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Project 6 - Coffee Supreme

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August 16, 1993, was Coffee Supreme’s first day of trading – but the genesis of Supreme began a year earlier, when our founders, Chris Dillon and Maggie Wells, decided to build Reds Café at 49 Willis Street in Wellington. With perhaps a dose of Antipodean naivety, Chris and Maggie believed they could do better than what other cafés were able to offer at the time. With an inner-city location secured, the pair enlisted the help of Chris’ good friend Dean Cato, with whom Chris had worked in the film and television business, to design their better vision of a café. And Dean delivered. He created a theatrical space – somewhat like a stage set – with slanting walls, a sweeping curved bar and angled header, hidden filmic lighting and piles of moody atmosphere. Reds Café was warm, dark and otherworldly – quite unlike anything else in Wellington at the time.
Then, a week before opening, Maggie and Chris had an eleventh-hour change of heart. The duo had originally intended to partner with the recently established coffee roaster Caffe L’affare, but at the last minute went with Belaroma. Maggie knew Belaroma owner Tony Gibbs from her days working at the Buttery café, which neighboured Belaroma, and, most importantly, Maggie was swayed by the taste of Tony’s coffee. L’affare’s Jeff Kennedy was not impressed, but this proved to be one of the most significant choices Chris and Maggie would make. Over the months following its opening, Reds’ business built up, keen punters returned day after day, and the café enjoyed a golden period of being the talk of the town and furiously busy. Everyone seemed to love the coffee, the food, the space and the staff. However, a crisis was just about to come over the horizon.

Maggie and Chris never meant to start a coffee company. Everyone told them it was a bad idea. Eleven months into running Reds, the café was successful, but its coffee supplier was not. One day Chris got the call – Inland Revenue had put Belaroma into liquidation. For Reds, this was a real problem, as Chris and Maggie attributed much of their café’s success to its coffee. Without a lot of thought, and against the advice of their betters, Chris did a deal with the liquidators and with John Burton, the green-bean supplier who had security over the roasting machine. Employing the former supplier to roast, Chris opened Coffee Supreme three days later, with the hope that something lasting could rise from the ashes of Belaroma. Initially, Chris felt he had made a terrible mistake. Trying to establish a new business on the foundations of a failed one is like throwing money into a bottomless pit. Coffee Supreme had few customers, a fragile supply chain, debt, and an inherited reputation for unreliability. Rising from the ashes was going to be more about grit and grind then being lucky. 

Once again, Chris turned to Dean Cato for input. Dean scratched out what would become an inspired design for a logo, loosely based on the shape of the coffee bean. That logo, with only minor revisions, is still Supreme’s logo today. It then came time to hit the streets. Chris armed himself with a brand, a bag of coffee, caustic soda and a big pair of rubber gloves as he introduced Coffee Supreme to cafés across Wellington city. Winning café accounts sometimes just came down to turning up, cleaning the espresso machine and getting the grind right. 

It’s now difficult to imagine how, for almost three years, Supreme was operated out of the impossibly tiny shop at 7 Woodward Street. Truck drivers hated delivering beans to us – they would have to trolley 60kg coffee sacks up the street, and they complained loudly. The basement under our shop flooded regularly, neighbours reported us to the council over the smoke from our flue, and the shop kept erratic hours at best. Despite all the issues, the business grew. In 1996, we pushed the boat out, setting up a proper roasting factory on the fringe of town in Kaiwharawhara. Another chapter began.

It was at about the turn of the millennium that Chris and Maggie began to eye up a marketplace further afield. They’d always loved the city of Melbourne – Maggie spent seven years in the local hospitality scene, and they were both very familiar with it and comfortable there. Quite unlike today, it didn’t boast the most advanced local coffee scene. It was a sizeable industry for sure, but dominated by a few traditional large roasteries with Italianate names producing very dark espresso blends. The origins of the coffee scene in Australia were seemingly quite different from those of NZ, having been founded by immigrant Italian families who brought with them their tried-and-true methods for espresso-blend construction. At the time, Supreme had a bright young couple in its employ, Justin Emerson and Marsha Partington. After a trip to Melbourne to watch the Grand Prix, the idea of relocating there to begin a coffee business struck them both, and they instigated some conversations with Chris and Maggie about the possibilities. They had the ideal skill sets to form a small but effective team, with Justin being the Head Technician, with huge engineering nous, and Marsha having run the admin side of Supreme in NZ. It was decided that the timing was perfect, and Justin and Marsha bought some suitcases. 

They packed up and sailed over, taking the little 12kg Probat that Supreme had started with and a box of T-shirts. They set up in a forgotten corner of Cremorne, and Marsha roasted coffee from a footstool, while Justin hit the streets with beans in hand. It was hard yakka to begin with, for a number of reasons, but the biggest hurdle they had to overcome was that their coffee tasted too much like coffee and not enough like ashtray. The majority of the feedback they got for the first years was that their coffee tasted like a weak milkshake rather than the gutsy coffee tar customers were used to. The only strategy that seemed to work in combatting this was isolating a potential customer for a week or two, hermetically sealing them off from any darker-roasted local brands, and having them solely consume Supreme during this time. After this detox, Justin and Marsha would let the quarantined party drink their usual cuppa, and it was only after having had their palates effectively cleansed that they realised how dire what they had been drinking was. Luckily, Justin and Marsha did attract a few early adopters, and, even more fortunately, some of them went on to be quite influential in developing the specialty-focused scene that Melbourne enjoys today. Mark Dundon, of ST. ALi and then Seven Seeds fame, was one of their first key customers at his early café, Ray. It did take a while, but since setting up in 2001, Supreme Melbourne has grown considerably in both volume and influence. No one at Supreme would claim to be responsible for the size and quality of the industry in Melbourne, arguably the Southern Hemisphere’s epicentre of specialty coffee, but we may just have had a little hand in it.

By 2004, our roasting plant and warehouse space in Kaiwharawhara were beginning to feel smaller and smaller in terms of production capacity. We were having to split-shift the roasting day, and this never leaves you with enough time to do all the other stuff that needs to be done to produce consistent blends. And alongside continued growth in roasting volumes come all the other activities that are part of being a wholesale supplier. Our Tech Dept was operating out of a cupboard and Despatch only just had enough space to shelve the next day’s deliveries. Every department was fighting the others daily for storage on the pallet racking. Being near maximum capacity at our current plant meant we had to relocate the factory for the purpose of upscaling production. Before long, our friend James found an unused commercial property on Hopper Street, just past the top of Cuba Street. At last we could be almost in town. This site had ‘enjoyed’ many previous lives, and this meant it was in need of some decent work. It consisted of one warehouse in some disrepair, one of abject squalor, a decent-sized car park and some tired offices at the street front. The plan was to restore the salvageable warehouse as the roastery, install a new roaster that had the capacity to handle Supreme’s volumes, and demolish the rest of the structures in order to create a purpose-built HQ. Heath and Chris ordered up a spanking-new Probat G120, and the roasting warehouse was reroofed and repaired. We were set. 

The Probat roaster eventually showed up in pieces stuffed into both a 20ft and a 40ft container, which were dropped onto the car park outside. We spent a few days unpacking parts and trying to make sense of the inadequate instruction manual. Finally we had the roaster together, or at least didn’t have any spare pieces lying about, and it was time for ze German to arrive and help us get it going. Geart, a gruff and reasonably perverted technician, showed up and spent a bitter few weeks with us commissioning the new roaster, pausing only for more cigarettes and coffee and to teach us how to cook sausages in the furnace underneath. Once we had our heads around the new machine, or at least how not to trigger the array of alarms, we started a drawn-out and torturous period of roasting our blends on the big roaster at Hopper Street and transporting them back to Kaiwharawhara to be bagged and despatched. Our smaller batches were still being done on our Probat G60 at Kaiwharawhara. The production team slogged through a long 18-odd months of working at two sites on opposite sides of Wellington’s CBD while the rest of the new HQ was pieced together out of tilt slabs and more tilt slabs. Come 2007, finally the whole of CSL was working under the same roof again, with so much more room that the invasions of personal space and unintentional harassments were no longer a feature of daily life. No one had to touch each other unless they really wanted to, the lunch options around Hopper Street were so much better, and we had storage enough for every department and every department’s flatmate.

By 2003, we had a strong fan base in the South, and, as a result, enjoyed the custom of many cafés scattered throughout. From the pot-smoking ports of the Abel Tasman down to the cheese-rolling south, our coffee and little oval logo were enjoyed daily. 

But flying across the strait with an optimistic Pelican Case of parts and a set of ring spanners was becoming both expensive and, well, less personal than we liked. So we looked deep within ourselves and sent Steven King down to build our HQ – initially a garage in Lyttelton, then on to Montreal Street, in an old real-estate office with a suspended ceiling, with a few sheets of ply (to make it trendy). From there, we covered the Mainland from end to end in white Corolla station wagons – Kaikoura to Franz Joseph, Picton to Stewart Island. We loved it, we still do, boasting more road miles than a Siberian taxi and becoming best friends with some of the warmest hosts in the South. 

As time passed, we grew out of our commercial cul-de-sac condo, and needed to move into more spacious and suitable digs. We also decided we should establish our own little spot, right in the city, and set about setting up shop across the road from our mates at the IRD and putting a café out front to show them a good time. We were bold; we used green, plonked an old shipping container in the middle for a training room, and hung naked lightbulbs without shades. Things were going great, our team grew and we delivered coffee by the cup and the kilo from our little corner of Lichfield and Madras. 

And then the earth shook.

It was the day that changed Christchurch forever: at 12:51 pm on February 22, 2011, the city shook and crumbled, shaken to its core. That black Tuesday, the quake killed 185 people and left none of us unaffected. The 6.3-magnitude shake lasted for only 10 seconds, but changed the way we live, do business, build, travel, everything. For us at Supreme, after we had accounted for all of our Southern team, it was an event that pulled us together and brought out amazing strength and camaraderie. Steve McGregor, known fondly as Steve Island, worked tirelessly to aid not only his team but also our greater family of customers – all catastrophically affected by the event. Some lost their livelihoods, their cafés nothing more than a pile of brick and tangle. Others were forced to improvise, to make do with what they had left, or to gather what they could and rebuild across town. The spirit of New Zealand shone – generosity and selflessness surged to the surface, ensuring those left without were not left alone. Two of our customers who had lost everything – TP and Jane from The Coffee Smiths – promptly set up a mobile coffee outpost, offering counsel and support with a cup of coffee, free of charge. We had to wait almost half a decade after that earthquake before we were able to relocate our team from temporary accommodation in Riccarton to a rebuilt South Island base in Christchurch’s CBD. It was worth the wait. We proudly opened the doors to our new home, now in Welles Street, in March 2015. Committed as ever, this time, our café, called Supreme Supreme, seats 70-plus people and offers a full food menu alongside our coffee offerings. Nestled next to the café is a handsomely appointed workshop and training space with further room for our wholesale team to pull up a chair and hold a hui or two. Our new Christchurch residence gives our South Island team a place to call home and a reason to say, ‘We’re still here, and we’re here to stay.’

There was a time, not long ago, when Tāmaki Makaurau was ruled by the colours beige and brown and cafés that seemed to be built purely to seat folks at tables with bowls of coffee as big as bird baths. Back then, Aucklanders chose their favourite café based on an equal split between the following: the transparency of the café’s frontage (i.e. how much seeing-and-being-seen was taking place), and whose coffee was being served through the machine, which, 10 years ago, was most likely to be one of three or four possible roasters. This was how the beaches looked as we lowered the ramps of our infantry barges and waded onto the shell-shocked shores of the Waitemata. Our life in Auckland began with renting an old warehouse down a backstreet in Ponsonby, hiring a couple of townies, and acquiring a silver bread van. The warehouse was more aspirational than it was necessary, the townies were to peddle our wares, and the bread van was to make deliveries, of which there were very few indeed. Auckland was tough egg to crack. We knew it was never going to be easy gaining traction in the biggest market in New Zealand and going up against some of the bigger coffee companies around. When we started out, we did most things you’d expect from a coffee company setting up in Auckland in 2005. We knew our stuff: buying, roasting, selling, training, fixing, all that stuff. Yet we found it an uphill battle to win over the right people simply by getting around town and attempting to sell our wares. 

We realised, after some time, that we needed to do more than just win friends – we needed to influence people as well. We realised there was no greater way to influence people than through your own generosity and hospitality. For us, that meant having people sit at our own table. So, we built a café called Good One for just that – to sit people down at our place, to offer them a cup of coffee, and to demonstrate true hospitality. For eight years, Good One served as our greatest sales tool, our boardroom, and our petri dish to test our new ideas in coffee hospitality. Undeterred by the initial indifference, we cracked on with making friends and preaching the good news. Slowly, through luck and tenacity, we got a foothold here and there, and have never looked back. At the end of 2014, we stretched out and opened an espresso bar in the Seafarers building at Britomart. As our ability to connect with Auckland matured, further opportunities to reach the city were presented, with culminating in Supreme Seafarers. Then, in 2015, with our wholesale squad already in a new building on West Terrace to accommodate its growing responsibilities, we decided that we would retire Good One from active service. She had served us so well, but the changing character of Auckland was inspiring us to consider new ideas about how to best serve our Auckland fans and customers. So, we passed the torch for our Ponsonby space over to our good friends Little & Friday, bringing the curtain down on our original home in Auckland. With the 09 being New Zealand’s biggest and fastest-growing market, we’re facing an unprecedented era of opportunity for Supreme to create tables to host our friends for the decades that follow.

Our more recent endeavour has been to spread our wings in Australia, branching out beyond The Garden State towards Queensland and specifically Brisbane. Acquiring a small local roastery at the end of 2014, we were able to sidestep the lengthy graft of setting up a new roastery from scratch. With the roastery came new family members, a sharp, bona fide and talented team of Brisbane locals who could guide Supreme in a new frontier. With an emerging coffee market in Australia, our Brisbane team has grown in size and strength as we make new friends and continue to win over the city’s best café operators. Our second Australian territory underscores the still vast sea of opportunity for us within Australasia. So what does the future hold for us here at Supreme? What does it hold for all of us in the coffee industry?

Over two decades, we’ve gone from having a National Geographic knowledge of the countries our coffee beans were grown into regularly standing shoulder-shoulder with our producers throughout the year. We’ve traded fax machines for passports, and bank cheques for boarding passes. We’ve evolved from a small group of all-rounders – feeling their way – to a company of world-class coffee professionals with biology equipment and parameters and probes and laptops and the internet. That’s right, the internet. In 1993, the internet communicated only 1% of the information flowing through two-way telecommunications networks. Today, by this means, we have access daily to people all over the world involved in the growing and handling of our coffees and brewing and roasting equipment. What hasn’t changed, however, is our love for coffee, our love for learning about it, and our love for sharing both these things. We believe in growing and learning, and that we will never ‘arrive’ – this game cannot be clocked.

Since coffee began, it has been central to many cultures’ social comings-together, regardless of class or standing. It has become synonymous with generosity and sharing, and these are values we love. From tomorrow onwards, regardless of our size and spread, we will continue to cherish these values and to make them central to our business. Coffee brings us together around the staff lunchroom, around our different neighbourhoods, together with customers, friends, and family. It brings us together with people who live in different countries and come from different walks of life, yet all speak the same language – the language of goodness, in good company. Our future looks like that, but with bigger Internets, cooler cars, and hovering skateboards. In a rare moment of not taking ourselves too seriously, but still in truth, we once said we wanted to be ‘the greatest little coffee company in the world’. 

We’d still love to be that.




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