“The shop has been there for a long time and we want it to stay there for a long time”…
Ask any Byron Bay local their favourite spot for a coffee or a relaxed lunch and they’ll most likely say it’s The Top Shop. From surfie to hippy to recent city imports, The Top Shop appeals to all of the distinct town’s walks of life, not to mention the streams of visitors who manage to find it and their own patch of lawn out the front to settle into some sunshine.
Long operating as a corner shop and milk bar, Andy Gordon converted the old weatherboard on top of a hill into a cafe and take away store in 2008. Andy talks about what led him to take over what is the town’s second oldest continually running business, and the ideas, work and instinct involved in creating a business that has again become a cherished party of the town and its community.
When did Top Shop open?
The shop opened as The Top Shop milk bar and takeaway in 1951, which makes it the second oldest continuously running business in the Byron Bay area after The Great Northern Hotel. I took over the site in late 2008.
Was it your first hospitality endeavour?
No, I started working in the industry in a restaurant part time in Austria when I was working as a ski and snowboard instructor. I worked there for about 2 years. My first venture of my own was a bakery in Coles Bay, Freycinet, Tasmania. It was here I self taught myself to bake.
What was your background before opening The Top Shop? How long were you living in Byron before opening?
Well I actually studied furniture design initially and maintain a great interest in this aspect of design. In time I would love to have the liberty of tinkering away at some ideas that have sat redundantly in my head for many years! Though my true passion in life is snowboarding and skiing. I worked as an instructor for many years in Europe and at Thredbo.
I had been in Byron about 12 years before opening The Top Shop. After moving to Byron Bay in 1996, I would work the season in winter and stay in Byron for the summer surfing. I then opened a café called Succulent Café in 2000. We used Geneovese coffee, which at the time was new to the area, and enjoyed much success as one of the first quality modern breakfast and lunch style cafes in the region.
What planted the seed for opening something else? What gap or need did you see that made you realise it was worth pursuing?
My partner Sarah and I lived around the corner from the shop, which was still operating as a generic but struggling milk bar in the old residential part of town, next to the national park and close to all beaches. We would always walk by and comment what a great spot it would be for great coffee and food…
For us our lifestyle in Byron Bay very much revolved around the beach, surfing, our kids and generally being outdoors. There were not any businesses in town that we felt catered to that surf and outdoors element that many people lived here for. The whole vision for the shop was considered from the point of how the existing shop could be utilised best for the residential community – keeping it as close as possible to the original old school milk bar that was the hang out for many of the surfer crowd that moved here in the 60’s and 70’s – while bringing quality food, local growers produce and of course fantastic coffee to the mix.
We didn’t feel the town needed another city style café but rather something very relaxed that would appeal to a broader section of a very diverse community. Also, there was nowhere to get great takeaway food. We thought was essential on those glorious beach days, where people don’t want to have to go home, get showered and dressed to sit through a long formalised process at a table service café.
Were you actively pursuing opening this type of venue before finding the old milk bar site? Or was the finding the site the catalyst for doing something?
I always had lots of ideas about things that I could envisage working in Byron Bay, my mind was always ticking away… The decision to take on the shop though was very spontaneous though, and my instinct on the business concept very positive from its inception.
What was involved in getting the venue from concept to completion?
I cant express how grassroots the whole thing was! I contacted my brother Jeremy in Sydney and asked him to come on board as a business partner. He was super enthusiastic. Sarah was adamant from the onset that we contact Single Origin Roasters in Sydney for coffee and we have never looked back. Single O are such a fantastic company and we have a great respect for them and really value their product. The coffee was very integral to the Top Shop’s offer and business plan.
From there Jeremy and I literally pulled the shop apart, dug up all the old signage from the 50’s from under the shop and I built all of the chairs and tables. The 3 of us put a menu together and opened just a few weeks later… There was never a doubt from the inception of the idea that this business would work. It just felt right. Though there were plenty of people who thought it would never work!
So you could say it was a timely combination of instinct, risk, determination and innovation. This is on top of the actual time and labour that went into driving the business. I worked close to 2 years without a day off including public holidays. I was in there 7 days doing long hours. My other brother Charlie joined the business 2 years later, which has been a great addition to our business and nice for me to have my brother working alongside me.
What else happens at Top Shop aside from serving food, coffee, drinks etc? It has an element to it that is more than a café, it’s fair to say?
Yes definitely. Over the years we have had all sorts of events from art exhibitions, to conservation fundraisers, many large brand photo shoots, local shoots and all sorts of other great stuff. Perhaps the most satisfying thing for me has been watching all the friendships and coming together of people from all walks of life. We always tried to keep the shop from being pigeon-holed as a certain ‘type’ of café and like to make sure that everyone coming in felt they could interpret the space in the way they wanted. Many people have met and formed lasting friendships with people through the shop that probably would not have normally connected. It really has become a gathering place for a lot of people.
The décor is eclectic and as diverse as the client base that frequents the shop. We have some coveted surf memorabilia and contemporary art on the walls and have tried to keep that sense of history of the shop intact and relevant. The shop has been there for a long time and we want it to stay there for a long time so we are conscious of just putting in things we love and not falling victim to current trends and fashion.
So the clientele is still a cross-section of Byron’s various ‘locals’? Are you still bring the surfies, hippies, city types and tourists together as one?
Absolutely! It’s a great sight to see Elle Macpherson off the beach having a juice next to a 3rd generation plumber while surfer Dane Reynolds and his friends from California have lunch on the lawn next to some chai makers from Mullumbimby. It can get so busy in summer the queues sometimes run down the street and everyone is always so happy to wait and chill on the lawn. The vibe can be almost festival like on those classic Byron Bay beach days!
After several articles had been written about the shop in various publications, the tourist element of the clientele increased which I had no problems with. It is very much a local’s haunt but travellers love to come and feel like they are part of community. For them it’s a great insight into day-to-day life in Byron and for us the economic reality is this is a tourism driven town. It all comes together in quite a coherent and agreeable way. The enthusiasm from the tourists when they visit the business is fantastic and the repeat custom from the locals so deeply valued.
Is it true you have been approached to open up similar ventures in Sydney and Melbourne? Obviously there are plenty of cafés and venues in these cities… What do you think it is about the place that makes people feel this is missing in their home city/neighbourhood?
I’m sure in some cases its just a post euphoria from their holiday experience and wanting to take that element home with them. But certainly there is something to be said for that old school feeling the Top Shop evokes. People love that it’s not precious and you can walk off the beach covered in sand dripping your wetsuit across the floor and no one cares. Its easy and accessible and I think that resonates for everyone in light of our often formal way of eating and hospitality.
Also I do feel that the community element strikes a chord with people, even on a sub-conscious level. The informal nature of the place allows for so much movement and conversation that you cant help but be drawn into the familial atmosphere. Even removing the Top Shop from the beachside context there are still some great aspects of the business that could be applied into an urban setting.
You mentioned you self taught yourself to bake. What do you bake on site and what does this involve?
The baking aspect of the business has been one of the most challenging and rewarding at the same time. Challenging to us due to our lack of space for prep as our kitchen is very small! We have 24 staff and at peak times it’s very busy. We have 2 bakers who we worked with to develop and produce all of our pastries including croissants, pain au chocolat, Danish with seasonal fruits, praline scrolls and escargot. They come in at midnight and work until 7am.
We also house bake all our own muffins and savoury pies. We do try to push the baking side of the business but the sheer high volume of product we need to turn out in a confined space that has not been set up for baking makes it tricky. We also make sure we do Easter buns and items in keeping with the festive spirit through the year. It is a hard climate to bake in due to the high humidity which can be frustrating. Sam can turn out the most picture perfect croissants at 5:30am, and then on a really humid day they can be adversely affected by the humidity within an hour or so! Luckily they sell out fast…
What is one piece of advice you would give yourself if you could go back in time to the start of the process? (or to anyone thinking about starting a hospitality endeavour).
It’s a very hard one! The greatest pleasure and pain for me at The Top Shop has been growth. Business growth is a tricky thing to manage, control and drive. The growth was very much grass-roots and has evolved slowly into what it is today. Growth takes time and money and if I had my time again I would make sure I was better funded. Flexibility is so important, to try new things, work out the fails and successes, learn and listen to the patrons and the community at large. To anyone toying with the idea of a food based venture my advice would be; a unique, great, solid starting concept of course is essential, drive it hard, keep going, loosen the reins then let the beast run!
The Top Shop
65 Carlisle Street, Byron Bay
02 6685 6495
Charlie and Andy Gordon (right)
By Matt Hurst