Hello again! It’s time for our third instalment in the History of Black Sheep. If you missed either of the first two — The First Coffee Cart in Brisbane and Becoming Black Sheep — take a read and then come back here to discover what happened next.
In January 2011, flash flooding devastated Queensland and three-quarters of the state were officially declared disaster zones. Rocklea, where Black Sheep had their market stall, was one of the worst affected suburbs in Brisbane.
“There was so much water,” Katie recalls. “It’s unbelievable. And just to come up and go so quickly.”
In a way, it took them by surprise. Mark and Katie were in South Brisbane urgently helping a friend whose cafe business was situated beside the rushing river.
“Mid-morning Mark got the notification from the markets that waters were rising and he was going to need to get his stuff out,” says Katie. “We’d been so focused on helping everyone else and hadn’t focused on the fact that Rocklea was going to flood.”
Mark was able to rescue two espresso machines and a couple of grinders before it got too dangerous. The waters were rising rapidly. “It just happened too quick,” says Katie.
Two days after the water came up, they were allowed to go back and inspect the damage. The stench was unbelievable.
“We knew the water had gone through,” says Katie, “but we had no clue what we were going to look into.”
No one expected what they found. People’s house keys, underwear and clothing dragged clear from washing lines, dead fish and livestock, “mountains upon mountains of fruit and vegetables.”
But most confronting was when they opened the shed’s roller door and an angry snake thudded to the ground. It reared, hissed and then slithered away to hide in an upturned cart. The snake catcher who came out said it was the biggest Eastern King Brown snake he’d ever seen.
The scene was horrific. “Things upended. Mud everywhere,” says Mark. “But it’s not only mud, it’s sewerage and chemical spills and petrol and diesel.”
Things looked bleak but the community rallied together to clean up. Staff and customers came to help; even members of the CrossFit gym Mark attended in Coorparoo.
People donated money to help replace the cold rooms that had been upturned and destroyed. The plumbing, electrical and refrigeration, even the till had been smashed. Though they lost milk, plastic items, and a lot of “sundries — cups, lids, sugars, things like that,” the coffee was stored offsite, so they didn’t lose the roast or the raw product.
With no insurance money for stall holders (because it’s a market, held in a car park, no insurance company will consider it) Mark and Katie had to get a loan to cover the $30,000 or so worth of damaged equipment. “In some ways we are probably still recovering from that,” says Katie. But they were not deterred. “We laid our heart and soul on the line. We were out there until all hours of the night and day, cleaning and scrubbing and building.”
The timber was jarrah so Mark was able to sand it all back, clean and revarnish it. The salvageable stainless steel items went through an extensive sterilisation process. Friends, family and customers took the milk jugs and tampers and other bits and pieces home to be “scrubbed, polished, bleached, dishwashered — and done several times again.”
A few days before the market was set to re-open, the council came out to do inspections and ensure everyone met the cleanliness and health restriction guidelines. Selling coffee doesn’t require a food license, but Mark and Katie “begged them to check our stuff” and the council signed off on the paper work showing they were all clear. “I wanted that in writing,” says Katie. “And I wanted our customers to know the length that we went to, to rebuild and to clean up.”
It took them two weeks, and the night they finished was very emotional. “When we stood back and photographed it, we were like, look at what we’ve achieved in such a short amount of time,” says Katie.
“It was very hard but in a lot of ways I think the business changed from that moment on. We had so much loyalty with our customers. So many had gone through a similar experience themselves. They’d lost their homes; they’d lost their businesses, their kids’ school. It was really this solidarity with everyone. I think there was respect. We were all equal.”
Katie says they still have the majority of those customers now. They’ll brave extreme weather conditions and queue up, sometimes for more than ten minutes, waiting to say hi. “I think it’s amazing. I think they are so loyal because they know our story and they know what we’ve been through.”
Next we look at the Roastery! Tune in to see what it takes to transform an old mechanic’s shop into a beautiful coffee roasting show room, and what happens when things don’t always go according to plan (or they turn up broken).