We Are Orana – Allison, our Humble Merchant

Posted in: Community
‘Building meaningful community connections through food’ 

Allison: Humble Merchant

When Allison makes a dish, she doesn’t follow a recipe, she follows her heart and people’s delight.

After getting an idea of what others enjoy eating, Allison loves whipping up a soup, experimenting with toastie combos or creating new treat options, and finds joy in seeing the expression on their face as they take their first bite.

If we were to describe Allison, the owner of Humble Merchant, in one word, it would be ‘passionate’. With her infectious energy and sincerity, we believe her when she says that serving delicious food is her way of caring for people and making meaningful connections. And that was where the vision for Humble Merchant was born.

However, getting there wasn’t a seamless journey and like anything worthwhile, it took determination, persistence, and commitment to her goal of opening her own café.

Allison started her early career in retail and found that she had a feel for what people liked. She had a knack for arranging the display of a shop to make the experience more enjoyable, resulting in a 15 year career in Visual Merchandising. Post children in 2016, Allison landed a job in Marketing as a Social Media Manager and that’s where the love of connecting with a community began.

As COVID hit Australia in early 2020, Allison started delivering food to friends as a way of staying connected and keeping spirits high. With the state of Victoria in lockdown and people feeling the effects of isolation, Allison’s home cooking brought delight and comfort to those she could reach.

It was through her little delivery service that Allison discovered more and more her love for making food that would fill people’s tummy’s whilst touching their hearts. So, with passion in her pocket and an idea in mind she decided it was time to combine her retail, marketing and cooking skills and open her own café.

Starting with absolutely no knowledge of running a café, not even how to make a barista cup of coffee (but had the love of drinking it a lot!) Allison spent six months in hard study, practicing and gaining every skill she would need, from founding the business to making the perfect espresso with crema.

Friends and family got behind Allison’s dream and were pointing her towards established cafés that were up for sale, but Allison didn’t just want a shop, she was looking to serve a community.

A housing development across the road piqued Allison’s interest – such a place would allow her to serve her local neighbourhood. She started making enquiries with people from the City of Casey.

After a year, enquiries on that development bore no fruit, but Allison’s persistence and constant enquiry to the Casey council members eventually paid off. There had been some discussion around a potential hole-in-the-wall café in the new Clyde North estate of Orana so as soon as this opportunity became more apparent, Allison’s name was immediately put forward. The moment she received the call, she grabbed husband Dave and went to check it out.

It couldn’t have been more perfect for Allison, “Even driving down Pattersons Road, I had a feeling like I was coming home – it was strange. We pulled up and I knew it was right. It was part of something.”

The opportunity didn’t look like much – a garage in which would fit a hole-in-the-wall café. The average person may have walked away but for Allison, its low cost set up and potential for strong community relationships made it perfect.

The space proposed for the café was the garage of the Orana Community Place house, that will eventually revert to an owner-occupied home. This presented big design challenges for a small but still commercial café to operate. Instead of fitting it out with permanent fixtures, the whole setup had to be relocatable. Allison saw advantage in this; rather than a hindrance, the light-footed nature of her new café also afforded plenty of flexibility to be unconventional. 

“Quirky” is Allison’s way to describe the Humble Merchant café. Nothing comes standard, much like her wonderful custom-made dishes! Allison would remain true to herself and present food that delighted each customer.

She would talk with them, watch them taste the food, listen to what they liked and make something special for tomorrow. It was a real ‘test and trial’ approach that created the menu she offers today, as well as the daily specials, surprises and treats she has on offer daily.

The local Orana community were very excited about the new café, even before it opened. For weeks before launch, neighbours would come by, offer support and ask when they would open, saying they would love a coffee.

Allison’s first customer was accidental, as a day before opening, an elderly local man wandered in and started chatting. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him we weren’t open,” says Allison, “So I made him a coffee and gave him a croissant.”

Allison imagined a quiet opening day, one in which she could steadily run the shop all by herself. Instead, every man, woman, child and dog from the neighbourhood came in. Allison was rushed off her feet and had to recruit another five family members as staff just to keep up. She also had her father-in-law off running around restocking supplies…a true family business!

Every day since then, Orana locals come by for a coffee and a chat. Her very first customer visits most days, shares his personal stories of Croatia, and enjoys the soups Allison makes. As she gets to know her customers more, she grows fonder of them day by day.

Whilst it’s been a lot of hard work to get to where she is today, she wouldn’t change it. Allison feels as though she has found her place, and equally it found her!

Being a part of Orana feels like home for Allison. She pours her heart and energy into each coffee and meal she makes, intent on creating meaningful connections and delighting in filling everyone’s cup each day!