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The Wholemeal Cafe. Photo pre-lockdown: Wikimedia Commons
The Wholemeal Cafe. Photo pre-lockdown: Wikimedia Commons

BusinessApril 30, 2020

Coffee and community: Golden Bay businesses on the year ahead

The Wholemeal Cafe. Photo pre-lockdown: Wikimedia Commons
The Wholemeal Cafe. Photo pre-lockdown: Wikimedia Commons

Tucked away in a remote corner of the South Island, Golden Bay businesses are confident that community support and resourcefulness can see them through these tough times.

One of the most striking features of Golden Bay – other than its beautiful beaches, rivers and forests – is its coffee. For a sparsely populated rural region in the northwest corner of the South Island, there seems to be an abundance of cafes, all of them unique and vibrant, often hosting live acts from local artists and musicians.

After four weeks sitting empty and idle due to level four lockdown, some of these businesses reopened for online and phone orders on Tuesday, allowing locals to venture out for their first barista-brewed coffee in over a month. According to one cafe manager, while the doors to the regular Golden Bay hospitality experience remained closed, day one of level three was a success.

“It exceeded my expectations, especially with the amount of coffees we’ve sold,” said Aydee Green, manager of Wholemeal Cafe. “It was absolutely fantastic. We’re really happy.”

Trialling a new contactless ordering system, the Wholemeal Cafe managed to sell 200 coffees on the first day of level three, an impressive tally in a region with only 5,000 residents and plenty of competition. Bringing back a few of her 18 staff, Green opened early to catch the tradies also starting their first day back on the job. Sales were steady throughout the day, a result of the loyal clientele the cafe has built up since her father Wayne bought it in 1989.

“We’ve definitely got a solid network of regulars who love our coffee,” Green said, “and we are quite lucky because we have a loyalty card programme which has a database of about 4,000 customers. I did Facebook advertising at the end of last week and a lot of people over the last four days have been sending through money and preloading their card, so they just come up to the front window and recite their card number.”

The setup was simple. Customers could pay via Paywave or their card number at the front window and then go round to the side alley where their food and coffee would be waiting. Despite a small backlog for food at midday, Green said there were few hiccups, and customers used the time for an appropriately distanced catch-up after being separated for a month.

The ordering window at the Wholemeal Cafe. Photo: Supplied

Sitting in the old theatre building in the centre of Takaka, the café has for decades been a community gathering place. Prior to Covid-19, a normal day would see a local musician playing jazz on the baby grand piano that sits on the mezzanine, while the farmers, hippies, retirees, artists, young families, and backpackers that make up the Golden Bay community would sit together eating and drinking coffee.

In recent years, Golden Bay’s community has been increasingly diversified by the regular influx of international backpackers on working holiday visas. With its stunning natural attractions and both the Kahurangi and Abel Tasman National Parks also drawing in waves of tourists every summer, businesses have been able to expand beyond the demand of the local market.

While Green was confident that the community would support Golden Bay businesses like hers in tough times, she said the sudden disappearance of the international market would mean a lot would need to change.

“I noticed that in the four days before the lockdown our sales dropped dramatically just because of the lack of tourism. There are not enough residents here to be able to keep us going… we rely on tourism so I’m having to look at a company restructure to downsize from what we used to do, and then rebuild slowly.”

This was the feeling down the road at the Roots Bar, a live music cafe and restaurant that is usually filled with a mix of foreign and local punters on gig nights. Although owner Holly Osmond was expecting a quiet winter with the decline in international visitors, she said Tuesday had been successful with the bar starting a new system of online contactless orders.

“People were calling through today, and bang on 4pm we opened and went online with our online ordering app Bopple and straightaway got hits,” she said. “They order on the app or phone and when they arrive they can come up and pay at the window. We just keep an eye out the front and if there is someone out there waiting then we sort of poke our head out ask what their name is and the food gets put out on the bannister.”

Even though the venue was no longer putting on gigs and customers couldn’t dine in, Osmond said there was still plenty of work for her and her staff as they adjust to the new setup and reconnect with suppliers and deliveries.

“We’ve all just had five weeks off so it’s a shock to the system… and we’re running deliveries for the first time; two drivers that are cruising within a four-kilometre distance of the bar. It feels good. Although we got the wage subsidy and really enjoyed the lockdown [as we] were lucky to have a paid break, we were all just itching to get back.”

Like Green at The Wholemeal Cafe, Osmond noticed the community had rallied to support her business, with several customers paying to open sizeable tabs in advance.

“I’ve already had $2,000 from local people who are wanting to prepay for the next six months or three months. Someone paid $1,000 today just to do a credit for them. It’s all about just giving cash injections to businesses and I really value that, I had no expectation for that at all and it has just blown me away.”

Owner of The Curry Leaf, Andrew Bulters. Photo: Supplied

Andrew Bulters owns and manages The Curry Leaf takeaway next door. He said he wasn’t too worried about the downturn despite at least half his sales coming from international customers.

“At the end of the day it’s going to be about tightening belts, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The last month has been a big lesson on what you need and what you don’t need and how little you can survive on if you really want to. It doesn’t always have to be about the money, that’s for sure.”

While the wage subsidy had allowed him to spend quality time with his family during the lockdown, he reopened his shop on Tuesday to trial a contactless system and start serving meals again. A number of orders came through during the afternoon and while he had set up the phone and online ordering system, he said that people still occasionally came to the window to place an order.

“I want to play by the books, so I just pointed to the number that we’ve got written up in the window and then they call and we have this awkward conversation through the window on our phones, and it all looks like a badly dubbed movie.”

When the order is ready, he slides it through the window onto a trestle table where the customer can collect it. While it’s a workable system, it would take some time for Bulters to adjust to the lack of customer engagement which he said was a big part of hospitality.

“A lot of people come in just for the banter. It’s a bit of shame that you can’t really do that. But it’s nice just to see people’s faces again. We have a tight community and we’re going to be seeing a lot of people coming back into local businesses and once that kind of buzz starts it spreads really quickly. Hopefully, it goes all the way around. It would be nice to see the whole lot of us come out of it at the end.”

Despite the uncertainty of the next few months, winter has always been a quiet time in Golden Bay, and all three business owners had faith that the allure of the region would be irresistible to New Zealanders looking for a holiday destination come next summer.

“It’s such a nice place to come to and I think when Kiwis are allowed to travel it’s going to pick up again,” said Aydee Green. “The next four or five months are going to be rough, but we’re established. We’ve been running for so long and with local support, we’ll keep going. I reckon we’re going to have a good summer again.”

Keep going!