Cool, calm and caffeinated: Sasa Sestic's global vision

Nic Crowther
Fri 10 Jun

Sasa Sestic is known for two things: ONA Coffee and winning the World Barista Championship.  However, there’s a lot more to Canberra’s mild-mannered (though intensely-focussed) king of caffeine.

It’s only some time after we managed to tear Sasa away from his rapidly expanding business that the real long-term vision for ONA Coffee emerges. What was revealed during half an hour of conversation says a lot about his dedication to perfection, and the holistic approach Sestic takes to the pleasure of a simple cup of coffee.


To get an understanding of where Sasa Sestic sees himself, it’s important to go back to the start.

 

 

Can you remember the exact moment you decided to start a business?

Absolutely. Back in 2004 I had a coffee store called Hansel and Gretel. It originally started in Manuka, but we were over the Phillip location. By around 2006-07 I wanted to do more with coffee and provide a better experience to customers. There was certainly plenty of potential for people to explore coffee, but no one in Canberra was really meeting their needs.

I sat down with my wife and two employees at the Holy Grail in Kingston (now closed) to try and work out how and what we could do. On the back of a napkin we wrote down a few ideas, but there was really one strong, overriding concept: to make the very best coffee we possibly could.

(laughing) I wish I still had that napkin!

 

 

What was the first big lesson you had to learn?

The name! To me, a name was just a name…. I was more focussed on what we were going to produce.

We were first called KONA Coffee and I quite liked the sound of it. As it turns out, Kona is one of the Hawaiian Islands – and therefore it was a name that we couldn’t trademark.

As the wholesale business began to grow, trademarking was going to become even more important. All it took was a quick adjustment and we had ONA Coffee… as well as the all-important trademark!

The best part is that ONA meant absolutely nothing when we starting using it as our company name. Now, almost ten years later, this made-up word is solely associated with our coffee and our passion.

Beyond that, I’d have to say that a focus on relationships has proved most valuable to the business. There are lots of different processes involved in bringing coffee from the plantation to the cup, so if you are working to ensure those steps are as perfect as possible, then you need to have really good working relationships with all those people involved.

Every element is important. The farmer in Honduras is relying on the person washing the coffee cups in Manuka. If someone isn’t doing their job properly, then the product isn’t as good as it can be and everybody else in the supply chain is being let down.

I couldn’t have had the success at the World Barista Championships if all the people behind me were not dedicated to this quality. That win was a win for everyone – not just me who poured the final cup of coffee.

It took a lot of work to build this understanding of relationships into our corporate culture. Now, the pay-off is that our staff are totally committed to the big picture of ONA’s vision, which means that we all work to deliver beyond what is normally expected.

 

 

Do you have a mentor in business?

Of course. Every new business needs a mentor, and it was no less important to us than any other company.

One of the things we focussed on was the product – a lot more than the actual business structure. In the early days we made really fast connections with the NSW Barista Champions which helped us to learn their craft and apply it to what we were trying to do.

These days, I get inspiration from all over the world. Mark Dandon (previously Melbourne’s St Ali and Seven Seeds) is now in Los Angeles, and I am amazed by what he does. In my opinion, he started Melbourne’s specialty coffee movement.

Also, Geoff Watts from Intelligentsia Coffee (USA) has become a friend and an inspiration. I was recently with him and Mark for dinner in Atlanta, and it was fantastic to be able to talk and exchange ideas.

That was a special moment, as I was able to tell Geoff he was a huge inspiration for me over the last five years. While we’ve met many times, it was the first opportunity I’d had to spend time telling him about how important his work has been to our story.

Now I’m looking for mentors and inspiration from the agricultural side of the business. Don Fabio (Cabarello) from Honduras is a fabulous producer who has a real respect for coffee. My time with him has been amazing, and taught me a very valuable lesson…

There are a lot of individual processes involved in creating a great cup of coffee. Don Fabio knows there is a certain time when the growing coffee cherry is at its very best. When we pick that cherry, everything that happens afterward is damaging that perfection. We can’t make coffee taste any better than it could at that moment, so we must try to minimise the impacts we have throughout the process.

 


Sasa Sestic and Word Barista Championship finalist, Hugh Kelly

 

Obviously, winning the World Barista Award was a moment. When else have you had to pinch yourself?

Right now! This has been an amazing year, but the scale of what we are doing has grown so much. In the last 12 months I have spent more than 250 days overseas and visited more than 60 countries.


Click here to read Part 2 of our interview with Sasa Sestic