome through its doors.

“Basically, our target market is anyone who wants a good cup of coffee, a good experience, good food, and quality service. We want it to feel like you’re walking into our home.”

Effie and Ellie say they’ve put a lot of thought into their menu, visiting their favourite cafes in Sydney and Melbourne to see what works – and the common thread was simple, homestyle, honest food. With Alex Siu (ex-Malamay) at the helm of the kitchen, you know you’re in for something good.

“We don’t want to overcomplicate the food – the menu will offer homestyle food inspired by different cultures. We’ll offer all day breakfast seven days and also open Friday and Saturday nights for dinner, initially, offering a blackboard menu of seasonal, local produce.”

For those who like a drink with their dinner (or all day breakfast), there’ll be one beer and one cider on tap, as well as a selection of wines. But the real star is the coffee…and the girls have brought in the big guns (or gun) to make sure that the beans are seriously good.

Allan Smith of Lonsdale Street Roasters fame has been brought on to roast Penny University’s coffee, and will be found out the back in his dedicated roasting room most days, although he’ll jump on the machines when needed.

“We found out that Allan was doing free coffee roasting courses and decided to go along. We’re still learning the roasting process, but he’s teaching us. Coffee is just like wine – there are so many different characteristics and different beans – it’s really exciting!”

In terms of the fitout, the girls are going for an eclectic mix of industrial and vintage and have designed the space so each area has its own unique feel. The emphasis is on homey and warm, with an open style kitchen. And there’s also a focus on local; extending from produce to architectural elements to artwork and uniforms.

“We’re trying best as we can to source local  – we’ve stripped back one wall to exposed its “Canberra Reds” (bricks) and it will feature artwork by Canberra artist, HOUL. We’ve also enlisted the services of local fashion designer, Shauna Hagan, to make our aprons. She recrafts vintage clothing and turns it into new garments, so our uniforms will be custom made and unique.”

So, it may cost you more than a penny, but the original 17th century philosophy still rings true. Once the doors open next month, Penny University looks set to be a space where it’s all about the coffee, the conversation, and the community. I, for one, can’t wait the hit the books.

the essentials

What: Penny University
Where: 15 Kennedy Street, Kingston
When: Set to open in November.
Contact: 0413 635 074
Web: Penny University on Facebook.

Stay tuned for a review and peek at the interiors when Penny University opens next month!

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Amanda Whitley

Amanda Whitley is the founder and director of HerCanberra. In her 'spare time', she instructs zumba, loves to cook (and eat), and wrangles two gorgeous little girls. She's done everything from present the tv news to operate a stop and go sign and is passionate about connecting Canberra women. More about the Author

  • Trish

    Brilliant name for a coffee shop! Reminds me of what my mother in law calls New Idea, Woman’s Day et al… “penny dreadfuls” – look it up on wikipedia 🙂

    And since Allan’s doing the roasting, I’ll definitely drop by. Good luck ladies!

  • Vivienne

    What a great initiative! All the best.

  • good luck girls!

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