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Sue-Lee Seng: The social architect

sue lee seng streat

Assistant Manager at STREAT

"The hard work in hospitality is not cleaning the dishes. It is being gracious, forgiving and generous."

It is lunch hour and the lift doors in Freshwater Place at Southbank are opening and shutting continuously. The people who stream into the polished lift lobby are either in deep conversation with each other or have their ears or eyes glued to their phones.

Almost everyone makes a beeline for the entrance, bypassing the STREAT café in the foyer. But this hardly bothers its assistant manager and barista, Sue-Lee Seng. The next two hours are the calm between the morning and post-lunch coffee storms, and she’s glad for some time to catch her breath.

For the past three years, Sue-Lee has been arriving at Freshwater Place at 6.30am sharp to brew coffee and serve food to its hundreds of tenants. By the time she knocks off at 4pm, she is usually beat but always grateful for the job she never knew she was looking for.

“I worked for eight years as an architect and it came to a point when I had to be true to my heart and the way I’m wired and what I’m actually passionate about.”

And what she is actually passionate about is giving back to the community by bettering the lives of young people. That passion and STREAT’s philosophy were a match made in heaven.

“I don’t think I’d be in the hospitality industry if it wasn’t for empowering the at-risk youth through our business,” Sue-Lee said. “Being able to provide them a safe space where they can work towards getting a new lease on life is great.”

All too soon, lunch hour is over and the first few customers are wandering towards the café. Sue-Lee cheerfully straightens her apron, clears our empty plates and gets behind the coffee machine once again.

STREAT, a social enterprise, started as a mobile coffee cart at Federation Square in March 2010. It now has five sites – Melbourne Central, McKillop Street, Freshwater Place, RMIT University and Cromwell Street – and offers a suite of training programs and working opportunities that give Melbourne’s homeless young people a brand new future.

How did your path merge with STREAT?

I took a year’s sabbatical in 2012. I had decided I would be open to anything that came my way but I really wanted to do voluntary work, which I had already been doing on the side for 14 years, because it made me feel so alive and fulfilled.

During that year, I helped renovate a community café project on Swanston Street and ended up co-sharing the kitchen with STREAT, which was opening their corporate catering wing.

There were all these chefs and young trainees who were always giving me the offcuts of their amazing food. They shared STREAT’s model and philosophy with me, and I loved it.

Then PricewaterhouseCoopers, as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, gave STREAT this site. They needed a third person behind the bench and offered to train me if I was keen. I’ve been here since November 2013.

You've left the corporate world but you still work within its environment. Are you ever tempted to go back?

I ask myself that every day. And the answer is no. Not for now, anyway. Because I finally know the feeling of wanting to go to work every day. It’s a completely different lifestyle to sitting in front of the computer, and it makes me so happy.

What would you like more people to know about the hospitality industry?

That it’s super humbling. Everyone should do a stint in hospitality. The hard work is not cleaning the dishes or pumping out the coffee. It's being gracious, forgiving and generous.

You literally have three seconds to engage with another human and that can be hard. I write different little life quotes on the blackboard every day as a way of engaging them while they wait for their coffee. Our customers are part of the daily corporate grind so it’s about helping them reflect on life for a change.

Do you think many people in this building know what STREAT is about?

That’s a good question. They do when we have a trainee here. My guess would be about 60% do know what we're about.

How do you see yourself contributing to Melbourne's community?

I’m definitely at STREAT for the youth. The fact that youth can come in and overcome their fear of working in this environment, for me they are champions.

I remember one young trainee who was so sunken and had such low self-esteem. Within two weeks, there was a huge change in how he walked into the cafe and interacted with customers. It was like watching a completely different person. For me, that’s a win.

How do you get to work and back?

I live in an apartment that my parents bought next to Flagstaff, just behind QVM, so I walk here and back. You get to experience the city differently that way.

Could you chart your route for us?

From my apartment, I walk down Queen Street and cross Queens Bridge to get to Freshwater Place. A lot of construction people are about by then and there are people already working out at Anytime Fitness.

Winter can be a bit meh but in spring and summer, I love watching the sunrise. The scene changes every day. It’s like moving artwork. I never know what to expect and that brings me joy.

I walk through the CBD on my way home. In Southbank, it’s mostly suits and tourists. Then I reach Collins Street and see more suits. I walk up Bourke Street towards Melbourne Central, which is a hub for shoppers and the more affluent in society.

Melbourne Central is usually busy with students getting their groceries. Then I get to La Trobe Street where all the locals are heading to Queen Victoria Market. The city is a lot more complex than a suburb because of all these transient communities.

In A Snap:

Favourite Aussie phrase: “G’day mate!”

Favourite café: I don’t have one. Oh wait! I have to say STREAT!

Favourite place to eavesdrop on conversations: The State Library of Victoria.

What to avoid in Melbourne: Peak hour on the tram.


  1. Sheridan says:

    This is amazing.

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