If you’ve ever wandered up the hill from Bronte Beach and seen people happily waiting in line at a café, that's the Three Blue Ducks – a foodie favourite with locals and visitors alike. And if you haven’t, put it at the top of your list.
Known for being “lovers of real food”, Three Blue Ducks is owned by a tight-knit team of five: Chris Sorrell, Mark LaBrooy, Sam Reid-Boquist, Jeff Bennet and Darren Robertson, and open for breakfast, lunch and dinner most days.
The guys are all about using local, organic produce to make seriously good food – and having a great time doing it. The service is top-notch, and the coffee is one of the best brews in Sydney, which is saying something. Besides that, the Ducks are local champions, and do everything they can to support local suppliers and respect the environment around them.
Over time, the team has expanded the Bronte spot, and opened up two more venues in Rosebery and Byron Bay – but that community feel hasn’t changed.
We chatted to co-owner and Bronte born-and-bred local, Chris Sorrell, about the Duck dream team and building a business on quality.
Q&A with Three Blue Ducks
Let’s jump right in! Why do you think the Three Blue Ducks has been so successful?
I think it’s a combination of things.
I hope that it has to do with the level of quality we’ve always tried our best to maintain – whether it be food, coffee or service. We wanted to do the best we could, and make Three Blue Ducks a place we would want to go to all the time (if we didn’t own it).
We never really talked about what the Ducks would be, or what we had planned. We just thought, let’s get the place open, and that’s what we concentrated on. We learnt fast and worked hard, and learnt some lessons the hard way. It was crazy-long days and nights for a while, and we didn’t really pay attention to the outside world during that period. And Mark and I hadn’t been living in Australia for five plus years before taking the lease at Bronte, so we didn’t have a good idea of how we were going to fit into the café scene. Once we opened, we found that no one was really doing restaurant-quality food in a café setting, especially at breakfast. Now, I’m by no means saying that there wasn’t anyone else putting that sort of effort into breakfast, but we were doing our best irrespective of what others were doing. And people loved it!
I also think that was part of the charm for them: we were three young guys going out on a limb and investing everything they’d managed to save, doing all the work themselves, and without knowing it, raising the bar for what people should expect from café food, coffee and service. People saw us in there everyday having a great time, and I think that rubbed off.
Early on, we started to develop our ethos about sustainability and sourcing local produce, and again, people with similar ideas about the world were drawn to us. Plus, at the time Bronte only had the cafes down the hill on the beach, which weren’t really local-orientated. So, Bronte was crying out for a neighbourhood haunt when we arrived.
We also had a lot of press immediately, which was funny for a small café in Bronte! Matt Moran was a regular, Igor and Ludmillia from Iggy’s Bread helped us so much (and opened a few doors down six months later), and Dion from Single O was a huge supporter.
So, in short, I think it was a combination of hard work, a lust for quality and a bit of luck that made the Bronte location so successful. And the continuation of that success came from following what we started with, and building on it. There’s always the question of what can we do better; where we can improve – and that’s a very important mindset to have in business.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It can change so much, and it depends on many different things. At the moment, I’m based in Byron Bay, as Three Blue Ducks at The Farm is our biggest and busiest venue. I spend a lot of time at the Sydney venues too, both Bronte and Rosebery.
A typical day would involve getting up early for a surf, then going in to work. I’m the barista among the five partners, and that is my major responsibility across all three restaurants, so I’ll do the morning with the guys behind the machine, the stop for lunch (we eat really well – that’s one great perk). I’ll finish up my day in the office doing back-of-house stuff, emails and liaising with the teams in Sydney. If there’s still good surf, I’ll fit a wave in with my girlfriend in the afternoon, or just go home to cook dinner. The flexibility is great.
Why did you choose Bronte (and now Rosebery) to set up shop?
Sam and I both grew up in Bronte. We surfed everyday, hung out at the surf club and the park behind the beach. Bronte was in our blood: we knew the area like the back of our hand, and we knew plenty of locals, too. The old chicken shop at the top of Macpherson Street was the obvious spot. Looking back, I think there was also a certain level of emotional security that came with that location; a level of comfort. It felt like home, which helped us to take a chance with the café.
Around the time we opened, a guy called Mike was working at Iggy’s Bread. We got to know him and then he left to open Kitchen By Mike in an amazing old warehouse over in Rosebery. We loved that space, but always thought it was too big for us. After opening at The Farm in Byron we realised we could do those bigger spaces. When Mike moved on, we took on the space. The area had grown so much, and we had so much to bring back to Sydney after Byron, so we jumped at it.
Where do you source your produce from?
We try to source food from as close as possible to each restaurant. We don’t have any special rules as things are not always available locally, but we do our best. We work with several different suppliers to buy local, sustainable, ethical and organic (if possible) produce, meat and fish. In Byron, it’s a bit easier as the Growers Collective at The Farm grow some things for us each season and we are surrounded by plenty of local, organic or spray-free growers in the Northern Rivers area.
What were the main challenges of starting a business in Sydney?
There are so many challenges in Sydney. There is a lot of competition; everyone wants to be the new ‘hot spot’ but so few last. The market is becoming saturated. I think you need to work hard to maintain quality and customer service and keep people coming back. You have to build your community and make that connection with people.
It’s really hard to find good staff, too. There are hardly any career waiters or even baristas anymore (most just use it as a stepping stone to something else), and good chefs are tough to find.
The other major challenge is managing staff costs on a day-to-day level. Every hour they’re there and you’re not busy eats into your margin – and gone are the days of café staff getting $18 an hour. I’m not saying the minimum wage shouldn’t be increasing – it definitely should – but just that the public should be aware of it, and what it cost to run a cafe. This balancing act is by far the hardest thing we face in our business.
At which point did you know you could expand and how did that change things for you?
The first time we grew, it was very natural and organic. Jeff, who owned the pizza place next door, wasn’t doing what he loved. We’d reached capacity in our small 20-seat restaurant. We wanted to do nights and needed more space for a bar, a prep kitchen, and so on. Mark talked to Jeff one day, and soon after, we took over his lease and Jeff became a Duck.
That’s when we knew that if we could make this work, then we could go further and further again. That expansion doubled our capacity, and we moved from 6 days of trade to 7 days and 4 nights. It also meant we had to bring in other people, and rely on them. Suddenly, the business was too big for Sam and I to work every shift on the floor or coffee machine, and for Mark to be involved in cooking every meal.
Finding our first managers was a test. We needed a night floor manager, a bar manager and a chef who would push the high quality levels on the evening menu. That’s when Darren came into the fold, as the fifth Duck.
Not long after that expansion, we started looking for new venues.
Are there any exciting plans for the future?
We’re always looking at opportunities, but there’s nothing locked in at the moment. We’ve talked about opening another place in Sydney, or branching out to Brisbane or even overseas to New York. But right now, we’re just trying to refine what we do in the three venues we have. We’re excited to do something new this year but that’s all I can reveal…
What's your favourite dish on the menu?
I can’t pick just one. At the moment, I really love the lamb dish that has been coming off the BBQ in Rosebery on the weekends. There’s just something about cooking with charcoal that makes it so good. I also love the corn fritters dish in Bronte for breakfast – it’s classic and tasty.
Lastly, where are your top spots to grab a drink, shop and hang out in Bronte?
I love Bronte Beach for everything: surfing, swimming, spearfishing around the rocks to the cemetery, and BBQs with mates. But there isn’t much in the way of shops and bars. To be honest, I don’t really go out for drink anywhere in Bronte except the Ducks. It’s pretty quiet. I normally head into town – This Must Be The Place is great – or to Bondi.
For food shopping, I keep it real and go to Just Organics at Bondi Junction – it has a great selection, and is pretty affordable for organic fruit and veg. Also, part of their profit goes to Sea Sheppard.
And if you’re after a new surfboard, check out Sunburnt Mess in Bondi – they have a very cool mix of funky, alternative boards.
Three Blue Ducks has two buzzing locations in Sydney, as well as one further north in Byron Bay.
141-143 Macpherson St, Bronte
1/85 Dunning Ave, Rosebery
11 Ewingsdale Rd, Byron Bay