When we first got our puppy, his chunky paws looked way too big for his scrawny body. Sometimes, our future is bigger than we’ve grown into yet.
I’m not sure if I met Anthony Bourdain or Prince or Robin Williams before they were world-famous I would’ve been able to predict these exceptional men would rise above billions of others to captivate the attention of the world.
Or that suicide would be how they died.
But when I visited Lil Phoenix and met Anthony Benvenuto this week I felt like I’d met someone so special he was destined for bigger things. And what he’s creating right here in Parramatta, might bring a sense of community to those who need it – all of us.
I’ve been raving about Anthony ever since. One of my closest friends tonight said “Calm down, Shaz; it was just a cup of coffee in a café”. But just like that tiny puppy that I used to be able to carry in one hand - who is now the size of a ride-on mower – it felt like so much more.
Benvenuto’s origins can only be traced back as far as an abandoned baby left on a stranger’s doorstep. The new family welcomed the tiny boy surnaming him “Benvenuto” – Italian for “welcome”.
It would be easy for this lonely start to leave a taste of bitterness for generations, but instead it seems his descendants now show their gratitude for being taken in, by always being welcoming and making sure no-one feels out in the cold… which could be why the café’s Instagram bio doesn’t even mention coffee; “Lil Phoenix is passionate about bringing people together”.
And, so it is when I make my first impromptu visit to one of Parramatta’s newest cafes. I can hear the music from a few doors up. Michael Jackson is reminding the neighbourhood “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”, which seemed like the perfect hit to prime me for a coffee.
People are laughing, chatting and hugging - before they have their coffee. There’s an amazing vibe. I feel like a stranger gate-crashing a family function. Everyone seems to know each other, yet there are no outsiders here.
Anthony is the hub, connecting people up as he brews up the orders and lets his customers lead the conversation easily shifting between Germany’s loss in the world cup to the best juices to alkalize your body.
Most of the customers are well-groomed professionals. They line Horwood Place (off Phillip St) with their Mercedes and BMWs. Everything external indicates these discerning customers have high standards. Yet they are generous-hearted, not judgemental. There’s banter and laughter. No-one is eager to leave.
In less than ten minutes, I meet a stream of customers. One lady is back for her second cup today. Anthony greets her with an easy smile. “Back again?”. Her shoulders slump as she explains “It’s been that kind of day…” Immediately, he counters with “It’s all good!” The positivity isn’t forced. In a few moments he has her singing, and her shoulders have discovered they have the moves like Jagger as she shimmies away from the concert back to her cubicle sipping caffeine.
One customer wants to know what region in Ethiopia the single origin bean is from. He’s soon being drip-fed not just the region, but altitude, variety, flavour notes and more.
The curiosity is constant. There’s the deaf interpreter who works in the office building opposite, recruited to teach Anthony the swirling sign language for cappuccino. Spelling out Almond is harder, but he’s a quick study.
The connecting is genuine. I notice Anthony doesn’t yell out individual orders as he completes them, that would miss an opportunity to get two strangers talking. Instead he passes the piccolo latte to his landlord and asks him to hand it on to the tall Sudanese man who has wandered to the edge of the gathering to light a cigarette. As he walks away to complete his assignment, Anthony tells me a factoid about the landlord so I can chat with him when he traces back the three-step journey.
People aren’t just recruited into tasks, they’re recruited into community. In gestures large and small, Anthony lives his passion of bringing people together.
“I didn’t want people to have to come inside, I wanted to create a party on the pavement” explains Anthony.
The hole-in-the-wall café stretches out to only 5 square metres. But Anthony makes the most of this tiny territory. I’m not the only one believing the hype. At the time of publishing Lil Phoenix had been announced as a Finalist in the Parramatta Local Business Awards.
When Anthony sold his previous award-winning business (Yellow Brick Café, in Castle Hill) for a sizeable profit, he imagined spending his days on a beach in Bali. He reasoned his time as a café owner was over. But an unexpected offer, changed his plans, and brought him back into the industry again. Now there’s no putting a lid on hopes of future expansion, and maybe renovations to make the most of the offsite kitchen.
There’s many feathers in Anthony’s cap. He describes himself as “crazy creative”. And has spoken at schools and written a book but is perhaps most well-known as a DJ. He’s an influencer, a culture-shifter. In everything he does, he’s creating environments for people to experience those elevated moments of Life – the froth on top that helps us rise above the grind, together.
With typical generosity, this exceptional man is offering a free cup of coffee to welcome every Parramatter reader who visits Lil Phoenix for their first time in July. Simply say, the magic words; “Don’t be depresso, have an espresso!”
Lil Phoenix isn’t just the best coffee in the city, it's not even just the best music in the city, it’s resurrecting our street community. And the caramel slice is not too shabby either.
If you’re looking for the future of what matters in Parramatta, there’s magic here.
Shop 5, 75 Phillip Street (Access on Horwood Place)
Parramatta NSW 2150