By Katie Ayoub
February 11, 2020
“The Aussies are coming!” That exclamation sounds more like a starting gun for a party than a warning shot of trouble ahead. The Aussies are indeed here, winning American diners over with their laid-back café culture and fresh, satisfying food that manages to find our collective comfort-food soft spots.
Aussie all-day cafés are popping up across the country, wooing diners with a breezy atmosphere and good quality fare that demonstrates a modern approach to flavor detail. As evidence, look to the Mushroom & Beet Toast with slow-cooked shiitake and portobello mushroom on pain levain smeared with ricotta and topped with English spinach, roasted beet relish and goat cheese, served at Banksia, an Australian bakehouse and café in Kansas City, Mo.
Hole in the Wall, a sleek Aussie café with two locations in New York, serves a rich, savory burger called The OG Beef Burger. It reflects this cuisine’s affinity for global flavors, topping a grilled Wagyu patty with double-smoked bacon, miso onions, pickles, lettuce and American cheese, and serving it on a milk bun.
A number of factors have softened the ground for this penetration into the U.S. market. First, America’s love of all-day dining and the weekend brunch scene make the uplifting, playful vibe of Aussie food culture a welcome fit here. The significance of the coffee culture steeping in through this trend cannot be overstated. Both countries share a coffee-centric focus, but the Australian one counters the U.S.’s current model of caffeinating up to power through the day. Instead, consumers here are finding haven in the Aussie cafés, where good food, relaxation and fun are the order of the day.
Another driver is the wild success of avocado toast in the U.S. Although San Francisco is often credited with its origin story, Australia has long called the “avo smash” a native son. The original sees a ripe avocado smashed onto a thick slab of artisan toast, seasoned with salt, pepper, chile flakes and finished with a touch of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Of course, chefs here have been innovating around this classic in wonderful ways, but its success signals a readiness for more Aussie-style comfort food that is perfect for any time of the day.
The other major factor that’s helping drive interest and menu innovation is the ease in translation from Aussie to American. Although incredibly far apart, the two nations share a history of Anglo influence through colonization, along with waves of immigration that continue today. The result is two melting pots, with chefs following a similar trajectory of pulling from global pantries and creating eclectic, creative menus, often themed around comfort.
“The opportunity with this trend lies in a number of places—shareables, breakfast, brunch, lunch and more,” says Shane Schaibly, VP of culinary and corporate chef with First Watch, a breakfast and lunch-themed concept based in University Park, Fla. “The broad answer to why it’s worth close study is that these Aussie concepts are doing everything right. For us, the things we take away from their approach to breakfast and lunch include use of color and texture in a smaller format. When you’re looking for markers, the focus is on quality and flavor over quantity; freshness is key. Playfulness and simplicity—those are the telltale signs of an Aussie dish.”
CULTURE ON A PLATE
It’s important to understand the culture that’s wrapped around the flavors and forms coming in from Australia. It’s intrinsically linked to the opportunity, and it goes way beyond a kitschy pick-up of quaint terms like “brekkie” for breakfast, “g’day, mate,” or “no worries.” Though that last one does speak to the allure behind the food and coffee.
But how do American menu developers emulate the Aussie vibe without projecting false notes? “I think there’s a bit of no fuss behind our recipes,” says Sam Trude, owner of Great White, an eclectic all-day café in Venice, Calif. “We don’t take ourselves seriously but we take our food very seriously—the aesthetic, the quality, the flavors.”
That’s evident in its Blue Smoothie Bowl, which showcases a brilliant blue color with a nutrient-dense combination of banana, pineapple, passionfruit, blue algae, chia, seasonal fruit and housemade granola, somehow capturing a California-meets-Aussie vibe that is incredibly appealing.
Aussie fare telegraphs a freshness of preparation with an elegant and jubilant touch that can be seen in toast builds beyond the avo smash. These offer a roadmap to the next iterations of artisan toasts, all showcasing attention to flavor and texture while keeping things unfussy and straightforward.
The soft-scramble is a star in the Aussie firmament, seen often on toast builds. At New York’s Two Hands, pickled chile scrambled eggs are served atop Pain D’Avignon sourdough with watercress and avocado.
Bluestone Lane, a brand that has both coffee shops and cafés in five markets across the U.S., offers its guests four toast builds, including Banana Toast, with fresh banana, almond butter, cinnamon and honey on toasted multigrain bread. That ingredient combination is thoroughly familiar, but refreshingly new, promising wholesomeness, satisfaction and a sense of indulgence—a winning combination.
Of course, avocado toast still rules the roost. Aussie cafés showcase innovation here, too, while keeping the profile light and fresh. St. Kilda, an Australian café and bakery serving breakfast and lunch, with two locations in Des Moines, Iowa, menus a version bursting with color, comfort and flavor. Its Avocado Toast sees smashed avocado, charred corn, red onion, cucumber and tomato salsa on toasted sourdough. Scrambled or poached eggs are optional.
Of course, Aussie culture is coming through clearly in the breakfast and lunch dayparts, offering U.S. menu developers fresh ideas on both food and beverage. Wholesomeness in these cafés is served up differently, overall, and may help tilt consumers here toward the Aussie way. In general, many of the hits from Aussie cuisine taking hold here reflect a culture that has a healthy attitude toward great quality food with fresh ingredients. Ingredients like lush avocado, full-fat yogurt and cheese, grass-fed beef and lamb, and hearty whole-grain breads are viewed as clean, wholesome, comforting, nutrient-rich foods that fuel the body and please the palate—rather than as indulgences.
Bluestone Lane’s new Vegetarian Big Brekkie demonstrates that deft balance with two poached eggs, grilled halloumi, avocado smash, baby kale, baked mushrooms and roasted tomatoes, served with thick-cut artisan toast.
Aussies feature a few items on breakfast menus that aren’t typically seen here. Salads make a strong showing, and thanks to the all-day vibe and clever ingredient layering, they don’t feel out of place. The Brussels Sprouts Salad at Brunswick Café in Brooklyn, N.Y., stars roasted Brussels sprouts, red peppers, cauliflower, red onion and baby red potatoes with a poached egg and multigrain toast, simply using both the egg and toast as a bridge to traditional breakfast fare.
Meat-centric dishes that look beyond the usual suspects also play in this space, pointing to the country’s strong culture around raising both cattle and sheep, but also its determination to keep comfort in the crosshairs. St. Kilda introduced a Beef & Polenta dish onto its daytime menu as a special a while back, and thanks to rave reviews, it made it onto the fall/winter menu. It features slow-braised chuck roast, cooked in red wine, beef stock and aromatics, served with creamy polenta, cipollini onions, local mushrooms, gremolata and a poached egg. “It is a delicious dish that is comforting and filling. Our guests look for unique options for breakfast and this is a favorite,” says Whitney Hall, owner.
That comfort-side of Aussie fare is conveyed through café staples like avo toast, but of course, its greatest ambassador is the meat pie. An expression of the country’s Anglo heritage, the meat pie is savory, rich and filled with possibility. As American consumers become more familiar with Aussie dining culture, their sights will set on these pies.
Fork-in Aussie Pies in Inglewood, Calif., captures the opportunity nicely. It offers pies in a range of sizes, from family size to “cutie pie,” a 4-oz. morsel. It also cleverly taps into customization, offering a number of “stacks” that guests can top their pies with, from Minty Mushy Peas to Sausage Croissant Stuffing. Pie choices include a classic Lamb & Rosemary and a Madras Veggie Curry, each with a short-crust base and buttery croissant pastry top.
High-impact global flavors are another marker of Aussie food culture, presenting the possibilities of mash-up menu development. The English brought the savory pies to Australia, and the Greek immigrants introduced Australians to halloumi, which is prevalent on toasts, salads and sandwiches in Aussie-themed cafés here. The Pacific Rim has asserted great influence on Australian cuisine in both flavors and eating styles, so a rendang can be seen on the same menu as an avo smash. And of course, the Italians came to Australia following WWII and brought with them their exquisite coffee culture.
HOW WE GOT HERE
That love of great Italian-based coffee is in part what started the Aussie movement here in the United States. As an example, meet Lui and Angie Monforte. They owned a café in Brisbane, Australia, then moved to Frisco, Texas. They missed the café culture they had left behind and couldn’t find it where they now lived, so they opened The Aussie Grind, a breakfast and lunch café.
“We wanted a good place for great coffee and quality food for both lunch and breakfast options, all in one place, like we had back home,” says Lui Monforte. Their food reflects what he calls a “chill culture,” with items like a Big Breaky serving up hearty comfort with avocado, eggs, mango-tomato relish, grilled mushrooms, tomatoes, sage pork sausage and applewood-smoked bacon.
The Monfortes’ story is similar to countless other Aussies, most of whom came over in the early 2000s and, out of frustration with café options, opened their own. “That origin story of the Aussie café culture is important to understand because it stresses the commitment to quality of product and quality of ambiance,” says Kara Nielsen, principal of Kara Nielsen Food Trends. Monforte agrees: “Coffee culture is a huge part of our business. Our counter is full service, so our customers order the coffee and we bring it to them the way they want it. That surprises them at first, but they really respond to it.”
Apart from great coffee, Aussie cafés are known for specialty drinks like turmeric and beet lattes. At Great White, the Lavender Beet Latte features almond milk, beet concentrate (made from soaking fresh beets), lavender reduction and agave. Bluestone Lane’s Golden Latte touts its functionality, with turmeric powder, cinnamon, ginger and black pepper.
There’s a glorious array to choose from when looking for inspiration from Aussie food culture. The forward-leaning, modern edge to approachable, comfort-centric, fresh fare offers an ocean of opportunity. First Watch’s Schaibly, who tracks breakfast and lunch trends with great interest, summarizes it best: “I believe that the Aussies are the ones to watch for what’s coming next.”