1964 Café-Bar threatens tea ladies’ jobs

The CafeBar dispensed hot drinks in many a workplace

I remember tea ladies. Back in 1965, in the advertising agency I worked at, a trolley came trundling around twice a day, piloted by a motherly woman who dispensed cups of tea and instant coffee with real milk.  But, by then, she was a member of an endangered species. The Café-Bar was making its way into factories, hospitals and offices where it began to replace the traditional cuppa with a self-serve version made from powdered tea and powdered milk.

The first Café-Bar, the 120, was invented and made in Australia by a company called Machine Made Sales who, in 1963,  patented a butterfly valve that released an exact amount of instant coffee, powdered tea, powdered milk or sugar. A further button delivered hot water from its tank. The Café-Bar was launched in 1964 with extensive newspaper advertising, trumpeting “Solve your office tea-making problems! with the new self-serve Café-Bar.”

Illustration from Café-Bar launch advertisement, Sydney Morning Herald 1964

Advertising over the following years took an advertorial approach, with photographs of happy managers and staff at various well-known businesses enjoying their instant beverages from plastic cups. Firms were invited to join the ‘Café-Bar Society’ which, by 1967, reportedly had happy members in 34 countries. One advertisement boasted about the machines catching on in the U.K., the home of tea-drinking, where they were being made under licence, while another, with photographs of men in military uniforms, was headlined ‘Café-Bar goes to Vietnam’.

Café-Bar advertising 1971

Around the same time the company was proudly promoting its ‘new all-Ceylon instant tea’ which, they claimed, had ‘all the flavour and aroma of top quality, traditionally made-in-the-pot teas’. I can assure you, from personal experience, that this claim was completely spurious. At the ad agency, the Café-Bar did not replace the tea lady but served as an adjunct to her services, allowing us to top up with caffeine at any time. In my mind, black instant coffee was the only semi-drinkable beverage the machine dispensed – and even then you needed to be desperate.

Nonetheless, increasing popularity saw the proliferation of the machines in factories, hospitals, offices and warehouses. In 1971, the company changed its name to Café-Bar International Pty Ltd. New, more attractive models were introduced in the 1970s, with one even winning several design awards. The beverages offered were expanded to include soup and powdered chocolate.

The advertising style changed too. Instead of the advertorial approach, a new campaign stressed the amount of staff time wasted as people congregated around the tea trolley. An extension of the campaign in 1972 recognised that the duties of a secretary often included fetching coffee for the boss, and touted the machines as “The working girl’s coffee break”. Addressed to the (presumably male) executive, the copy would raise a few eyebrows today:

Where was your secretary last time you needed her? At her desk? Or was she outside washing cups? Chances are you weren’t too happy – and chances are she wasn’t either. Housemaid’s hands aren’t flattering. A Café-Bar would change all that….

In 1974 the business was sold to Burns Philp & Co. Ltd, a major Australian player in the food manufacturing industry. Café-Bar didn’t just sell machines. They also supplied the stuff that went in them, a part of the operation that proved more profitable than the machines themselves.

The company ownership changed again in 1989 when Burns Philp sold it to the multi-national Unilever.  At that point, the turnover of the business was around $52 million and employed 360 people. But Unilever divested itself of its Australian coffee businesses in 1998, which saw Café-Bar move to FreshFood Services, a leading Australian coffee manufacturer.

The Café-Bar brand continues under FreshFood’s ownership but their product line has expanded way beyond the rather primitive 120 Model. They now say that:

From espresso machines to technologically advanced super-automated machines, Café-Bar has a system to suit your needs with the best coffee beans, ground coffee, tea, and other supplies to make your coffee experience a delight every time.

Meanwhile, the tea lady has vanished, with the last of the breed reportedly retiring from Sydney law firm Spruson and Ferguson in 2015. I have fond memories of Hazel, Doris, Margaret and others of their ilk. Fond memories of the Café-Bar? Not so much.

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