Best friends since the age of six, Vincent Conti and and Mario Minichilli have also forged a business partnership over their shared love of brews. They previously ran Inkr7 in St Kilda as their first venture, but it wasn't until they set off globetrotting for four years that their real vision took hold. Experiencing the best of Asia, including the Indian masala tea called 'chai' that they fell in love with, on their return to Melbourne they desperately wanted to share their passion.
Working out of St Kilda they perfected their blend of tea and spices by experimentation, using their regulars as guinea pigs, and business grew as they started to send their Prana Chai product around Australia and beyond. The Merchants Guild café on Centre Road in Bentleigh came about when the pair needed to expand the Prana Chai headquarters and blending facility. Alongside head chef and part owner, Paul Davies, they took over the shell of an old bakery and originally intended the venue to be a type of ‘overflow’ outlet in which to blend the chai; but it’s become much busier than expected.
“We gave it a shot thinking the cafe might not be very busy,” said Mario with a laugh, “but at least we will have somewhere for the chai. But now it is the other way around, the café is flat out so we need to move the chai factory out to make way for our guests.”
Three nights a week, Merchants Guild is transformed to roast spices and blend the all-natural ingredients that go into Prana Chai. But the café has also become a popular meeting place for Bentleigh East locals who have taken it to their hearts.
The surprisingly long venue stretches back far, with a multitude of seats running the length of the wall, and a tall communal table in the midst of the Prana Chai facilities. The light green tiles bring a clean aesthetic, combined with wooden tables and industrial style lighting hanging overhead.
Head Barista, Mario, uses a custom blend from their old friends at Coffee Bird specialty coffee roasters around the corner in Gardenvale, which is a rich and full-bodied coffee with notes of malt, toffee, almond and cocoa. Vincent and Mario also offer a four-week cycle of single origins as their black coffee. If you order a black coffee, you get what ever guest roaster is in the hopper at that time. This provides the opportunity to taste different beans from different roasters, including the likes of Market Lane, Proud Mary, Alchemy, Dukes, and Coffee Supreme, to name a few.
The team also offers a filter option, made by their ‘clever’ coffee dripper, which has a valve that keeps your brew drawing down until you activate it by sitting it on a cup, meaning you can control the amount of time the water and coffee are in contact, making for a consistent brew.
Merchants Guild brings together coffee and tea lovers, who have sometimes found themselves having to seek out different venues to achieve the special qualities they are looking for. With an extensive tea range to rival the coffee selection and its wonderful attention to detail (tea is served with its own personal timer to ensure optimum brewing time), Merchants Guild provides the best of both brews!