Current Issue #487

Mascavado's
'obnoxiously positive' guide to opening in a pandemic

Sia Duff
Mascavado

When COVID-19 restrictions began taking effect in mid-March, most hospitality businesses were forced to make major changes to the way they operate. Many found the conditions too challenging and simply shut up shop. For Lea Chairesa, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

Mascavado was initially supposed to open on Hutt Street in October 2019, but “a couple of speed bumps” meant that the date was pushed back. As a result, young businesswoman Lea Chairesa was still putting the final touches on the cafe and patisserie early this year. Then a few weeks before she was ready to open the doors, a global pandemic was declared.

The 23-year-old says that starting a business at her age requires “ambition and bravery” even in the best circumstances. It also helps to have some financial backers. Chairesa’s supporters live in Indonesia (where she grew up) and Sydney (where she learnt her trade), and the WhatsApp group they use to communicate was unsurprisingly busy as COVID-19 changed almost every aspect of their lives with remarkable speed.

Chairesa admits that her backers were “a bit worried”, but she assured them that the effects in Adelaide were far less pronounced than in much of the world. “I was obnoxiously positive,” she laughs. “I saw it as an opportunity because no one else was open.” And so, on April 18, Mascavado welcomed its first customers.

Sia Duff
Mascavado owner Lea Chairesa

With an emphasis on takeaway coffees and pastries, the new venue was able to operate largely as planned, and the Hutt Street location meant there was a captive audience. “There are a lot of people working from home – they still need to get a coffee,” Chairesa says. “So they come in, they see pastries and they end up buying a few things.”

As the name suggests, many of the baked goods use mascovado (or muscovado) sugar, which imparts a rich, toffee-like flavour. But it’s not all sweet; Chairesa specialises in recipes that combine both sweet and savoury flavours. The offerings change daily and might include miso cookies, spiced chai blondies and a delicate ricotta cake made with dried camomile flowers. In a normal year these creations would quickly become Instagram favourites.

Sia Duff
Sia Duff

And while 2020 is far from normal, there have been some advantages to opening a business in this exceedingly unusual climate. Because many people’s habits have been severely disrupted, getting them to try something new is easier than it would otherwise have been. “We got a lot of support from locals in the beginning,” Chairesa says happily, and she soon found herself expanding, hiring an extra two staff members.

It was one of many tweaks over the first month of business, which she basically treated as an “extended soft opening”. That meant there was plenty of time to see what worked without being overwhelmed by a wave of customers, and the business has now settled into a pleasant routine, with a small but devoted group of regulars ensuring that the pastries often sell out by mid-afternoon.

And it’s not only customers who’ve noticed the new venue. Not long after the doors opened, a burly farmer walked into the store with a bag of flour in his arms. His high-protein Flinders Range Flour proved perfect for croissants and Mascavado now uses more than 60 kilograms a week. Chairesa is committed to using as much South Australian produce as she can in her cookies, tarts, cakes and croissants, all of which are made from scratch. Rohde’s eggs arrive straight from the farm, and she even sells Sheoak Baker’s slow-fermented sourdough on weekends thanks to a recommendation from her coffee supplier.

Sia Duff
Mascavado

As her list of local suppliers and customers has expanded, Chairesa has been able to cast an eye to the business’s future. She recently installed seating for 15 customers inside the cafe and has already started the approval process for an outdoor seating area.

Reflecting on opening in the midst of a global pandemic, Chairesa admits that “it’s not a great situation”. But she’s quick to add that there have been some pretty big positives. Business has been better than expected, and she hopes that it will continue to grow as restrictions ease. And the support she’s had from her local community so far has given her a confidence boost at a time when the fledgling business needs it most.

Mascavado
175 Hutt Street, Adelaide

Alexis Buxton-Collins

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