It takes a brave man to liken his business to a weed, but that’s how Sam Crofskey describes C1 Espresso after the earthquakes that wiped out the cafe’s premises in Christchurch’s historic High St precinct.
In October, C1 Espresso reopened in the former High St Post Office, right opposite its old location, sharing the ground floor with an arthouse video rental store and a new boutique cinema.
Crofskey is confident the businesses will pave the way for further development the way weeds colonise an empty piece of dirt and create an environment where larger plants can flourish.
“It’s an analogy for gentrification that you see on High streets [everywhere]. The weeds are things like antique shops, secondhand bookshops and cafes.”
When Crofskey and his wife and business partner, Fleur Crofskey, took over the cafe a decade ago, their neighbours were drug dealers, brothels and empty shops. Eventually high end fashion stores moved in and Crofskey is banking on a similar transformation as new businesses slowly spring up. “We’ve done it before and we’re looking forward to doing it again.”
C1 Espresso always had a fair trade and environmental focus, but post-quake the owners placed even more emphasis on sustainability and diversification. It’s a big place, employing 25 staff, and with pavement seating it can accommodate up to 350 patrons, 100 more than before.
Solar panels generate electricity for lighting and water heating, and a wind turbine is planned for the roof.
Heat from the kitchen and the coffee roaster is pumped into the high ceilinged cafe through floor grates and the toilets have basins built into the top of the cisterns so hand washing water is recycled on flushing.
Cafe tables are made from recycled timber — kauri from the old C1, rimu flooring from a nearby plumbing shop, and painted timber from AMI Stadium seating.
As part of its commitment to fair trade, C1 Espresso has teamed with Samoan non-government organisation Women in Business Development (WiBDI) to grow organic coffee in the island nation. Although quantities are still small
(200 kg last year), the intention is to increase that to 10 tonnes annually over the next decade.
At the outset Crofskey’s sketchy knowledge of coffee growing in Samoa was based on a Wikipedia entry. “It said coffee grew there and we thought, sweet as, it must be true. We went over there and it turns out the coffee grew in the wild in
the jungle.” The wild Robusta coffee plants were not suitable for espresso so through WiBDI the Crofskeys organised plantings of Arabica, and Sam is excited about using beans from Liberica coffee plants introduced by early German settlers. “It has acclimatised from being in Samoa for so long and it has a really interesting flavour profile.”
Plantings of hibiscus, mangos, ginger, bananas, guavas, citrus and vanilla provide shade for the seedling coffee bushes and an alternative source of income for farmers.
Along with Samoan citrus honey, these crops are used in some of the 37 teas on the cafe menu, its honey ginger lemon tonic drink, and in the Crofskey’s OK! Bottling Company fruit nectars.
The nectars — think fruit smoothie minus the milk — are served ‘neat’, or converted into a smoothie with the addition of ice cream, and sell in more than 35 city cafes.
Crofskey says as supplies increase the goal is to market Samoan honey as a premium packaged product that remains liquid at room temperature, even in cold Christchurch winters. “That makes it a really useful product in a busy cafe like this, because it doesn’t crystallise.”
The Crofskeys’ most recent venture, the Golden Panther Tea Company, produces blended teas in collectable matchboxes (two teabags per box, one to drink in the cafe, the other to take home).
Artwork on the boxed sets ranges from pictures of Christchurch buildings lost in the quakes to photos of the royal family, and Crofskey hopes they catch on. “The idea is to introduce people to different types of tea.”
He ruefully admits they learned a hard lesson about diversification when they lost half a tonne of citrus honey and company stocks of fruit nectar in the quakes: now excess OK! stock is stored offsite.
But there have been positive outcomes too. “Apart from taking everything away from us the earthquakes offered us, that opportunity to build some really strong stories into C1 that enable our customers to engage with us in different ways. We have customers who are into what we do in Samoa and we have others that like that we are environmentally aware.”
The marriage of cafe, video store and art house cinema sounds like a match made in heaven, and it came about after Crofskey bumped into Alice in Videoland founder Paul Stewart at a meeting of High St business owners. Alice in Videoland has been a CBD fixture for more than quarter of a century, and the idea of introducing a cafe to the Post Office building came from one of Stewart’s staff during a get together in the Addington Coffee Co-op, a highly successful cafe that did a lot to revive a run-down area of town.
The Crofskeys had been looking for new premises and Crofskey says they seriously considered moving to Sydney, London or New York. “We were so close to doing that because the idea of reopening here was frightening. The idea of doing it overseas was equally frightening, but at least with thousands of people pouring out of the subway in London you’d have a definite market.”
Crofskey couldn’t believe his luck when Stewart offered to shift his video store operation to the back of the Post Office building, giving C1 the prime
front-of- house spot, with the upper floors leased as offices and to The Physics Room art gallery.
Stewart’s son Jeremy had run an art school in Taiwan for 15 years, but when he heard C1 was to become a tenant, he returned home to take over Alice in Videoland and open the 38-seat Alice Cinematheque movie theatre.
“[Sam and I] are both on the same page. We both have long hours and high standards and we know it’s all about the experience that the customer has. We know there are other options in Christchurch for films and cafes, so we need to do it better than anyone else.”
Being right on the edge of the red zone, surrounded by empty sections, damaged buildings, and demolition work, the challenge has been to make the businesses a destination in their own right.
Crofskey says C1 always attracted a wide demographic of loyal customers — polytech students, suits, shoppers, locals and tourists — and that continues to be the case. “That’s proven by the way customers have returned. All these people here today weren’t walking by; they came here on purpose.”
He sees parallels between quake-battered Christchurch and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “If you go to Berlin the creativity is really flowing through the streets. You can see the scars, and it’s sad, but you see the people going along with their lives amongst it all and you see the hope and optimism of having been at rock bottom. Christchurch is so munted, this is an opportunity for places like C1 to really shine.”
Do you feel better off than at this time last year?