Local Business Spotlight: Project281


Project281 is high on our list of the best cafes in Brunswick. We caught up with Connell McGrath, about the fabulous interior design, running a small business and of course, coffee!

Connell, how did you first get into hospitality and was this always what you saw yourself doing? Is Project 281 your first business in the Moreland area?

Funnily, I get this question all the time - Project281 is my first business. My now-business partner Sargon Michael at Project281 used to be my boss at The Glass Den in Coburg. We quickly formed a fantastic personal and working relationship and decided to continue moving forward together once we'd sold The Glass Den café. I guess when you find the right people and see an opportunity, you've got to run with it! For a long time, I'd known that I'd wanted to push myself into ownership, he has made the transition a much easier one than it is for most. Our strengths and weaknesses complement one another's, and we tend to work hard and have a lot of fun. I feel very fortunate.

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We love the industrial style design from the concrete to the fantastic plants; you engaged Splinter Society for this — what was your vision?

I'd pushed for a stand-out aesthetic straight out of the gate. Diners in Melbourne are so spoiled for choice; it takes excellent service, marketing and a great product to make the shortlist. With so many achieving this now, we wanted to combat the come and go 'excitement' of a new venue; we wanted to create a modern, comfortable space, lasts the test of time (not just on-trend) and feels as inviting as possible. Upon my first visit to Howler (bar in Brunswick), I knew that this was my pinnacle dream for aesthetics. I loved the greenery, the vast open spaces, the natural light and how they'd managed to incorporate all of this immense scale into an environment where you could also have an intimate conversation with your dining guests. Enter the fantastic crew from Splinter Society! We'd worked intensively with one another, 100 drawings, tradespeople and one full year of construction later we were ready to show Melbourne our vision! The project is still not over, however. We are always expanding internally and will be doing further fitting out as we move towards our upcoming night trade's official unveiling. Get ready for the new trendy Japanese-Cocktail bar Brunny! We're very excited!

You roast your coffee in-house too (is there anything you don't do?!), what made you decide to do it yourself?

Yeah! We are very proud of the coffee we roast here in-house as Founder Coffee Co. This project of ours is lead by the incredible, industry revered and extremely hard working Anne Cooper. She's an absolute superstar in the roasting world and a real encyclopedia for everything roasting. The decision to roast our beans came from future goals of enveloping ourselves even further into the Melbourne hospitality industry and community. It has been a lot of fun so far, and we're very proud to have won the numerous awards we have to date for the product we are producing!

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2020 was a turbulent year for everyone, especially for small business owners, what have you done to adapt?

I feel as though no matter which hospitality business owner you find yourself asking this question too, they will likely express their highest gratitude for the current JobKeeper initiative that has was put in place by the Australian government. This is the sole reason that a few of us lucky venues have been able to survive the turmoil, fiscally speaking. More importantly, however, it helped maintain working relationships with all of our incredible staff. Losing these lovely individuals would've been a hit that I honestly don't know how I'd recover. We have the best team I've ever had the pleasure to work with, and they make every day here worthwhile. We learned to adapt and take action as quickly as humanly possible throughout the various restrictions, incorporating full-takeaway and delivery menus. It was a real case of treading water not to drown. Together and with the support of our stunning community in Brunswick, we will have made it through.

What has been the most challenging part of being a small business owner?

The most challenging aspect of being a small business owner always starts with making sure that your percentages are in the right place. The hospitality business, cafes, in particular, have a notoriously small profit margin. After getting through this first test, the ongoing challenge is to spend as much time developing relationships with the employees! Happy employees=happy customers=happy boss'=happy work/life ratio! Luckily for us, as previously stated, we work with a bunch of absolute legends, and this process is straightforward as a result!

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What's the best part of being a small business owner?

Well, with the fear of sounding like a broken record, the best part of this job is also the staff! Haha, geez they're getting the spotlight in this interview. But sincerely, given the size of our venue, there are always between 20-25 of us here, we all get along famously, support, respect and love one another. It's a very encouraging environment to visit on the daily.

From your perspective, why is it so important to support local?

I think that supporting local is always essential! We've formed many customer relationships over the initial two-years since our opening has been, which has been so beautiful. Of all the businesses that I've worked in Project281 has, by far, the most extensive base of regulars. It's very encouraging having these individuals in to say hi every day and their support is what has kept us going, particularly during the pandemic.

How do you take your coffee?

Hahaha, I'm a latte, straight up! I do like to do my own latte art though to try not to forget where I've come from and also to prevent the 'rust' build-up ha-ha.

We love your Pet Friendly outdoor area! You took some model shots of a local dog, Sadie, is she your favourite customer?

Haha! She is currently a definite contender for my favourite furry cutie that visits us on the regular! I also have a border collie of my own, so that border collie love is REAL! Hi Sadie!! <3

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Is there anything you'd like to say to the Moreland community?

Just a sincere and wholehearted THANK YOU to every single one of you who have supported us over the past year (and obviously, any other time too!). You have kept our lovely community of staff who mean the absolute world to me employed during the most challenging time we may ever experience. I cannot tell you how much this means to me. THANK YOU x

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