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‘Dealing with council, I’m in combat mode’ – The Coco’s Cantina sisters on doing business in Auckland City

A conversation between Damaris and Renee Coulter, the women behind Coco’s Cantina, about their endless struggles with the Auckland Council.

First, a long caveat: It’s popular in many Auckland circles to malign the council, but most of the time it’s not deserved. The Auckland Council is vast and complex and has an incredibly important job to do. Most pertinently to my mind, its current iteration has a ferociously difficult job on its hand: fixing the shambolic city its predecessors gifted us.

Our infrastructure was rotting or unbuilt. Our ugly new buildings leaked, our pretty old ones had been torn down. Our transport strategy viewed cars the way mid-Western Americans view their rifles. Basically we spent decades keeping rates artificially low by not doing anything. 

No matter. A few years ago we got our Super City, we elected Len Brown and 20 councillors, who collectively – some against their will – have started to wrestle this city into the future. The CRL is the signature achievement, but all across the city there are signs of progress and modernisation: Wynyard Quarter and Britomart, Avondale and New Lynn, Sky Path and electrified rail.

The inner city cycle paths which have sprung up post-super city

The inner city cycle paths which have sprung up post-super city. Image credit: Auckland Council

In time Len Brown will be remembered less for singing and rooting than for the way he has presided over the transformation of this city from a dump squatting on an area of an extraordinary natural beauty to a city creaking into the future.

This is by way of apology and framing for the conversation I am about to present. It occurs between two sisters, Damaris and Renee Coulter, who own and run Coco’s Cantina on Karangahape Rd. People with better mouths than mine judge which restaurant is the city’s best, but I feel confident in calling Coco’s the most fun. It has an energy and atmosphere and attitude absent from the stiff fine dining scene it entered seven years ago, and has helped usher in this era of informal and slightly boozy eating of which Auckland is rightly proud.

Most nights it is full, and when you’re inside there’s nowhere else you’d rather be. When you’re outside, walking or driving past you’re cursing the life choices which have lead to you going somewhere else to do something less good.

It is precisely the kind of place the new Auckland presents as adoring and encouraging – both its residents and its council. Which is why I was surprised when, late one night, I heard Damaris explaining to a friend the trouble they were having getting consent to build a kitchen. A kitchen? In a restaurant? Didn’t seem particularly extreme a request. Yet when I asked her to expand the story she told was of a small and vibrant business running into endless issues with an organisation which says it’s there to facilitate businesses just like Coco’s.

The contrast between what the Council says and what it does sounded vast.

So I met up with the pair of them a few weeks later, and essentially sat and listened. They recounted their battles with the Council, how it impacted their business and made them feel. They might sound petty – signs and seats and that – but it’s precisely the scale of them which makes them so infuriating. Because it shouldn’t be that hard.

“For people like Renee and I, who have to work 45 hours in our business just in service – and then go and do the back of house stuff. To then have this sort of stuff on top of it, it just kills people like us,” said Damaris. “And then you wonder why they go to Melbourne.”

It’s the last sentiment which strikes fear into the hearts of our city planners – that they’ll build something beautiful but the people required to make the ecosystem work will be gone. So, in the interest of openness and transparency and helping our good Council get better, I present a conversation between two cool sisters about the most frustrating thing in their business lives.

The following transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Damaris (left) and Renee Coulter. Photo credit: José Barbosa

Damaris (left) and Renee Coulter. Photo credit: José Barbosa

Renee: Everyone is pro-business, everyone wants to be an international city, and everyone wants Auckland to be on the top liveable-city list. We hear all these buzzwords all the time.

But the coalface of when you enter anything to do with Council, you feel like you’re going into battle. And their default for the guy on the desk is to just say no straight away – they actually just say no before they’ve even heard what you want to do.

Damaris: There was that one scenario in particular. We rang them probably about three months before our fifth birthday. We wanted to have a big party for the community, and Renee and I had set aside some money to throw a party. Because our regulars had been so amazing, and our community had been so amazing.

So Renee rang up and I just said to see if we can get a little bit of extra seating. Like, [the party] cost us $10,000. We hired a band every night for a week, we paid for New Zealand prizes, like, we’d bought Miss Crabb scarves and Ecostore packs and we’d bought all these prizes to give away every night. We’d asked our suppliers to give us some booze to give away. We’d gone to a big effort to celebrate, we had the fucking pizza oven outside…

Renee: We wanted it to be a celebration. Not just a party, not just drinks, and it to be like in the Spy pages and just a whole lot of fuckwits. ‘Cause that’s normally what restaurants do – they normally have their five, 10 or 20-year anniversaries and it’s just a whole lot of C-class celebrities all standing ’round drinking Veuve.

And that’s fine but that’s not what we wanted to do for our five years. We wanted it to be a whole week and we wanted it to be whether you were sitting in Coco’s, or walking past, or the neighbour, or across the road – you would still feel part of the celebration. But it turned into this big shitfight. Before they even know what you wanna do they’re already kind of going, “You can’t do it.”

Damaris: Renee rang the council. I said, “Why don’t you just ring and let’s see if we can get an extension of our boundary so that we can push it out.”

Renee: Before I’d even made that phone call you witnessed, I’d already had several other phone calls and I’d already filled in this application form. Whenever we deal with council, it’s like there’s what they are projecting and publicly saying – but actually the experience – they don’t mirror each other at all.

Damaris Coulter. Photo credit: José Barbosa

Damaris Coulter. Photo credit: José Barbosa

Damaris: You can talk to any restaurant, you can talk to any small business and everyone’s got the same thing. It’s almost like it actually outweighs the benefit of being in the business – the cost to comply actually outweighs the capability of you being being in business. So if you just even go for outdoor seating – how much is outdoor seating and what do you have to go through and how long does that process take…

Renee: No, outdoor seating’s fine. It’s the things they’re used to doing that they’ve got no problem doing. But as soon as you wanna do something else…. So, we had a liquor license on this side and we had a liquor license on that side [gesticulates to their adjacent second site] and we said ‘well I don’t want two liquor licenses because, one, I don’t wanna pay for two liquor licenses’.

But the main thing is that every time I moved somebody from this side to that side carrying their drink, technically I was taking them off site and I was making us into an off-license. Which you’re not allowed.

It took a year. I had to go to Wellington to join the two licenses up. I went through three different people and it took heaps of time and the lady who I ended up dealing with said, ‘I know that this is ridiculous and it’s bullshit.’ She said, ‘I’ve actually said that in my email to them’. She emailed them and said ‘it’s been recommended that we send this down to you guys, but I think it can be dealt with here in Auckland. It’s just two sites, they’re all under the same ownership’.

It took a year to combine two existing liquor licenses, and it shouldn’t have been a big deal.

We wanted to put up some signage outside, they wanted us to have a resource consent, like a resource consent! That’s getting your neighbours, that’s like thousands of dollars…

Damaris: No, but the best thing about that one, it was brilliant. Ollie hand-painted us a 12 metre sign to go along the full front of the awning. When we went down there, I said, ‘So what do we need to do?’ He opened this book and he said, ‘OK, so the sign is only allowed to be the same size as your fascia, so can you go and check how big your fascia is?’

Then Marcus, our wood man, said, ‘Well, your fascia’s not even two inches, so does that mean that your sign is only allowed to be two inches?’ And so I took that information back to him and he said, ‘well yeah, that means that your sign can only be two inches’. I said, ‘OK, so when is common sense gonna come into play here?’

Renee: I get it – you need to have rules, but that’s the problem with Council. They don’t have a mechanism to manoeuver through. Like, I get why they do that. It’s a simple thing to adhere to so that you don’t fuck up a beautiful old building or something.

Damaris: Yeah, but look around [gesticulates to the mess of K rd]!

Renee: …but, we get why there has to be rules.

Damaris: Unfortunately, so what happens is every time we have something like this we get to a certain stage where Renee will spend 12 hours working on it and I watch her working on it. She gets to a certain stage, she’s away from our business and then I lose my rag and I go on social media, and then someone’s sent down by the council to shut us up.

Now there’s something in the council called the ‘Coco’s Effect’, which someone from the council told us about. It was just like, as soon as we went public [about our problems with] the birthday, someone was there within a couple of hours saying here’s the extension to your footpath, here’s the rest of it, just shut them up.

Renee Coulter. Photo credit: José Barbosa

Renee Coulter. Photo credit: José Barbosa

Renee: They didn’t actually give us everything they wanted – but they gave us the information which someone could have given us at the beginning. We put in this application for an event, because that’s what they advised us to do. But actually an event application is what you would get to shut down the whole of Ponsonby Road to do the Hero Parade.

So after we threw our toys and Damaris tagged Council and a few other people in, then three guys came up and they said, ‘OK, so if you want music, the way around it is to get a busker’s license’. And I’m like, ‘Sweet, awesome that’s easy!’

Damaris: So why didn’t you fucking tell us that?

Renee: So why didn’t you tell us before? The way to get more seating on the street is just to ask for an extension of your current liquor license, and that was totally easy. The other was an extension of hours – and that was easy as well. So when we threw our toys there were solutions which were totally easy.

Damaris: It almost came from a sort of emergency – ‘shut them up’. There’s endless conversations we’ve had with people when people are like, ‘So, how’s the kitchen renovations?’ You’re like, ‘Don’t even ask, it’s the fucking Council.’ Renee’s going to invoice the Council for the time that she took to do their job. Which will be an interesting process.

Renee: The exact same thing happened as with the birthday event. The experience has been exactly the same. And actually whether it was joining the two licenses, or the birthday party, or the sign and now the kitchen – the experience every time has been exactly the same.

So the kitchen – it’s a pretty basic . We talked to architects and planners and everyone said it’s a piece of piss, it’s a nothing job. So we’re building a new kitchen and it’s really simple, we don’t have to build any walls, it’s just plumbing, equipment, lining the wall – it’s really simple.

We’re building it next door. We put the building permit in on the third of March. And it’s now well past the third of June. You’re allowed 20 working days, so we’ve had two lots of 20 working days. They gave us this huge list – wanting to know about ventilation of the storage room, ventilation of the toilets, carparks…

Damaris: It’s so ridiculous.

Renee: Nothing else is changing! We’re not doing anything else apart from geting a more efficient kitchen. That’s all we’re doing. We’re not trying to squeeze in more people, we’re not expanding, we’re not doing anything. Anyway, long story short, this has gone on for three months. We started getting really fucking over it and so was the architect. So we called our friend who’s a planner and he didn’t even really answer my email, he just said, ‘Not good enough, email this person and email them the whole lot.’

Damaris: Email them the whole thread of the last three months.

Renee: Email them the actual building consent and all your dialogue, which luckily the architect had. Within two hours we had an email back from someone who’s the executive assistant to the CEO. I didn’t actually know the council had a CEO, I just thought there was the Mayor.

Damaris: And the next day we have our building consent.

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