Sri Lankan-Australian Fusion Cafe

GEELONG, Australia

Hoppers and tea

A favorite in Sri Lankan homes, hoppers are bowl-shaped crepes (aappa), made from rice flour and coconut milk fermented together to make a batter that is formed into a deep concave. They take hours to create but just minutes to shape and fill with a huge assortment of toppings and sides. The dish is served with tea and sides as lentil curry (dhal), coconut sambol (pol-sambol), and caramelized onion (seeni-sambol).

Founders Yeti and Dee Kumbukage

Yeti Kumbukage, 28, and his wife Dinethi (Dee), 27, grew up in Sri Lanka, home of the world-famous Ceylon teas. They decided to open the Rook café as a fusion of Sri Lankan and Australian beverages and cuisine.

In the shopping district where they opened, hoppers quickly built a big breakfast and lunch crowd that arrives at 7:30 a.m. to order hoppers with coconut sambol, caramelized onion, or ambul thiyal (southern Sri Lankan fish) and tea from a range of 16 on offer. The shop serves espresso and tea to an eager lineup of customers.

“There are no tea bags or take-away tea, only leaf tea to dine in. You have to sit in to enjoy this premium Ceylon tea experience,” said Yeti. This is the only Sri Lankan café or restaurant in the Geelong and Bellarine region, he explained. “Rook is our first step in giving Geelong an authentic experience, a better experience.”

Preparations are traditional “and there are no off-the-shelf spices” he said, “everything is sent here from the origin (Spices by Dee),” including the tea, which is blended in some instances with local favorites. He offers the Halpé brand of green and black teas from four main tea regions of Sri Lanka. One of the most popular flavors is green tea flavored with soursop (a tropical fruit mostly known as custard apple), which sells for AUS$6.50 ($4.95). Peach-flavored black tea is popular. Other flavors include mango rush, jasmine buds, honey melon, and Moroccan mint. Ceylon chai is also a hit. A dirty chai (a blend of espresso and chai) sells for AUS$5.50 ($4.15). A short black is priced at AUS$3 ($2.25). The shop features local handmade chocolates from Moorabool Valley Chocolates and coffee roasted by the Sensory Lab roastery.

“I really care about the tea,” said Yeti, who arrived in Australia 10 years ago and was educated there, receiving a degree in business and commerce. Dee is an accountant.

One aspect of the business that has resonated with customers is the large number of vegan offerings. Many Sri Lankan recipes are vegan and several are gluten-free.

“Word of mouth is very important to us,” he said, citing Facebook and Instagram as their most active community.

Customers are encouraged to take photos of their food and share “and we love it when they do,” he said. Chefs take care to present plates that have visual appeal.

The café’s success is based on a simple commitment: “We serve nothing less than what I know to be the best,” said Yeti. “Once people experience it, they truly believe it,” he said.

The shop, which closes daily at 3 p.m., has a permit that enables customers to bring their own wines or spirits for a service fee; it is open for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. The tea café serves more than 100 customers each day at an average ticket of $20. About 70% of revenue is from food and 30% from beverages. Most who dine there order an entrée but 7% snack.

The shop is manned with a minimum of two but staffing increases to 4–5 during peak periods. Workers in Australia earn about $22 per hour; skilled cooks $30 per hour.

Geelong is a port city on Corio Bay and the Barwon River in the south of Australia. It is located about 45 miles (75 kilometers) from Melbourne and is home to 200,000 residents. Geelong City is also known as the “Gateway City” due to its central location. It was founded in 1838, making it one of the older municipalities in this young land.

92–94 Malop Street
Geelong, VIC 3220
Mon–Thur 7:30 a.m.–3 p.m.
Friday–Saturday 7:30 a.m.–9 p.m.
Sun 9 a.m.–3 p.m.