The history of how I worked & saved to open my dream business

A lot of you know me, but for those who don’t, I am Emily, the founder and sole owner of Serotonin Eatery, Exercise + Education. I am also an Interior Architect and a Graphic Designer. I opened my Happiness Centre with the vision of changing minds and lives with mental health education and awareness. I created Serotonin Eatery, Education and Exercise to become the leading facility in happiness and health education. I have a passion for living and promoting a plant-based lifestyle through Serotonin and work closely with nutritionists, psychologists, food scientists, and dieticians to provide accessible, credible information to my guests. As optimal health requires a holistic approach, Serotonin integrates both a nourishing Eatery, a FREE Exercise program for the community, and an Education & Event Centre, ‘Utopia Place’.
Serotonin was always my vision, but my journey started long before this. Serotonin Eatery is my third business and I was just 16 when I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur and started saving for my first business. Making my vision of Serotonin a reality took almost a decade, whilst working for the Commonwealth bank, running and nanny agency and a photography business I was saving towards my dream. I want to share with you here the why and how I started Serotonin.

Growing up, particularly during my teenage years, I experienced what I like to call ‘mood funks’. I think everyone can relate to the occasional mood funk. I was going through depression and I was suicidal. This all started when I was about 15 and continued until I was 21. Looking back and reflecting on this time I can see now that I was not eating the right foods, I wasn’t moving my body or exercising and I was not getting enough sleep, a combination of not going to bed early as I was staying up late on my phone and struggling to sleep through the night. My lack of sleep was exacerbated by my many nights out drinking. Now, exercise is important, however not overdoing it! During these years I was also in the rowing team, I played for three basketball teams, two netball teams and I was in the snow sports athletics team. Safe to say there was a lot of stress on my body for a teenager. To top it off, trying to pick what I wanted to do for VCE years because that’s what will “influence me for the rest of our life” didn’t help! I moved out of home when I was 18, which only resulted in more nights out and my drinking increased.

In 2012, after years of struggle, I finally took myself to the doctor. I was 22 years old. I explained the symptoms I had and described my mental state and after only a 10-minute consultation, she suggested antidepressants. I felt baffled and shocked that I would have to start medication at such a young age just to feel okay, so I went home that night and started researching. One peer-reviewed article stood out! It was about three women in the UK who had been stuck on antidepressants for 30 years. As I read the article and what these women were experiencing; feelings such as being numb to the world and not being able to deal with anything, my feelings I had earlier that day after the consult became stronger. These women couldn’t be off their medications! I immediately started researching natural happiness to find ways to make myself happy. I knew I wanted to do this the natural way.

As my research continued, a common theme was emerging, the word ‘Serotonin’. I resonated with this because happiness felt exponential, I didn’t know what the height of happiness was, I had struggled for so long to even feel a little. Serotonin was my new research focus, how could I increase my serotonin naturally? Research showed that sleeping 8 hours a night, eating fruits and vegetables, eating complex carbs and exercising for 23 minutes a day would help alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety. This came as a relief as the steps that I needed to take felt achievable. I began taking these steps myself and could feel the changes. This is why I have created Serotonin to bring these steps into one place to help others as it did me.

How I created Serotonin began back in 2005. Back then, I had a dream for a Japanese café (more on that to come), so I started nannying to save money. We have a big family and I began nannying for my aunties and uncles. Neighbours then started asking me to work for them and an accidental business adventure emerged. The nanny agency expanded as I got friends involved and by the end of 2015 we had 300 families we were working for. I had nannies and ‘mannies’ on my books and it was a huge business.

In 2007 I finished high school and I knew I didn’t want to go to uni straight away. I had really struggled at school (a late diagnosis of ADHD at 30 helped explain a lot!). I came home from ‘schoolies’ and mum said I needed to get a full-time job. A CBA branch was one of the closest places to my house. I applied, got the job and worked there for the next three years as a teller, then concierge and finally a customer service specialist. I loved it, especially the customer service. A new CEO from NZ, who started the same week as me, focused on customer service. He had taken a bank in NZ from the worst customer service to the best and was hired to do the same at our workplace. To achieve this we received excellent customer service training on how to make people happy. All my customers nicknamed me ‘smiley’. I was working from 8.30 am to 8.30 pm every day, and the furthest I would walk would be from my desk to the lunchroom. I was adding to my unhealthy life, I didn’t see the sun. My weekends out meant some time in bed during the day too.

During this time, I was also running a photography business on the side. My weekly full-time wage at the CBA was $559, and I had a personal goal of saving $500 a week. The $59 leftover didn’t really give me enough to live off, so I would photograph school formals and do staged photoshoots. In 2012 I also had the great idea to start a food blog with my best friend, she was a journalist and I was a photographer and studying graphic design so it seemed like the perfect marriage, I don’t remember anything like it back then! I created a logo for us and we were off. It grew to nearly 10,000 followers and none of our friends was even on Instagram back then! My friend and I would eat out together, she would write a food blog and I would take photos.
I also kept a book; in the front of the book, I had everything I loved about hospitality in Melbourne, and in the back, I started a list of everything I hated. I wanted to solve those problems with my business.

Now a little about my dream of a Japanese cafe as promised. My friends and I used to go to this Japanese restaurant 4-5 times a week. It was cheap, quick and with such friendly service. The food was satiating and when you left you never felt sick. That is this feeling of satisfaction that I wanted to put into a breakfast place. Around the time I finished school, “brunching” took off in Melbourne, and we all started eating at various cafes. I would always feel terrible after the meals. Poor quality ingredients and harmful oils were not conducive to the feeling I wanted to create, so my ideas for a Japanese cafe that would have people leave feeling light and happy continued. This is where the concept for Serotonin actually started. A journal I took with me on each holiday from the bank had ideas and drawings. I was 19 when I came up with the design for the Japanese booths that are in Serotonin and Utopia today. It wasn’t until years after journaling about my Japanese café and changing my diet, particularly to include more foods high in the essential amino acid L-tryptophan (Trp) to help my mood, that a friend of mine asked, “why are you still opening a Japanese cafe? Why don’t you open up a Serotonin cafe? You’re eating this way; why wouldn’t you want to share this with everyone else”? He doesn’t even remember saying this, but it was my lightbulb moment and a pivotal time in my life.

One of my skills is to be forward-thinking, which has enabled me to start my business. Yes, I could’ve stayed at CBA, I would’ve gone onto lending or financial planning but it wasn’t nourishing enough for me. I had to pursue my childhood dream for hospitality, afterall I had been working on a business plan since 2009. I started with a costing of how much it would be to have an Architect, how much for the Graphic Designer and realised I’d have to keep saving for a while. Instead, I decided to go to Uni and study it myself. The price of the course was a quarter of what the cost would be and I would have this knowledge for life! I did a three-year degree in Interior Architecture and Communication Design. My business plan continued and in my final semester I swapped out a design subject and picked up a business subject. I had a fantastic teacher who helped me do a 12-week business plan. The business plan was for Serotonin's current location, Burnley, as a placeholder and as my ultimate dream spot. It met all my needs, but at the time had another business in it. This came about as I initially circled the area I’d done my research on. It was a wide area including; Hawthorn, Abbotsford, Cremorne, Richmond and Burnley and I physically drove the streets in my car looking at unusual places that met my needs. I wanted to fit something out myself after studying Architecture, and on my driving exhibition, I found this very old working milk bar. I loved the corner location, but it wasn’t for lease. I also looked at old cricket grounds and football grounds, the places that have fit and healthy people, but are just completely underused. There was an old bowls club that interested me, but I couldn’t get the milk bar out of my mind, it just ticked every box I had, and I had about 100 boxes! Six months after finishing uni and the business plan, I drove passed the milk bar and there was a ‘for lease’ sign up. I signed the lease.

The milk bar out the front was tiny, there was a different colour in every room and the ceiling was falling in, so I had to gut the whole place. There was also a heritage overlay on the building, meaning town planning took nine months and a lot of money and time wasted. Despite the obstacles, everything I had on my vision board for Serotonin Eatery was coming to life. One of my visions was that the cafe be across from a park, this was to create more space than what was in the café itself. The beautiful adjacent park is now an extension of the café with the option of taking picnic blankets and baskets to go sit in the sunshine, something that impacted my life greatly. Playing in the park with our four legged friends is always a positive, though to get the café experience I wanted people to be able to bring their dogs so I designed the dog-friendly courtyard. I also remember going to LA and seeing the huge vegan scene. I loved how there was so much room to park, everyone had their own car park space, and you could park right next to the restaurant. You (I) definitely couldn’t afford to do that in Melbourne, so ample parking around the location was a must. Let's be real, no one had heard of the suburb Burnley then. When I was building, my dad looked out the window one Tuesday afternoon and said “Nobody walks past Em, what are you doing?'' He was very worried. I assured him “It’s alright, I’ve got Instagram and I’ve got Facebook”. This worried him even more as he didn’t know the power of social media. I knew people would love the location I had chosen for the same reasons I did. Melbourne loves back streets, alleyways and hidden destinations. I was creating just that.
I started marketing prior to opening and focused on social media. By the time we opened I had 15,000 followers. People were coming and knocking on the door as we were building because I was doing so much social media that they thought I was already an existing, fully operational café! I was posting a lot of videos showing people the lifestyle I was living. I met so many of my good friends now during that time (Instagram early days). The very first week I opened the doors I was only meant to be serving family and friends. I’d never worked a day in hospitality before I opened and I was learning everything from scratch. On opening day, Sarah (Matcha Mylkbar) was my first customer bringing 8-12 blogger friends. I had been at the shop until 3:30 am the night before and arrived back at 5:00am…. you could definitely say I was out of it! We had been so busy I hadn’t even tasted all the menu yet, so I sneakily only let them order drinks that day. I had to tell them the kitchen wasn’t open the first week because I knew once they put up photos that it would be my brand. I invited them back the following week, and of course the photos they did take went viral. Broadsheet also came in the first week we opened. Opening was on a Wednesday and they arrived on Thursday. I begged them not to put the article up yet, but they did and that weekend we had a thousand people and it grew from there. We now have 60 seats inside Serotonin Eatery, 40 in the courtyard, and Utopia Place seats 50+. We now get the same amount of people on the weekend, but with great systems in place making the running much smoother.
One of the most helpful tips I got from doing a business course was to find people in my industry and learn from them. I contacted a friend who owned his own café in Torquay and he was here the day before we opened, helping train up all the staff, and stayed for the first two days of opening. Three months prior to opening day, I was hiring staff as we were doing the build. I hired amazing nutritionists and naturopaths. None of us had any hospitality experience, so we had a lot of learning curves.

Serotonin Eatery is a happiness café, everything I do here is to make you happy or stabilise your mood. I designed the space to make you feel calm, ease anxiety, and make you have a better day. In my design process, I looked at how everyone eats, this resulted in seven different types of eating spaces. We have the Japanese booths with added curtains so that you can close off and have an intimate experience. Our famous swings, big communal tables, and a lot of little private spots. In Melbourne, people use cafes to co-work and to have meetings, but I’ve found in cafes people can hear your conversation. When I was designing my first menu years ago with my Head Chef I wanted somewhere private to sit, so I’ve designed it so everyone has their own little private space. At Serotonin, we serve a rainbow of colour so you’re getting a diverse range of nutrients. We cater for all dietary needs (GF, DF, SF etc). I come up with the meal ideas with my chefs, we sit down, I talk through my ideas, and they help me make it come to life. We sit down every 3 months to review our menu and create seasonal meals. We look at what’s being offered in the market, what’s trending, what I’m enjoying as well as what customers want. We haven’t used “superfoods” or jumped on any trends just for the hell of it, this is something I stay strong on - I need the science to back what I’m doing! We’re more about a wholefood approach.

After five years of research, I created the “Serotonin Formula”, a 12-step program that provides a balanced lifestyle. The Formula includes: Sleep 8 hours, Be mindful & medidate, Raise your heart rate, Stop the stimulant cycle, Eat Fruits & Vegetables, Read & write, Educate yourself, Spend time outdoors, Listen to music & dance, Connect with others, Smile, laugh & be positive.
Happiness was never an end goal for me, it was creating the experience of happiness and living in the present moment. It isn’t about delaying your happiness and making it conditional to external events and experiences. It’s achievable right now with the right mindset. Getting 8 hours of sleep helps our body reset and combat fatigue, helping to be in this right mindset.
One of my favourite books is ‘The art of happiness by the Dalai Lama, which is all about compassion and how to be more mindful. Mindfulness to me means living in the moment with gratitude and compassion and looking all around. Having compassion for all human beings allows me to be happy in any situation where anything can arise and I can bring myself back to “happiness”. Years ago (but a few years into owning the business) I did a meditation course with Laura Poole. This helped me start a daily meditation practice, 20 minutes in the morning and 20 at night.

Raising your heart rate. The studies I’ve come across suggest that it only takes 23 minutes a day of raising your heart rate to alleviate anxiety and depression. It’s not about smashing your body in the gym. I used to over-exercise and wondered why my adrenals were constantly depleted. So I started to incorporate more gentle exercises like yoga, pilates and cycling to raise my heart rate. N.E.A.T ( Non-exercise activity thermogenesis) exercise is about incorporating more exercise into your daily lifestyle and getting more active without actually “exercising”.

Stopping the stimulant cycle is something in Australia we need to focus on. We all know the routine, we wake up in the morning, we have a coffee, and once that drops off, we need a sugar hit, and in the evening we round out our stimulant consumption with alcohol ect. I know coffee is hard to give up, it’s addictive! This is why I have an array of caffeine-free drinks at Serotonin. The best thing about them is you don’t have to miss out on having your morning drink or that social moment. You can just replace the coffee with a specialty latte or smoothie. I’m not against coffee, it’s more the reliance on it and our mindset around it that can be detrimental.

Within my 12-step guide to natural happiness, the next few steps are some simple ones that we can do each day; eating and increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables we consume, putting some in a smoothie is a great way of doing this. Getting out in nature, which increases our serotonin levels, this can be as simple as walking on the grass or going for a short walk. Reading and writing, I personally love to journal which I know can be daunting, but grab some paper and give it a try, it doesn’t need to be perfect. Educate yourself, this can be through a book you read or listening to a podcast. Listen to music and dance, put on your pjs and favourite tunes and dance around that house like no one is watching. Connecting with like-minded people is so important for health, which is the number one aspect from the blue zones, connection with others and the community. Smile, laugh and be positive, trying smiling at everyone you see today, it’ll make you feel great :)

I set myself high goals to become a leader in my field. I make a point of putting aside a few days to myself every few months, whether in Byron Bay (or Bali - hope to see you soon!), write down my goals for the next quarter, and reflect on the last quarter. It is what I call manifesting. I genuinely believe that if you tell yourself you’re going to do something and seek that out in the world, it will happen. I want to empower my team, not as cafe staff, but as contributors to my mission of helping others create a healthy lifestyle through education into diet, exercise, mindfulness and meditation. My team’s mission isn’t limited to running a cafe but to change the world.
My next challenges are expanding Serotonin and having a string of Happiness Airbnbs, some of which I have already rolled out. I am so passionate about natural happiness, which is why I launched Serotonin Airbnbs. My home is a vegan house, so I don’t have leather or non-vegan building materials. I move around a lot. When I travel, I’ll book an Airbnb. But when I get to these houses, I arrive to find milk in the fridge. My vision is that all the Happiness Airbnbs will be Vegan-friendly houses. This means everything from; the bedding, furniture to what’s in the fridge. I’ve added a Serotonin element so you get a book when you arrive which gives you the details of all the best vegan eats, yoga studios, where the best place to get outdoors and view the sunset, and other plant-based friendly things to do in the area. You can book through Airbnb. Two of my properties are in Melbourne, where you get UberEats Serotonin breakfast, one of my other ways to empower people to live their best life!

All it takes to be ‘successful’ is 2 things; being in touch with what you want, as success is measured differently for everyone and HARD BLOODY WORK.
I wish you all the best in your endeavours to find and live your dream life and hope you enjoyed reading about mine :)

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