The litmus test for the popularity of any suburb has always been the quality of its cafés and the coffee it serves. Just a stone’s throw from the Creating Communities’ office, off Apirana Ave, is Merchants Espresso and Eatery – one of latest additions to GI’s growing café culture – run by an energetic young couple, Karen and Ivan.
The couple are not newcomers to the area, having owned and managed a small baking and takeaway operation in GI for the past few years. They still run Pie Hole – now re-branded as Quick Bite – but when the opportunity recently presented itself to set up a more prominent, up-market café, they both jumped at the chance to get in at the ground level in this up-and-coming suburb.
“People are slowly realising that, hey, this place is really quite close to the city, and it’s just next to the beaches, and it’s only a short drive to Sylvia Park and Mt Wellington,” says Karen
"Also, there aren’t a lot of other cafés in the area – unlike the rest of Auckland, she adds. “We realised what was lacking in the area was really good coffee and gourmet cabinet food – so the idea for Merchants grew from there.”
Karen says their new venture is aimed at quite a different customer [to Quick Bite]. The premises are different – bigger, with lots of space given to seating, and with a focus on the menu, rather than takeaways.
It’s a Thursday morning, around 11am. Karen had asked me to come in at this time because it is their ‘quiet time’ of the day. It wasn’t quiet. We both look across at the constant queue of people lining up to order their coffee from her partner, Ivan.
“We met when he was the head barista at The Foundation Café in Parnell and I was working as a corporate,” she says. “A lot has happened since then – especially over the past three years. We’ve now moved into the area, become pregnant, and we now have a family – and our customers have lived through that, too – it’s just like one big community.”
Looking around her café, Karen points out some of her regulars. “The couple over there come in most days – apparently he’s tried scrambled eggs in all the other cafés in the area and we do the best,” she laughs. “Then these guys, here, are from the university, and they come in every day and do the crossword together. The two ladies outside, I think they do a swim class on a Tuesday and Thursday – in fact there are quite a few groups that come in after the Aqua classes. On Wednesday’s it’s guys’ day at the aqua, so a group of them come in.”
Getting to know your clientele is a huge part of running a community based café. But it’s also about serving damn good coffee, says Karen.
“Having a good barista is like having a really good chef – people will come, and they’ll be loyal,”
During a quiet moment, I grab two minutes with Ivan.
He tells me he’s been a barista since he was 16, and that the secret to a good coffee is consistency and attention to detail. “Jumping on feedback – listening to what your customers have to say about your coffee and acting on that,” he says. “There are so many variations. Each regular likes their coffee in a slightly different way.”
One of the most unusual requests he’s ever had was from a regular, who would order two shots of decaf, one shot of normal coffee, almond milk, with chocolate and cinnamon on top, and only three-quarters full – and extra hot.
“When I started, the quirky thing was trim and soy. Nowadays, almond milk is becoming popular, and coconut and rice milk is on the rise. And they all behave slightly differently,” he says. “There’s also been a rise in allergies, so you need to be very careful with cross contamination."
After all this time, Ivan says he still really enjoys working with coffee. “I love the smell of it and the taste of it. Also, running our own business is really dynamic and interesting – designing our own menus and running our own marketing, trying different things,” he says. “It’s never the same day twice, and it takes a lot of different skills all rolled into one.”
Turning to his thoughts on GI, Ivan says the area has a real east-meets-west culture, with a lot of diversity and really good forward momentum.
“I feel like we’re catching the wave at the right time."
“The demographic has definitely changed,” he says. “There are now lots more young families, like us, which is kinda cool, because that’s who were trying to attract. There’s a feeling of small and medium businesses trying to make an effort to bring themselves up a bit, and of course the infrastructures improved, too, with all the new housing
Ivan goes onto say that GI has a real sense of opportunity about it. “If you move into the more established suburbs, there’s a feeling of, it is what it is. But here there’s more of an atmosphere of opportunity, more camaraderie, of working together to improve the place – and that’s really exciting.”
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The litmus test for the popularity of any suburb has always been the quality of its cafés and the coffee it serves.