If you’ve ever nodded off at the office and dreamed about being somewhere far, far away, you’re not alone. But why spend such a personal retreat in the confines of your workplace, when you could be lost amongst the backdrop of one of our most magical childhood classics.
Janet Wong, inspired by the original dreamer, Alice, has brought her own daydream to our city in the form of a café. We chatted with Wong about her café Alice Nivens, her coffee, her cake and her love for Alice in Wonderland.
ASHLEE: Alice Nivens? The name suggests a marriage between Alice and the white rabbit. Tell us how the name came about?
JANET: The word Alice was always going to be in the name and then a friend said to me that Nivens is the name of the white rabbit in the Tim Burton version, so I just thought I’d put the two together and got ‘Alice Nivens’. Also, I’m obsessed with rabbits because I was born in the year of the rabbit in the Chinese zodiac.
ASHLEE: Why Alice in Wonderland?
JANET: My mother always said that I never wanted to grow up, but I’ve always loved tea parties; when I was a kid and in Hong Kong, they have a culture that really loves high tea. All I can remember of Hong Kong is high tea all the time. I really like that when people come here it’s as real as a ‘wonderland’ can be in real life. There’s a lot of themed cafés in Asia, but I never really saw one here and I believe that you have to stay true to yourself so I just thought that I have to do it!
ASHLEE: If you were any character from Alice in Wonderland, who would you be?
JANET: I think I’d be the cat! Purple is my favourite colour and he’s so elusive. He’s always around and always watching and I really like observing people. Everything to him is a riddle and everything to him is always positive, so I’d be the cat hanging out in the woods.
ASHLEE: Your favourite item off the menu?
JANET: It would have to be the ‘White Rabbit’ cake, it’s a raspberry and coconut cake and it’s dusted with flaked coconut so it looks kind of hairy like the white rabbit. And the coffee, I love our coffee! I use Clement Coffee, which is owned by my friend who gave me my first coffee job. I love selling this coffee because there is so much heart put into it by the owner and I think that’s really what Alice is all about.
ASHLEE: Is there a secret menu for size altering magic mushrooms?
JANET: I wish! But I can work on that (she laughs). But we do sometimes have the ‘douche bag’ fudge, so if you’re having a bad day come get some of our fudge that we print douche bag on and give it to that certain someone. We made a batch last week and it sold out. We have a little secret menu that we use code words for in case we have a mother coming in to buy a cupcake for her child; we don’t want ‘douche bag’ fudge sitting next to it! Come in and tell us what you want printed on your fudge and we’ll do it.
ASHLEE: Any projects in the pipeline? A little red riding hood themed café perhaps?
JANET: Not at the moment, but one thing I want to do in the future is open a themed bar. I would want the bar to be a darker Alice in Wonderland that is just for adults. It’s always been in my imagination, I just haven’t really thought about it too seriously because of things like location, which can be really hard in Melbourne. But for the café, in 6-12 months, I want to do high tea on Saturdays and have two sittings – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. If you have an Alice in Wonderland café, you have to have high tea.
ASHLEE: You seem to be an avid supporter of Melbourne businesses, sourcing a lot of produce locally, even the artwork is by Melbourne artist Sam Octigan. How important is that to you?
JANET: It’s really important to me, the chocolate is from a guy whose girlfriend is a chocolatiere and they make the chocolate themselves with ingredients that they source themselves. Also, this is such a small café that I think there’s no excuse not to get the details right. My parents also source some of the cafe’s tea from Asia and some of the other tea is from Storm in a Teacup in Collingwood.
ASHLEE: What can people look forward to over the next few months at Alice Nivens? Any new additions to the menu? Mad hatter tea parties?
JANET: Every month or so we change the sandwiches and in terms of the cakes, well, I don’t think we’ve done the same cake more than 4 times since opening. If someone comes in and requests something specific we try and make up things to suit them, like today was vegan and celiac day. We’re always changing and that’s what Alice is about, as she says in the book ‘nothing is what it seems’!
Port Phillip Arcade, Shop 13 (enter off Flinders Lane), Melbourne CBD.
Photos by Anna Feery.