Five minutes with a Legend: Mark Dundon

Published on 30 September 2020

Photo: Mark Dundon, the face and co-owner of Seven Seeds.

Mark Dundon is one of Australia’s most influential coffee entrepreneurs. Beginning his hospitality career opening pioneering CBD small bar Troika with two art school friends in 1998, he went on to open his first café, Ray, in a then-unfashionable corner of Brunswick in 2001.

Ray was a hit and after Dundon returned from travels in the United States in the early noughties with a deeper knowledge of specialty coffee, he opened St Ali café and roastery in South Melbourne in 2005, a landmark venue in Melbourne’s coffee culture.

Today Dundon is perhaps best known as the face and co-owner of Seven Seeds, an umbrella business with a collection of roasteries and cafés, including pocket-sized Melbourne coffee shops Brother Baba Budan and Traveller. Dundon spread his wings as a co-founder of Sydney’s Paramount Coffee Project, which opened in Surry Hills in 2013, and has since expanded to Los Angeles. Dundon co-owns a coffee farm in Honduras, was a board member of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, and continues to advocate the importance of creating sustainable economic futures for farmers of quality coffee. Mark Dundon was inducted into the MFWF Legends Hall of Fame in 2014.

The proudest moment in my career isn’t a single event, or act, but is rather more people-orientated. I’ve cherished forming close relationships with coffee producers and championing their causes. It’s seeing employees, past and present, be so successful, and knowing that some of my first customers are still purchasing coffee from us almost 18 years later.

The mistake that taught me the most was on a few occasions not trusting myself and having ignored a gut feeling or looked at other people’s approach. It’s important to be honest and believe that there are enough people like yourself who will like your take. Not realising at first how challenging a hospitality was as a career was also a blessing; once committed and having gained momentum, I couldn't go back. So overall, I’ve made many mistakes in my career, and I am learning from every one of them.

My first job in hospitality was after I finished art school. I soon realised I would need a side hustle, so two art school friends and I opened a small bar in the CBD called Troika. It introduced me to hospitality. The scene was full of optimism. It was a great time. My time in coffee began a few years later when opening my first café, Ray, in Brunswick. Equally exciting and terrifying at the same time.

I got into this industry because I enjoyed the creative, social components, and the immediacy of hospitality. Coffee was a little in the shadows, and there wasn't a lot of information in Australia on roasting, sourcing and quality. So, for me, it was an exciting challenge. I loved it, and as I grew in understanding, more and more experiences opened up.

The reason I stayed was because coffee touches so many hands; it's complex, dynamic and exciting. I have made so many friends throughout the world. Between climate change, political upheaval in developing nations, and global commodity disparity, coffee is facing an uncertain future. I feel I need to promote transparency and accountability to ensure that coffee is around for a long time.

My mentors are many. A great friend Erwin Miersch from Nicaragua gave me the time and understanding of coffee from a growers perspective; Dave and Keith from one of the first "modern cafés", Wall Two 80 in Balaclava; Scott Bennett from Bennetts coffee and tea importers; all the Turkish and Lebanese shopkeepers on Sydney Road who helped me incorporate their food into my first café; all my art school friends who taught me how to create my own café style; and of course, my patient, forgiving business partner Bridget.

Our business has pivoted through the lockdown by concentrating on things we can control, like our home delivery system, brewing guides, tastings and using the internet to interact with consumers. This ensured we were present for all those people stuck at home. A big part of the current circumstances is ensuring we keep our staff and talent by understanding their pressures and allowing them time.

If I could return to any moment in the Melbourne hospitality industry of the last 50 years, I'd choose the late 1990s and early 2000s when there was an explosion of young entrepreneurs setting up bars and cafés. It was a cool time with so much enthusiasm and energy. The new café culture was taking off; we were seeing a more casual dining scene and a vibrant bar culture being created.

But the most exciting development in the Melbourne hospitality industry in the last five years is perhaps exciting isn't the word, but I feel now is an incredibly important time. After this lockdown pain and reset, I'm hoping there’s a greater understanding of quality service, products and venues and that consumers have an appreciation for a future focus in the production of quality products, and choose to put their dollars there.

Seven Seeds coffee, brewing equipment and merchandise is available for purchase online, with delivery across Australia and overseas. See the latest on Instagram at @7seedscoffee

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