Starting as a maker-focussed retail store with a coffee machine, E for Ethel became a longstanding meeting place for the North Adelaide community. At the end of August, founders Amanda Matulick and Dan Harland will close its doors for good and focus on their online store.
Melbourne Street café E for Ethel is shutting up shop and moving online
In 2011, the hospitality landscape in Adelaide was awash with possibility.
There were boutique cafés already in operation at this time, some of which still stand today, but larger chains (even South Australia’s beloved Cibo) were a dominant presence in many Adelaide coffee lovers’ hearts.
As boutique roasters popped up, so too did new young café operators excited by the quality of product now available to them, and the passion the roasters were bringing to the industry.
This is the era North Adelaide café E for Ethel launched into when, in 2011, they first opened the doors of their retail-focussed space, offering coffee on the side.
It’s now a decade on from that first day of trade, and Adelaide’s café scene is entirely changed.
It would be difficult to start humbly, as E for Ethel did, given how elaborate (and expensive) new café fitouts have become, but without mainstays like E for Ethel demonstrating the viability of running a business on a basis of quality product and personable service Adelaide would not have the hospitality scene we do today.
Last month, founders Amanda Matulick and Dan Harland announced E for Ethel will close for good on Friday, 27 August.
The retail side of the business will continue to exist online, but the couple has decided to move away from a daily life in hospitality in order to focus on their young family.
“It’s an amazing but exhausting career, and hospo burnout is brutal,” Amanda tells us below, in a conversation about E for Ethels rise, and the future the business is aiming towards.
CityMag: When did you first set up E for Ethel and what made you want to start the business?
Amanda Matulick: We opened in 2011, originally starting out as a retail gift shop with a coffee machine, serving De Groot beans and Sweet Lola Desserts and stocking Australian designer-maker products and artworks.
We called ourselves a micro café back then. We hoped to create a space where people felt comfortable coming for a coffee and taking home a gift or two. We had three tables and a LOT of space.
We’d both always thought of owning a business, and I was ready for a change from PR in the arts industry to being more involved in arts in a practical way.
And, we could see a gap in the market and we wanted to fill it.
Why did this space and North Adelaide seem like a good fit?
Dan Harland: We’re both from the country but we’ve both lived in Adelaide our whole adult lives. It just felt like the right space — Melbourne Street in particular. We looked at quite a few areas around and we both liked the feel of Melbourne Street.
AM: We’d been looking all over town, but when we peeked in the windows of this one, we knew it would work. It was big and open, and affordable. We knew the off-street location might be an issue, but we also saw it as a strength and we had a dream to chase!
What were the initial challenges of establishing the business?
AM: We started out with the world’s smallest budget and a whole lot of hope! Luckily, people liked what we were doing and it got bigger than we ever imagined.
We just made it up as we went along, worked insanely hard, followed our instincts, and just tried to do our best to run a good business and be nice people.
What was the blend of hospitality and retail at that time, and how did that evolve over the life of E for Ethel?
AM: We started out 90% retail, with a HUGE, long front counter that ran the length of the shop, and shelving and retail on every wall.
DH: Yeah, by year two people were asking for more than just cake and so we started adding really simple dishes to the menu – croissants, toasties and bruschetta, simple to make and quick to serve.
Around the same time, we recognised that we had more people wanting to sit with us and the few, very large, Laminex tables we had were taking up too much space. Plus, we noticed that a lot of customers didn’t want to share, so we invested in smaller tables and smarter shelving.
Now we sit around 50/50. We got better at displaying our retail range and curating the selection better.
It’s kind of cute that we’re taking it back to where it all began, back to focus on the retail (and maybe the occasional coffee popup!).
Do you remember a moment when E for Ethel started to feel established?
DH: Straight away really, it felt like there weren’t many people offering what we were at that stage, and it quickly became clear that people loved what we were doing – good, quality offerings, served with a friendly smile and an interest in getting to know our customers.
By 2013 we were online with our retail range and shipping nationally and running a full menu in store. We were holding events of every kind – from professional events to baby showers, exhibitions to weddings. Games nights and community parties. You name it, we hosted it.
By early 2015 we we’re voted #5 in Yelp’s top 100 places to eat in Australia and #2 for coffee; we did a fringe season (five shows a night, five nights a week), we did our first refit, changing the focus of the space from retail to more hospo and making better use of the space, and then had our wedding over our Christmas break that year, too. It was a big year!
How did you see Adelaide’s café scene evolving, and did that shape your business in any way?
DH: When we opened there were only a handful of cafés where you could walk in and feel a part of the community, and boutique coffee roasters were just starting to really take off. We didn’t really know it, but a chance encounter with Bern [Stack] from De Groot, lead us to one of the best decisions of our business life.
The café scene exploded somewhere along the way, and so many things in business began changing. We are so proud to have been a part of that.
Were there any particularly challenging moments in the business’ history, prior to this decision to close the shop?
DH: Yeah, we’ve had a few challenges along the way. We had break-ins, unadvised and lengthy construction works in the complex where we are based (think jackhammers in the concrete above our head for weeks on end).
An issue with strata management prevented us using the carpark space in front of us for outdoor dining, so our outdoor capacity went from 30 to 12 on weekends, four during the week. Uber Eats kicked off and that affected the lunch trade. Then COVID hit with all of its challenges.
Why did now feel like the right time to close the shop?
DH: We’ve just had our second baby, and we realised we want to have more time to spend with our girls, to really slow down and enjoy their childhoods. And with our lease renewal coming up, it just felt like the right time and choice for our family at the moment.
It’s time to put our kids first.
Was that an emotional moment?
AM: It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, we love that little shop and the amazing community of peeps who support us. And there is so much of it we will miss.
But there are so many things we’ll gain too.
It’s an amazing but exhausting career, and hospo burnout is brutal. We’ve thought of closing up or selling up before, but it was never the right time. This time it just feels so right.
What was the response like from the community you’ve built?
AM: We’ve been really humbled to see people respond with shock and sadness, and we’re sharing lots of farewell tears and (COVID-safe) cuddles with people who have felt a connection to our store – the people who had their engagements, weddings or hens shows there, the families whose kids we’ve seen grow up, the customers who have become friends.
DH: People have been messaging us with their stories – one customer who said we were the first place she felt welcome after moving to Adelaide, our store made her feel less lost and alone. The artists we support have reached out to thank us for seeing beauty in their works and helping their careers by stocking their wares.
What will you miss about the café element of your business?
DH: We’ll miss the energy of that space, the vibes, and the people so, so much. And the coffee. Hot damn, we will miss our coffee.
Did you see the business lasting to 10 years when you first set it up?
DH: Hell no, H2O! We were happy to make it year on year, and each year that we’d beaten the odds and showed the naysayers (so many people felt comfortable telling us we would fail!), we were prouder than we knew was possible. And we had so many ideas, ways to improve, ideas to try, changes to make.
What will the next phase of E For Ethel look like?
AM: We’re keeping Ethel alive by moving our focus to our online store, shipping happy parcels of Ethel goodies all over Australia. We’re also planning to do markets and the occasional cheeky pop up!
We keep joking that we’ll do consulting and coffee trainings too, so we’ll see.
And, it will mean we can focus on family life, enjoying the girls’ childhood and a slower pace of life while we decide what the next chapter will be.