It’s all about the vibe

By Rhonda Dredge

Independent operators are the lifeblood of the CBD as they wait and assess which way the economy is going.

Elbert Estampador has set up a unique little business in La Trobe St designed to fit into a niche.

He said he was staying but he’d gone onto a monthly renewal of his lease rather than commit for four years.

Basement Café Bar caters for office workers after dark, lawyers from the big firms nearby and locals from the building above.

No-one has a crystal ball but this small café is on the edge. Elbert’s staff do not qualify for JobKeeper so the business depends on him.

“There are plenty of opportunities,” he said, thinking about his future business investments, but he didn’t want to benefit from others’ misfortunes.

The café is beautifully designed in terms of its interface with the street, the letters of his sign in Helvetica with a faux rust coating.

Just inside in a small display area is a perfectly placed round table, a found object, and behind a stand saying “NEWS” that is empty.

“We’re not sure how to go forward,” Elbert said. “I’m not sure where the industry is going.”

The Basement used to have live music four times a week until 2am, beer on tap, a lunch menu and an unbeatable location close to the legal district with its constant stream of clients.

The Basement still has an ace up its sleeve, though, and that’s its location in an historic office building that was converted into residential. 

Elbert occupies the penthouse above the cafe. He has his face on the world downstairs and a hideaway overlooking the city upstairs. The vibe is pretty impressive on his wrap-around balcony.

Elbert has done well since immigrating from Manila 30 years ago. He has bought investment apartments in the CBD and worked as a designer for both Myer and Coles.

He still does freelance design work but, like many, is worried about the future of fashion retail in the large department stores of the CBD.

“The retail world is changing,” he said. “I think Myer’s and David Jones are in trouble.” He’s heard that Myer is downsizing its head office and moving from Docklands into the CBD.

The last time he did a product launch was for Sensory in the Sydney Myer store.

He said the slowing down of the economy and its shifts had brought some rewards though.

“I’m learning a lot about people in the café. It’s one thing I like here. I hear good, bad and tragic stories. It’s something you don’t find much of in the corporate world,” he said. 

“The corporate world changes you as a person. There’s so much red tape. I’ve seen friends become unfriends. It’s so wrong. In the café complete strangers walk out as friends.” 

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