• Christine Lani-McAllister set up a Pay It Forward system where people could buy coffees online to donate to healthcare workers. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Keen to help our frontline workers or perhaps our most vulnerable? Christine Lani-McAllister can assist you one latte at a time.
By
Dilvin Yasa

11 May 2020 - 10:59 AM  UPDATED 11 May 2020 - 10:59 AM

For most, opening a new business is met with cries of "Congratulations!" and "Here, let me shower you with flowers and Champagne!"

But for barista, stand-up comedian and now, new café owner, Christine Lani-McAllister, things were a little… different after she threw open the doors to Cohab Coffee in Darlinghurst towards the end of February 2020.

Two weeks later, the pandemic was officially declared and lockdown instigated, forcing potential customers from the busy footpaths of Oxford Street where the café is located, into their homes.

"People keep saying, 'Oh, I'm really sorry you opened a café right now' and, 'Wow, talk about bad timing', but I don't know there's ever a good or bad time to do anything," Lani-McAllister explains. "Before Cohab Coffee, I was managing a café in Carriageworks so had I stayed, I would have lost my job there anyway."

Lani-McAllister had done all the right things; she'd chosen a location on one of Sydney's busiest streets, not far from St Vincent's Hospital and right by the Darlinghurst campus of Notre Dame University (healthcare workers plus university students equals plenty of coffee drinkers).

The first contributions came through family and friends but as people began sharing the page, orders began flooding in from strangers near and wide.

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But as Australians began to self-isolate, things started heading south at the café.

"The first four weeks I operated, I was seeing a 20 per cent increase each week, but once everything shut down, I was seeing decreases of 60 per cent from the week prior. Things were looking dire."

Pay it forward: a win-win solution

It was during a Zoom chat with mates that a new idea began to take shape. "They were trying to work out ways to support me and they were saying, 'We know you're near St Vincent's so maybe we can buy a coffee or two and give them to some nurses or something?' and the idea sparked," Lani-McAllister says.

"I thought 'Well, I could just launch a service where people could buy coffees online to donate to healthcare workers and see how we go."

In the days following, Lani-McAllister not only set up a 'Pay it Forward' system where people could buy coffees online through her Facebook and Instagram pages to donate to healthcare workers, but provided other options to buy batches of soup for those without a home through Rough Edges, or even a sandwich for people in need. 

"These sandwiches go to those who might have recently lost their jobs and are struggling to find work and/or are in a position where they're ineligible for any kind of government assistance."

In a climate where cafes and restaurants are rapidly closing their doors, Lani-McAllister's (right) Cohab Coffee is going from strength to strength.

The first contributions came through family and friends, but as people began sharing the page, orders began flooding in from strangers near and far. "One guy purchased $550 worth of stuff and I was so happy, my chest felt like it was going to explode," Lani-McAllister remembers.

"It quickly got to a point where we had a supply problem; I would have $200 worth of coffee purchased that needed to be delivered to St Vincent's with not enough manpower to get them there."

"I thought 'Well, I could just launch a service where people could buy coffees online to donate the healthcare workers and see how we go."

Lani-McAllister put a post on Adopt a Healthcare Worker Sydney (a page where everyday people can help support our healthcare workers by walking their pets or picking up their groceries etc), and the initiative was also posted on the staff bulletin board at the hospital.

"Now we've got a system going where people who order the coffees are online and the coffees are picked up by grateful staff, and round and round we go."

More than 900 coffees have been ordered for healthcare workers since Cohab Coffee's Pay it Forward initiative began. "It's kept me in business, but just as importantly, it's given me a platform to contribute in a meaningful way."

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Moving forward

In a climate where cafes and restaurants are rapidly closing their doors, Cohab Coffee is going from strength to strength.

Lani-McAllister has begun a coffee delivery service to the suburbs of Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, Potts Point and Kings Cross where $20 each week will bring a flat white to your door – in an insulated flask – bright and early every weekday morning.

"The flasks are collected in the evening before a fresh one is delivered the following morning," she explains.

She's in the process of aligning with other charities such as those which assist women fleeing domestic and family violence, and there are plans to increase the batches of soup made on the premises to feed the homeless.

Yes, there are other places she knows of with pay-it-forward schemes of their own (Simon Says Juice, next door to her café, and Saint Marks in Randwick, for example), but Lani-McAllister says there's plenty of room for others to jump on board to give our most overworked and vulnerable a helping hand.

"If there's anything I've learned from this, it's that people want to feel a sense of connection with others, and they want to do good. They just need to know about platforms which make it easier for them to get involved," she says.

"It's a hard time for everyone but I've never felt so great."

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