Maud cooks up a new idea

KIM MACDONALD
Maud Edmiston. Picture: Bill Hatto/The West Australian

Miss Maud has built a coffee shop empire in a city where even Starbucks fears to tread.

The chain this month opened another cafe, its 16th in four decades, cementing the name as an institution in Perth's notoriously fickle hospitality sector.

The latest cafe adds to a stable which includes a city restaurant, a 52-room boutique hotel and a catering arm that is literally fit for royalty, having served Queen Elizabeth II.

Other notable guests and customers include former prime ministers John Howard and Paul Keating, King Gustaf of Sweden and a raft of starlets and sports personalities.

While other venues are regularly forced to reinvent themselves, the quaint cafes have barely had to change the fake snow on their gingerbread houses.

Ask owner Maud Edmiston why and she is emphatic.

"We got it right the first time," she says. "Really, it is the small pleasures that people seek.

"A good cup of coffee in nice warm surroundings, good food and warm and friendly service never goes out of fashion."

Mrs Edmiston, or Miss Maud as she is more commonly known, opened the first store in City Arcade in Perth in 1971. Her plan was simple - create a cafe where customers could get a decent cup of coffee in a cosy environment.

"I wanted to have a nice little place, and it sounds so corny but I wanted it to be like my grandmother's house," she says.

"In the countryside in Sweden there are a lot of red houses and my grandmother's house was like that, with little white curtains. And that's how it started.

"In the beginning I didn't come from a commercial perspective but from a customer perspective. I thought about what I would enjoy."

Miss Maud began adding to the empire - she prefers the word playground - two years later with the Pier Street restaurant.

They were exciting yet daunting times for the Swedish migrant, who had a background in international tourism and two children aged under five.

"I remember standing over the road when I bought it and thinking, what am I doing," she says.

She claims the coffee shops enjoyed immediate support from Perth's booming European population, and growth was relatively steady until the late 1980s when she was forced into receivership.

Her downturn had nothing to do with the chains, instead it stemmed from an investment in coastal land in the South West, which she and her late husband Ken bought in the hope of developing a luxury resort.

But rapidly rising interest rates, the stock market crash of 1987 and some miscalculated overspending put them $7 million in debt.

The pair went into liquidation in May 1988, paying unsecured creditors just 50¢ in the dollar.

Her recovery strategy involved focusing on her core pastry and restaurant business and by 1992 she was named the Bulletin's Businesswoman of the Year.

"There definitely was financial hardship for quite some time, but in hindsight you can say it's not a harmful thing because it educates you," she says.

By 2003 she wanted to expand out of WA with a store in Sydney, but she chose to cut the east coast venture short because she did not like the constant travel.

She has not ruled out a return to the east, though claims that decision "depends on which day you ask me".

For now, she is keen to maintain her focus on Perth, with plans to roll out at least 10 more Miss Maud cafes around WA.

She currently employs 500 people and this year the business turned over about $40 million.

Her playground is set for substantial growth with a new chain of cafes, called Cafe Stockholm.

The first has already opened at Karrinyup Shopping Centre. She says others will be added as the right locations become available.

The new chain is based on a more modern and fast-paced version of Swedish hospitality and aimed at a younger market.

Critics may well question her ability to compete in this tough market but Miss Maud claims her business model is modern and she has proven she is not afraid of change.

She introduced alfresco dining to Perth after becoming the first to apply for outdoor seating for her restaurant in 1979.

She was also one of the first to run a 24-hour bakehouse and to develop her own training school, known as the Miss Maud Academy, for her baristas and hospitality staff.

"Internally, in our processes, we are constantly changing," she says. "We are not changing in concept or surrounds . . . (but) we are a modern company in the back."

To watch Miss Maud in action is to see why she has become a Perth icon.

When she enters the Pier Street restaurant for the interview, customers whisper and point, with one man interrupting to shake her hand.

A group of elderly women wearing reindeer antlers giggle as she walks passed, complimenting their Christmas outfits.

She has received a lot of recognition in political circles, too, largely because of her famous coffee bean poll, which has accurately predicted the outcome of every Federal election since 1996, except for Kevin Rudd's win in 2007.

Asked if she enjoys the attention, she claims only that she enjoys her customers. For the most part, she prefers a quiet life that revolves around her family.

The grandmother of four won't reveal her age, and claims she has not given much thought to a succession plan.

Her son and daughter have varying degrees of involvement in the business but mostly she is supported by an independent management team.

"Perth has been and is still on the brink of wonderful things to come, there is nothing negative about this State," she says.

"I am very happy to be here."