In September it will be 19 years since Irene Stavrakakis opened the doors at Lumberjack Cafe in Bridge Rd, a business she considers an extension of her living room.
A seasoned hospitality worker who was managing big venues on Fitzroy's Brunswick St (including Rumbarellas, Retro and Joe's Garage), the Richmond local acted on a long-held dream to go out on her own.
Stationed behind her Slayer coffee machine serving 300-350 cups a day, she can now say the dream has been fulfilled, but it has been a long road to get there.
While nowadays Irene loves the eccentric pocket around her Burnley St-Bridge Rd corner, back when she moved in there it was "a very desolate part of Richmond" that lacked "the Fitzroy essence".
"You didn't have a university clientele, you hardly had any diversity, there wasn't really much of anything," she says.
The sum total of nearby business was a pie shop and the AAPT building.
Trusting the cafe would forge its own path, Irene focused on serving good coffee and good food - made on the premises and organic where possible - and creating a welcoming vibe. "We were just hoping people took a liking to it and acclimatised with us and grew with us. Which they did," she says.
Still, for a long time it was a struggle on the river end of Richmond, putting paid to the owner's plan to run the place for a few years, sell it and move on.
"It was a little bit of stubbornness I guess on my part to try and make it successful and see how long I could last," she says. "Also my mum got sick and it was a lot easier to stay in a space where I knew the rhythm and what I needed to do."
From the start she and her staff cultivated strong relationships with an expanding clientele who felt safe and comfortable in the space.
Around the 10-year mark, redevelopment of the area brought more residents and workers through the doors. The really big turnaround, though, came with Covid when Lumberjack's function in the community acquired a serious dimension.
"You have all these apartment blocks where people are working from home and all of a sudden they were coming every day," Irene says. "We became part of everybody's everyday, and it was a really humbling experience.
"It was something I was really proud of that the business became a go-to place, especially for people who lived alone, to have a chat while they got their takeaway or just connect with someone who had time for them."
In the aftermath of the crisis, those deeper relationships have continued. "They're my customers, they're our family, our people," Irene says.
For many, the feeling is mutual. A number of readers implored the Inner East Review to feature Irene, as she is "a Richmond legend".
Among the mixed clientele are families, mums, teenagers, "old Greeks", people in their 80s and kids who love being treated as "little people" there.
The doting owner of three chocolate labradoodles, Irene also warmly welcomes canines to the cafe, and dog-sits some of them at home when their owners are away.
With the blossoming of the eastern Bridge Rd shopping strip, the cafe's biggest problem currently is finding enough staff.
And while Irene still loves her job, the extra workload is tiring.
"It's time to think about what the future is going to hold, because I can't be doing this forever," she says. "At this point I'll give it to 20 years. Twenty years - that's my goal."