Opening a small cafe with coffee and some sandwiches was her husband’s dream, not Toni Vorenas’s.

“[But] before we opened, he actually decided that wasn’t his dream anymore,” Ms Vorenas said.

“Because he’d supported me a lot throughout my teaching career and my studies, I thought in return I would run the cafe for 12 months for him.”

Without meaning to, 12 months has turned into 12 years and a two-site award-winning bakery and cafe serving 150 customers from two commercial kitchens, a bar and function room.

Determined to find purpose in a corporate world, the former deputy principal has devoted her business to employing and empowering people from a wide mix of backgrounds and credits that diversity to Metro’s success.

Metro Bakery and Cafe in Mount Gambier, SA.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

‘You’ll never work in a place like it’

Each staff member has their own story of finding Metro, or Toni finding them.

Transgender man Toby Harrap walked right up to Toni and asked for a job after visiting a friend for a coffee.

“It was very much to do with the type of staff Toni had,” Mr Harrap said.

It was LGBTQ, it was people with tattoos and alternative dress styles, people could just be themselves.

Ms Vorenas insists her drive for diversity is not to be “hippie”. When it comes to hiring, she looks for one thing.

“For me, it’s really important that they love people. That’s the most important thing. You can’t fake it … they have to genuinely like people,” Ms Vorenas said.

As a front-of-house member, Sammi Cummins’s job is to greet every person that comes in the shop.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

As a result, Ms Vorenas’s staff come from all different backgrounds and perspectives.

There is no uniform for staff. Instead Ms Vorenas prefers her staff to be able to express themselves.

“We’re not all one homogenous group and our customers certainly aren’t all one homogeneous group,” Ms Vorenas said.

Staff are free to dress how they like.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“It’s different perspectives on life, it’s not just sexuality or gender … it’s how you see the world.”

That mix means it is “not all roses either”, she said.

“The more diverse a staff you put together the more yin and yang and push and pull you’re going to have, but that’s healthy conflict,” Ms Veronas said.

“We have lots of cultural differences as well … that we have to learn to appreciate and accept and work around.”

Head pastry chef Norerriz Labrador previously worked at Shangri-La hotels and Sydney’s Star Casino.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Allowing her staff to express themselves

When Mr Harrap told Toni Vorenas he was going to start gender transitioning, he was terrified he would lose his job.

“I was freaking out and she said, ‘Well, does that stop you from being able to do your job?'” Mr Harrap said.

“It’s a shame that a lot of us feel the need to hide things about ourselves … that’s not something you have to worry about with Toni as your boss.”

Now living in Queensland, the 28-year-old has not forgotten that conversation.

Metro Bakery and Cafe staff in 2019.(Supplied: Metro Bakery and Cafe)

Ms Veronas remembers that conversation with Toby clearly. She has had a lot of tough conversations with her many staff over the years.

Front-of-house worker Sammi Cummins describes it as a “sixth sense”.

The young mum had been made redundant for the second time when she worked up the courage to visit her ex-English teacher in 2014.

“I saw Toni and told her what had happened and I just looked at her … she’s got like a sixth sense of knowing what’s coming next,” Ms Cummins said.

“She said, ‘You can start on Monday’ … no questions asked. She just wanted to help.”

Creating community

Ms Cummins said that melting pot made for a special working environment.

“There’s just something about it, we refer to it as Kefi,” Ms Cummins said.

Every staff member knows it, even the ones that do not work there anymore.

There’s no shortage of colour and art inside the cafe.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“You’ll never work in a place like it … it’s got its own heartbeat. You’ve got to learn a new rhythm, a whole new language,” Ms Cummins said.

“It keeps you there. It keeps you there even when you’re ready to leave.”

After nearly seven years, Sammi Cummins is preparing to leave Metro to focus on her own massage therapy business.

She has worked regularly in her final weeks at the cafe to avoid the “umbilical cord shift”.

“All the staff that move on, they just hold onto one shift, one shift a week, until they’re ready to cut the cord and leave,” Ms Cummins said.

A staff member serves the weekday-morning regulars.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“Mama Toni, we call her, Mama bear. Leaving her is a big deal.”

Empowering staff

While making her staff feel safe and accepted is important to Ms Vorenas, so is encouraging them to take risks.

Whether that is going through a gender transition while continuing to work at the cafe or sampling a new item on the menu.

Kitchen staff prepare for the day ahead at the Metro Bakery and Cafe.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“We totally see that transformation from lacking in confidence … and then being able to emerge and hold your own space and to be confident in your space and who you are.”

It is a highlight of Toni Vorenas’s business career, something she was not sure she could carry over from her 30-year teaching career.

“I’ll be honest there was a bit of time there where it just felt soul-destroying, it was just numbers and balancing,” Ms Vorenas said.

Toni Vorenas said her first few years in business were “quite soul-destroying”.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

She missed the transformative power of teaching, being able to instil confidence and a sense of self-respect in young people’s lives.

“What I loved about teaching is that you’re always dealing with hope. Kids are so resilient and they’re so hopeful for the future,” Ms Vorenas said.

“And I like working with disadvantaged kids … kids that maybe sat on the fringe or were marginalised a bit.

“Then I figured I could pretty well do that same thing here or at least had to have some of that met.

Toni Vorenas has found parallels between teaching and running her cafe business.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“Then it became less soul-destroying.”

Many of Ms Vorenas’s staff have gone on to other careers and started their own businesses, some of them successful cafes and restaurants in Mount Gambier.

“The reason Metro does so well is not only because she’s inclusive of everyone in her staff [but] she cares about every one of the customers,” Mr Harrap said.

“It’s such to her own detriment, there are times where I’ve been over for dinner and she’s exhausted, she’s had so much going on and she hasn’t taken a break for herself.

A customer watches the world go by along Mount Gambier’s main street.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“She’s got the biggest heart I’ve ever seen on a person.”