When Mark Baird’s sister Jenni – an actress – moved to the bright lights of LA, she discovered plenty of career opportunity, but a severe lack of decent coffee.
So Jenni, known for her roles in All Saints and A Place to Call Home, rang her brother in Sydney, urging him to hotfoot it over and start bringing better coffee to a city more obsessed with movies than macchiato.
Starbucks had introduced espresso to the masses of America but not good espresso.
Baird, now 33, had learnt from a champion barista while working in a Sydney cafe during his university studies, but had since moved into print management – a role he left to fly to Los Angeles.
“At the time (in 2007) there was not a single place doing good coffee,” he says. “Everything was about drip coffee and Starbucks. Starbucks had introduced espresso to the masses of America but not actually good espresso.”
Excited by the obvious opportunity, he returned to Sydney for six months and refined his skills as a barista while saving to get back to the US and open a cafe.
By the time he returned, several cafes had already opened serving the kind of coffee Australians are accustomed to, and queues were out the door.
But the global financial crisis had also arrived with a thud, and no one was willing to invest in the cafe he’d been masterminding.
So backed by his sister and her husband, screen writer Michael Petroni, Baird instead decided to set up a mobile espresso business, Longshot Espresso.
One of his first big breaks was meeting actor Simon Baker, who organised for Baird to serve his coffee on the set of TV show The Mentalist.
The Australian acting contingent soon got wind, inviting them to their TV and movie sets to caffeinate the cast and crew. Through Jesse Spencer, Baird landed on the set of House, then through Jonathan LaPaglia, Cold Case, before numerous other productions including Russell Crowe’s movie Noah.
Involvement in the program G’day USA led to a contract with the same company that organises the Academy Awards, and Baird found himself in a place he hadn’t expected – the red carpet at the departure lounge of the Oscars.
“At the first Academy Awards I ever did, J-Lo and Marc Anthony came behind the machine and wanted me to show them how to make coffee – I lost my s—!” says Baird.
After having since worked at numerous celebrity weddings, including those of Hilary Duff, Nicole Richie and Khloe Kardashian, Baird has grown accustomed to mixing it with A-list celebrities, who he says often don’t match their reputations.
“Because coffee is almost a common denominator, the level of candidness has been crazy,” Baird says.
“Russell (Crowe) has on multiple occasions been so friendly and so keen to hear about the coffee and how the business is going.”
While he may have been serving coffees to some of the world’s biggest stars, including Tom Cruise and Will Smith, Baird says it took three or four years for the business to start really turning a profit.
“We were doing all the exciting things but not in enough volume to make money,” Baird says. “There were some lean years getting the business going. I just worked and worked and worked – it was not pretty at the start at all.”
With four vans and 10 mobile espresso set-ups, the business is now thriving.
He says he found the lack of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ in the US refreshing. “The American ambition and drive and optimism is really attractive to me.”
And in a city that can be all about the hustle, Baird says a low-key approach among celebrities has worked.
“Over time you learn we’re all human,” he says. “It’s not that you get too cool for it, or it becomes second nature, but you start to realise what you’re there to do,” he says. “The point is it’s all about going under the radar.”
Baird is now thinking even bigger – he wants to introduce his coffee to the masses.
In LA, the movement surrounding his style of coffee is known as the ‘third wave’ (the first two involved diner coffee, then Starbucks and coffee beans), and Baird says it’s controlled by the hipster, artisan movement.
“I want to pioneer the fourth wave, get everybody having great coffee … without all the hipster rubbish,” he says.
He is about to sign a lease on a cafe in Sunset Boulevard, and says realising the size of the opportunity in the US has been an unexpected challenge.
“It took me forever to get my head around the idea that you can absolutely take this where you want if you’ve got the desire and the skill set,” Baird says.
“I saw myself opening one little cafe, but at the end of the day you can have 10 cafes.”
Mark Baird’s tips for cracking LA
- Be direct: “You can be very Australian and that will take you so far, but you need to speak the language of Americans that they understand. You’ve got to be positive, go-get-’em”.
- Act quickly, or miss opportunities.
- Provide good service. If it’s a business to business arrangement, make their job as easy as possible.
- Think big – and then a little bigger.