St. Kilda has become "the place to brunch" in Des Moines and it's because of the hospitality of its owner, Alex Hall. It also may be because the food is (almost) too beautiful to eat.
condensed for length and clarity
I know you were raised in Australia, so I'm really curious how you came to be in the States. Tell me a little bit of your story.
Friends of mine had moved to New York and said that I needed to join them because of a job opportunity. I decided to go because I felt like I was treading water in Melbourne. Even back then I had dreams of opening my own cafe, but it all felt quite far off because you need a lot of money to start something like that in Australia. There's also just so many cafes there already.
So I turned up in New York with $500 in my pocket, only to discover there actually wasn't a job waiting for me there. I walked into a nearby restaurant that wasn't hiring and told the owner I'll work for free everyday for two weeks if you give me a job. He said I'd never do it, but I came in everyday and at the end of those two weeks, he asked if I'd like to be the manager. I ended up working there for three years with a very dynamic group of people. I had a great time!
After those three years that business changed hands and the new owner wasn't interested in sponsoring my visa. I thought what am I going to do now? Mind you, this was ten to fifteen years ago, but I had noticed that the coffee industry in the states was very poor and I kept thinking a table service, Australian-style cafe would work well here.
What are some of the lessons you learned while in New York City?
The thing I loved about New York is that you could really do whatever you wanted to and no one cared. You could rent an apartment for the rest of your days and it didn't matter to anyone. In Australia, there's this obsession with status and it can feel very restrictive. So I loved the freedom you were afforded by living New York. In fact, it was that freedom that kept me circling back to this idea of opening my own cafe.
When a spot became available in the neighborhood, I reached out to a customer of mine who had always said he'd help me out if I ever opened my own place. I met with him and said it's time to put your money where your mouth is! (Laughing) Between his help and my personal savings, we were able to open that first cafe in Brooklyn and from day one it was absolutely gangbusters! I hit Brooklyn at the point that it was turning and I believe I've hit Des Moines at a similar time. I've been very fortunate at finding places at the right time.
What drew you to Des Moines?
Over the past few years, I've come to visit my wife's family here and I always thought this is a nice town and someday I'll open a cafe here. The quality of life here in Des Moines is just so much better than New York. When you're living in New York, you're forced fed this idea that's it's the epicenter and that it's the greatest city in the entire world, but it can be a real shit-hole! There's trash everywhere. I love how clean it is here!
So when we're trying to decide where to move, I thought: why not Des Moines? We can have a great quality of life and I think I can open a successful cafe, so we just bit the bullet. And its been just such a successful move for us! My wife will tell you that I'm nowhere near as cranky as when I lived in New York. (Laughing)
When I came here, I was thinking I would open one shop and that would be it. But we're already thinking of expanding and it's really a testament to my staff and the support that they provide. I could not have found a better group of people - they're always committed, diligent, and on time! They've really been a revelation to me.
Whenever I visit the cafe, you're almost always on the floor. It adds something to the experience knowing the owner is helping serve the customers. Why do you do that?
I love serving a customer for the first time and seeing them come back. If they return, it means we're doing the right thing the right way. Personally, I really get a thrill from creating an environment that people want to come back to again and again.
It's difficult to get everything on the same level, but once a restaurant begins to run smoothly, keeping that momentum or "restaurant hum" going can be very addictive.
Giving someone the gift of hospitality is a lost art, but it's an art that I enjoy giving to people who choose to frequent our cafe. I really think people are looking for that gift when they go out and they're looking for that level of service. Like I said earlier, I enjoy giving that gift and this place has been such a beautiful avenue to give that gift of service and hospitality. I love this place. It's not a job, it's a lifestyle.