Roving cafe pioneer gives a new meaning to one for the road
Michael Ibrahim runs the mobile coffee van Soul Kitchen, which has become an institution on St Kilda Road, opposite the Arts Centre. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
WHILE food trucks appear to have stormed into Melbourne after taking cues from cities like Portland and Los Angeles, one enterprising Melburnian has been successfully working at the trade for almost 10 years.
Michael Ibrahim, owner of the Soul Kitchen mobile cafe is a pioneer of the Melbourne food truck movement, which has recently seen its popularity explode with the likes of Taco Truck, Gumbo Kitchen and Dhaba joining the convoy of food trucks populating Melbourne's streets.
Starting nearly a decade ago, providing refreshments to Moonlight Cinema crowds on balmy nights in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Ibrahim now owns a small fleet of customised vans and trucks that serve coffee and cafe-quality food at several locations.
His passion for coffee is matched by his passion for Melbourne and with his memorable vans adding to the eclectic fabric of the city it's no wonder he has the support of the City of Melbourne, which has granted him a 24-hour licence to operate his customised 1971 VW Kombi in an enviable spot opposite the Arts Centre on tree-lined St Kilda Road.
Customers range from passing cyclists to suited office workers and tourists drawn to the good looks of the vintage Kombi-cum-mobile cafe.
Ibrahim's business grew organically over the years. Now, he believes, the food truck and street food trend is beginning to gain momentum.
''The shift is happening. I've seen the scene change rapidly in the last few years,'' he said. ''In the past, Melbourne's relatively small population and strong cafe and pub scene made it difficult for food trucks to gain traction. But now this is changing and I predict the next two years is going to go off.''
To capitalise on this, Ibrahim is expanding his fleet. A big Mercedes truck that transported tools in its former, less glamorous life is being repainted, rebranded and refitted with a wood-fired pizza oven.
When it hits the road, it will offer a rotating menu of pizza and gourmet foods made from fresh, seasonal produce. Will it be Melbourne's answer to Sydney's iconic Harry's Cafe de Wheels? Not according to Ibrahim.
''What we're doing is taking top-shelf cafe food out to the street,'' he says.
Observing Ibrahim at work on a breezy Sunday morning, he gives the impression of relishing the freedom of interacting with customers outside the confines of a traditional cafe setting. Although there may be challenges that come with running this kind of business - poor weather and traffic jams spring to mind - Ibrahim looks to be in his element.
With upbeat world music pumping from the van and a line of customers ready to order, he says: ''I wouldn't change a thing. I love it too much.''