Image of Chris in his café, smiling at camera with arms folded.

Chris Choong’s Jamaica Blue coffee shop in Westfield Fountain Gate rarely uses table numbers – the staff simply don’t need them.

It’s because Chris describes his business as a community, where “we know all our customers, we just call them by name”. And that community is growing bigger and better thanks to the Jobs Victoria Fund helping him hire three new staff members.

Growing a business and a community

Chris says the wage subsidy came at the right time. He can now put on new staff and grow his business, while supporting new workers who may not have had the same chance elsewhere.

“This is a place where six or seven families are dependent on my business to bring bread and butter to the table. I give them the guarantee that they will have work. They really have a sense of belonging and that is what I like about this business, the community feeling.”

Through the coffee shop, Chris feels connected to the whole local community.

“My staff are all local. A lot of our customers are friends or relatives of our staff. I help them [the staff], and so all of their families are helping them back.”

An inclusive workplace

Chris says his coffee shop is a place where all are welcome. He has hired three staff members, two from migrant backgrounds and the other living with a disability.

Two of Chris’ current employees, Mia and Chloe, have Autism, and Chris is supporting them to train as baristas at the cafe.

They come in when it’s not busy and practice making coffee and I’m the one to try the coffee.

The team is also culturally diverse, with “some staff from refugee backgrounds, from Afghanistan and Iran. We are all from multiple nationalities,” says Chris.

A year to forget

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Jamaica Blue was able to remain open for takeaway coffees, however it was a challenging time for Chris with the responsibility of almost 20 staff in full-time, part-time and casual roles.

“I had all my staff at home on JobKeeper. I opened every day by myself. Even if we didn’t open, we still had to pay half of the [commercial] rent but without an income paying the rent would ring us dry,” Chris says. “We were lucky we could open, and we managed to get a few dollars every day.”

“In our case we are lucky because we are located not too far away from one of the supermarkets so the flow of traffic of people going to get their groceries, they could stop to get some coffee too.”

The new staff will help Chris’ business to continue to grow, “Our regular customers are very supportive and we’ve also probably picked up some of the customers from the other stores that have closed down.”

A place to learn and grow

When hiring new staff, Chris chooses carefully but with an open mind and an outlook that his staff can learn and grow on the job.

“It is not easy to find good people,” he says. “When I look [for new staff], skills are not number one. What I look at is their attitude and their loyalty.”

He found those assets in his new team members.

Tianci (Amy), Hsiao-Pei (Phoebe) and Sharon will begin as customer service assistants at the shop, doing tasks such as clearing tables and cleaning dishes. But Chris encourages his staff to develop their skills and follow their passions.

“I am open to all my staff learning more about anything they like [in the coffee shop]. They can become a barista or if they have an interest in cooking, they can become a kitchenhand.”

“The new employees they will learn – if anyone willing to learn anything, there is always an opportunity for that.”

Find out more about the Jobs Victoria Fund.