Scribbled on a napkin in a pub, Ona Coffee’s business plan was summed up in one word: quality. It’s the driving force behind Sasa Sestic’s approach to coffee, the reason why he started competing as a barista, and the by-product of his non-profit organisation, Project Origin.
Opening Ona Coffee in 2008, Sasa was first on the specialty coffee scene in Canberra. From the start, laser focus on quality underpinned every aspect of the business. “The simple idea was to just make the best coffee we can, and every decision was driven by that,” he explains. “When we started Ona in Manuka, we spent only $15,000 on the renovation but bought a $30,000 coffee machine. We truly wanted to put the most into what’s in the cup.” With a supportive local market, Ona Coffee has now grown to 3 stores across Canberra. An important element of Sasa’s approach is customer education, with Ona taking every opportunity to educate patrons on their direct trade, processing and roasting practices. “When you go to our shops, you can look at the blends and read exactly what’s in it, how we roasted it and where it comes from. Connecting the bridge between farmer and consumer is very important– we have lots of different ways to guide people.”
Finding a way to form sustainable relationships with farmers motivated Sasa to establish Project Origin in 2012 – a non-profit working directly with farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America to improve their quality and sell their beans at a premium. “Most farming communities live on nothing and have so many different challenges, it’s unsustainable,” he says. “Project Origin pays farmers a minimum of 50% more than Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance. We work with farmers directly to improve quality, which benefits us both. A farmer that was selling coffee at market price can now sell for 5 or 6 times more, and we get better, more sustainable coffee. We also do fundraisers for the farms; we’ve put up fencing, we’ve built toilet facilities and child care centres. We don’t go to these places just to buy coffee – we go there to develop communities.”
Sasa’s contribution to coffee culture was recognised by the world’s elite in 2015, when he won the World Barista Championships in Seattle. His presentation was the culmination of 8 years of competition, and the win has enabled him to showcase the benefits of his approach on an international stage. “At that level, you compete to say what you stand for and how you think the industry can improve. They are choosing an ambassador, someone who can represent the industry.” After attaining the highest level of competition, Sasa now has the time to focus on new ideas for Ona and Project Origin. “Achieving that was a big relief – I can now close that chapter of my life and set myself new challenges to achieve in the future.”