Alice from Uprising

Alice Lees began her adult life as a silversmith, teaching jewellery and object design and baking muffins on the side. Fast forward five-odd years and she’s the new owner of her very own bakery and café, Uprising.

Open five days a week in the sleepy Newcastle suburb of Maryville, Uprising stands proud on Downie Street, displaying simple, industrial fittings, huge windows and exposed brick. If it weren’t for the old miners’ cottages lining the street opposite, you’d feel like you’d been whisked away to Brooklyn, NYC.

With a view to the expansive warehouse-cum-bakery space behind the coffee machine, I sat down with Alice for a freaking delicious coffee and toastie made with homegrown veggies, on their housemade sourdough. The Uprising space is sprawling; the barista can age coffee beans up the back, there’s a huge commercial kitchen, staff room, and even graphic designer Ollie renting a desk in the corner. Better yet, the space next door has just recently been renovated to become a weekend pop-up shop for Alice’s cheesemonger boyfriend, a space to host pop-up restaurants, events, and so much more on the cards.

"I think a lot of people have this idea, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a café?’ I didn’t mean for it to actually happen."

I first met Alice several years ago while working at Three Bean Espresso, one of Newcastle’s top cafes (no bias here, google it). I was a barista and she was the softspoken girl who delivered our morning muffins. It’s been so exciting to watch her grow from muffin-girl to café-owner in less than five years.

While we’re chatting, Alice ducks away a few times, to check on staff, bread, pies. You must have a million things on your brain, I wonder. “Pretty much, yep. I just oversee everything, but mainly focus on the product. Everyone has their little role.” Uprising now supplies sourdough, as well as tarts and muffins, to several local cafes like The Press, Side Pocket and Locomotive. I’ll admit, I got pretty lost when she was talking about the intricacies of baking bread for wholesale, but the passion with which Alice talks about baking is so inspiring.

Alice’s story is pretty awesome. A silversmith by trade, she was teaching jewellery and object design at Sydney TAFE, working at a bottle shop and at a café, when she decided to trade in the teaching gig to bake and deliver muffins to Three Bean Espresso.  First from her kitchen at home, then she lived and baked where the café now sits. The rest, as they say, is history.

"Once you put too much structure in place it loses its personality. We still have a place without uniforms, which I like."

Who’s the coolest person you know?

As my mum’s just walked in, I should say my mum. My parents are pretty cool. They have good work ethics. My dad is 70 this year and still works full time; he’s retired three times now. I’ve learned a lot from him, he’s pretty cool. They have shaped who I am. They allowed me to do this and have supported me. They’ve given me the confidence that if I really stuff it up, they’ll help. I’m never going to starve. Knowing that is cool.

by Amy Lovat

Was owning a café always on the agenda?

No. I think a lot of people have this idea ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a café?’ I didn’t mean for it to actually happen. When you speak to people, a lot of the time they say, ‘If I had the money, this is how I would run a café.’ I was just stupid enough to do it.

Is it tough being the boss?

The staff all have their little areas. I get here early enough to watch everyone arrive, probably about 5am. I’m always doing paperwork in between baking loads, organising the next day, paying bills, ordering. If someone is away or sick, I can step into that section. Apart from coffee, I stay away from that. Another baker arrives at lunchtime when the mixing happens. Then we have a delivery driver, Jo. He’s in a band and has a business degree so I brought him in to learn how to do the books. He does a bit of everything when we get stuck. He’s an all-rounder.

Take me back to the beginning.

I left my teaching job and was working at the bottle shop and Three Bean. I started testing out cakes at home and Ben [owner] was the first person to get on board and say he would take some muffins. Very quickly I started delivering to other people as well, because it wasn’t feasible to make only 12 muffins. I started with the little muffin run then added some tarts to it. For a few months, I was up at 3 in the morning baking, and after delivery I had a job I would go to at 10am. I met some people who had stalls at the Farmers Markets on Sundays and it sounded like a good opportunity. Those Sunday markets were enough of an income to get rid of the second job. I started outgrowing my little kitchen at home so I rented this warehouse and set up a kitchen. We lived here as well.

How long did it take to get Uprising open?

I was always looking for another little shop but nothing came up. This was meant to be. It took over two years for the DA to get through, and the building works happened in nine months. We opened early 2013.

Were you scared?

Yep.

How did you promote Uprising?

I started on social media with Twitter, years ago, then moved to Instagram. I’ve just started blogging again, it’s been over a year. I’m not a very good blogger, but it initially put me into contact with people who were doing the same thing as me. And we could talk. We also had an opening party with cocktails and I did a test bake of three loaves. Which was successful, so then I had to think ‘Ok, how do we make 50?’

What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own café?

It’s always nice when I’m here before everyone else and it’s silent, then the first person walks in and things start bubbling, then people have a chat then the music gets switched on. We’ve just put a herb patch in and one of them will go out and start watering, looking at what to plant next. Then the customers arrive; we have our regulars. A lot of people who live around here. We are in an odd part of town. There’s nothing else around us. But that means that we have provided something for the local community.

How do you relax?

This year I am going to go home earlier [than 8pm]. I’ve been trying hypnosis to encourage myself to do something else. Yoga maybe. I’m going to find something. Baking was my hobby and now it’s my life so I’ve lost it. On Mondays I can sleep in, catch up on ordering, hang out with my boyfriend.

What’s your advice for people just starting out?

Start small and build it. But dream big. I guess at some point you have to take the leap and go, ‘Yeah, alright, I’m going to do it.’ I don’t know if I should give advice in my first year, I don’t feel like I’m there yet to say, ‘Ok, I made it.’ There’s too much to learn, too many suppliers to find, you have to learn the books. Even now I don’t feel like I have my head totally around it. Too much money comes in and goes out, you only get a little bit off the top. It’s so easy to stuff it up, you have to be careful.

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