The Drifter Surf Shop and Cafe Story

Drifter Surf Shop and Cafe can best be described as a surf lifestyle-inspired retail collective coupled with an espresso bar. It’s a concept conceived by Jake Mackenzie and Tim Russo, two expat surfers based in Bali.

The pair met surfing at Uluwatu close to ten years ago. Tim was wholesaling retail brands and Jake was running a jewellery manufacturing business with his wife. In 2004 Jake secured a shop on the Oberoi strip in Seminyak, which at that time was just rice paddies and a few restaurants, Kuta was still the main attraction.

“We’re both entrepreneurs and we had a simple desire to spend more time in Bali, so we two-stepped a way to do so. This opportunity presented itself and I thought of Tim given his involvement with wholesaling,” Jake says.

The oversupply of big-brand, traditional surf shops in Bali (there’s approximately 50 Quiksilver and 25 Ripcurl stores) spurred the duo, who’ve worked extensively in the surf and retail industries, to create a unique space that could house independent and up-and-coming labels, artworks, books and other eclectic pieces that represent the essence of surfing. 

“Our tagline is ‘the art of surfing’ and we take that approach to the different brands we offer, the artists we collaborate with and the surfboards we stock. Surfing has started to lose a bit of its magic, so we’re trying to keep it as real as we can by supporting brands that we still feel have soul,” says Tim.  

Tim and Jake play complimentary roles running the business. Jake takes a stronger focus in store, spending most of his time working with the staff and on merchandising. Whereas Tim looks after what he describes as ‘the back-end’ – buying, distribution, processing, point-of-sale and inventory control. When it comes to curating the store’s ambience, or what Jake describes as an intangible vibe, they both play an equal role.

The Drifter atmosphere is undoubtedly relaxed. It’s all about the details. Everything from the rustic fit out, the tagline scripted onto the inside rim of the coffee cup (easily one of the best coffees I’ve had in Bali) to the choice of music– Fat Freddy playing on cue – are enticing, especially to anyone with an appreciation for aesthetics or a partial to a positive purchasing experience.

Tim describes Drifter as ‘an anti surf shop’ and says they wanted to create something that was more about lifestyle and that would inspire people and connect with and appeal to non-surfers.

Given the diverse mix of people – everyone from tourists, expats and local Indonesians - that saunter through the shop, the pair have certainly accomplished that. There are not too many surf shops that can brag about the fact they’ve attracted one of the world’s top five surfers (whose name they choose to omit) who was looking for brands he’d never seen before. He bought a hat and a t-shirt, which considering the fact he gets truckloads of free merchandise, is a real testament to the appeal of Drifter.

Aside from an epic range of apparel brands, Drifter also boasts an impressive collection of books, which goes beyond the standard surf bios and photography annuals that you might expect. A quick scan of the shelves reveals Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Gary Erickson’s Raising the Bar: The Story of Clif Bar Inc and Phil Jarrett’s latest book Bali: Heaven and Hell.

“There was nowhere in Bali to find great books and that was another thing we are really passionate about. You can almost walk up to our bookshelf with your eyes closed, pick a book and you’re guaranteed to get something good. I still come in every month and grab a book,” says Tim. 

There has to be a downside somewhere though, surely? Of course there is, agree the pair, “It cuts into your surf time and messes with our mantra of ‘work less, surf more’”, they joke.

In all seriousness Jake admits that doing business in Indonesia is not easy and they are constantly dealing with customs, bureaucracy and frequent changes in rules and regulations.

“The longer you stay here the more you realise you just have to go with the flow, you can’t get caught up in trying to fight or control things,” he says.

And the best bits? Well it’s a close call between what Tim labels ‘fun business trips’ and their enviable and prized surfboard collection proudly on display around us. Visiting shapers and surfers – or as Jake describes it ‘connecting with legends’ - is definitely a highlight. In particular, a collaborative project they’ve done with Alby Falzon and Mitchell Rae creating the Buddha Sticks surfboards. The boards, of which there are only six in the world, are shaped by Mitchell, who Tim coins as one of the best craftsmen in the world, and have Alby’s Buddha artworks and blessings glassed into them.

“That’s one of those special projects where we had to pinch ourselves. It was like, ‘wow’, we’re going to Alby’s house and we’re going surfing with Alby and connecting with him on this project,” says Tim.

When asked for their advice for budding entrepreneurs wanting to set up their own surf shop, the simultaneous response is, “don’t do it – run in the opposite direction!” Jokes aside, Jake acknowledges the unique position they have in Bali. 

“It’s really hard to replicate this, elsewhere you’re in there seven days, you’ve got big overheads, big responsibilities and you’re working your arse off. That’s the flipside of what we do here. We’re very fortunate that the fixed business costs are way more manageable for us to be able step away from the business. So to try and give some advice to someone in Australia, America or wherever, to do what we do is hard. You have to love it because you’re going to be married to it.” 

Tim suggests just doing something original. “There’s so much sameness everywhere. I think what’s really missing is the creativity and originality in business especially in the surf industry,” he says.

Success appears to be a constant balance between maintaining a core surfing focus with a fashion-centred boutique, while not losing the essence or the intention of offering something authentic and unique. The retail world is undoubtedly challenging and many, the Drifter duo included, attribute ‘the death of surfing’ to the big brands selling out and going public.

“Ripcurl is one of the last big private surf brands and I pray they never sell,” says Tim. “Patagonia is also private. To me, they’re the ones that need to hold on. I hope that the surf industry learns more from what Patagonia are doing because they’re definitely the leader – they’re the real deal.”

“To us it’s the soul of surfing – that’s really more of what’s surfing is about as opposed to what it means in a corporate sense. I think the big brands should be talking what we can do to make our beaches cleaner or what can we do for the environment, instead of how much stretchier we can make board shorts,” says Tim.

With Patagonia as their exemplar, Falzon as their mentor and Bali as their base – the pair are also well and truly ‘the real deal’. 

Find Drifter online: 


Posted by: Jaclyn Knight, on January 4, 2015
Categories: Interviews