How Josh Baker built an empire

At the nexus of social and commercial equity

Josh Baker at his home base – Whistle & Flute – where he’s bought into the property.

 

What started out as a daily coffee routine for Josh Baker 15 years ago has grown into a vision stretching beyond South Australian borders.

Josh launched a little slither of a coffee store on Leigh Street in 2010, called Coffee Branch that many would point to as a catalyst for the small, one-way street’s rise to prominence in Adelaide.

“Being behind a coffee machine you talk constantly,” says Josh. “I worked in Pranzo where a lot of important people came to eat and drink and do deals. A lot of big deals got done in Pranzo, and as the barista you talk to everyone,” says Josh.

Being in and around the flow of business, and gaining so many insights into the inner workings of business transactions in the city from behind the coffee machine, Josh made up his mind to start his own hospitality venture.

“What I wanted to do was buy myself a job,” says Josh.

As a worker in the hospitality industry there’s a bit of a salary ceiling – the Award Rate is determined by the government – and so you’ve got to get some skin in the game if you want to increase your lot in life. What’s particularly revealing about Josh’s story though is that he didn’t simply ‘buy himself a job’ in starting Coffee Branch in 2010. Josh Baker is a great example of someone who’s managed to trade their social equity for commercial opportunity.

“George Ginos drank coffee at Rigonis and he offered me the lease across the road. He had gotten to know me and so he offered me a chance at my own thing,” says Josh.

Josh makes it sound simple – like anyone could have done it – but that’s not the case. Josh does more than make coffee, he makes moments that mean something to people, that make them feel good before they’ve even had a sip of the black liquid.

“We played the music loud, we played what we wanted – ‘gansta rap’ whatever – because I wanted people to know this was my shop and that we didn’t do things the same way as everywhere else and, ‘no we won’t turn the music down’,” says Josh laughing. This approach may seem counter to the interests of serving the customer but by its very authenticity attracted a following from like-minded people who valued Josh’s vision of what a city should be at the micro scale: familiar, unique, fun, informal and energising.

Continuing to transform his social equity into commercial equity, Josh was offered more opportunities off the back of his success with Coffee Branch.

“Don’t let people down – that’s my only insight into why I’ve been successful,” says Josh. “George gave me that opportunity and we got some runs on the board with Coffee Branch that led to more connections along the way, more diversity of people coming into that store that I would just talk to and get to know.”

Josh is speaking with Urban Insider from Byron Bay, where he’s taking a short break with his extended family. We ask if he’s enjoying some time off away from the literal bump and grind of café life, but no – he’s been on the phone the entire time he says.

Funtopia is going nuts,” he says. Funtopia is an indoor playground and activity space for children with a high-end food and beverage experience attached.

“Part Time Lover looks like it’s going to break ground in three weeks,” says Josh. Part Time Lover is the latest food and beverage venue Josh is building behind Town Hall and the City of Adelaide Buildings.

“And I just got a call from a collaborator saying we’d won the tender to consult on a massive, international project,” Josh finishes.

The list of Josh’s growing food and beverage venues is nothing short of astounding and it shows no sign of abating. But at the core of all these operations is still his down-to-earth charisma, a genuine personality and somebody who cares about his customers and building a community.

“Coffee isn’t just about the liquid in the cup, the buzz you get from coffee is about the human transaction,” says Josh. “You take the time to learn someone’s name and a little bit about them, and you’ll be amazed at what they share with you and the loyalty they show you.”

Josh sees very clearly the distinct line between the traditional and financial meaning of equity as he begins to buy into the properties his food and beverage outlets transform. This is very different to social equity.

For Josh however, determining which is more important is a little more blurred.

“Social equity is really about self-worth; the value you put on your knowledge and your IP and your ability to do what you say you can do and keep promises.”