Three young entrepreneurs are helping to shape Christchurch's new hospo scene
"Dreamt big, dreaming bigger" was the tagline Nick Inkster tapped out in 2014 to go with a photo of the penthouse apartment he had just acquired in Perth.
Then not yet 30, the former Christchurch builder had spent five years working hard in Western Australia's oil and gas industry to realise his penthouse apartment dream. By then, he also owned a string of other residential properties.
Yet, back in 2014, he still hadn't figured out where the "dreaming bigger" would take him. It turned out to be a one-way ticket home to Christchurch to set up a vintage-style bar in the central city.
"I'd been coming back to Christchurch in my weeks off and seen how the central business district had disappeared. I came across the Old Government Building and just loved the site. It was about the only old building still standing in the city centre."
When an apartment in the building came up for sale, Nick grabbed it and then took the space downstairs for his bar, which he named O.G.B. in honour of the building. Rather than relying on a bank, Nick sank his own money into developing the bar and also persuaded a good friend from Christchurch with whom he had been working in Australia, Willem Lepoutre, to become a business partner.
Nick had harboured a goal of bar ownership ever since he and his twin brother, Leon, a plumber by trade, bought a house together in New Brighton as a pair of 20-year-olds.
"I built a bar in the backyard with taps and everything. I love entertaining people and I remember Dad saying he could see me owning a bar one day."
Sadly, Nick's father, Robin, died several years ago, so he never got to savour a beer at O.G.B., but a sign bearing his initials, salvaged from the old family home in Dallington, has pride of place behind the bar.
Nick was also inspired to start a business by his younger sister, Colette, who owned and operated a dance company, Studio 42 Performing Arts, from her early 20s. His mum, Marianna Inkster, "has inspired me to make her proud – we are each other's biggest fans".
Before opening in May 2016, Nick devoted a year to establishing the bar, which has a 1920s-30s' look and feel. Nick once played the trumpet and his old instrument has joined an assemblage of vintage brass, including a huge sousaphone tuba all the way from London. Other curios in the bar include a phonograph and an old telephone.
"Everything works; nothing is a prop," says Nick, whose impressive ginger beard helps cement the bar's traditional vibe.
After seeing a 1950 photograph of an Austin 10 parked outside the Old Government Building, Nick persuaded an Amberley farmer to part with his old Austin so he could recreate the scene. It is an example of his meticulous attention to detail and the old car makes a great talking point for patrons and photo subject for tourists.
Staff uniforms, complete with braces and cheesecutter caps, are in step with how bar staff would have dressed back in the day. (Nick credits Kat Douglas, of the Grymmstone and Treacle Emporium, for helping establish the right look.) The dapper-suited and bowler-hatted doorman, Amosa Tualamali'i, is the face of O.G.B. for many.
Live music in a corner of the bar keeps the place humming until closing time.
Nick admits to being guided by the expertise of others on the food and beverage side of the business. Executive bar tender Thomas Hanson and executive head chef Shawn McGowan are among those who have made a huge contribution.
Nick opened the bar with four staff. Now he has a staff of 42 and an O.G.B. restaurant across the hall. He plans to open an old-fashioned barbershop and a cocktail lounge in the Old Government Building by the end of the year.
Another venture in the pipeline is a laundromat with a twist in New Regent St.
"I don't want to say too much about it yet, but suffice to say it will add a bit of theatre to wash day."
Nick never had any doubts that his big dream, with a bar at its heart, would pay off.
"Every great city has a cool old pub at its centre. We opened last May and we haven't shut our doors since. This city needs consistency and we're delivering it – we are the city's living room. This is for Christchurch."
Above the table where I meet Bink Bowler, founder of Victoria St's Black & White Coffee Cartel, Winnie the Pooh is sharing wall space with a sepia portrait from a junk shop.
The post-modern jumble is part of what makes the place so appealing, but it's the quality of coffee that really sets it apart.
Bink's passion for coffee – the art and craft of making it and the social culture associated with it – goes back to his teenage years. Something clicked one day when he saw a barista at work in a cafe in his hometown, Wanaka. He dropped out of Mt Aspiring College to learn the craft of a barista, initially doing it for nothing. Eventually, the cafe gave Bink a job.
After more than a decade, coffee remains central in his life.
Hospitality can be a tough business, but Bink and his team are upbeat about the direction Black & White is taking. The decision to install a micro-roaster – one of the new wave of smaller roasters out of John Robson's Coffee Workshop – put a rocket under this venture late in 2015.
"There's a chain involved with how coffee is priced," Bink says. "When the grower sells it to the buyer, there's a minimal price increase. When the buyer sells to the roaster, the price increase is again minimal. But when the roaster sells the coffee to a cafe, suddenly, there is a massive price increase. We have just culled that last bit of the supply chain."
Being able to both roast and brew in-house has fuelled the growth of Black & White. A slick franchise model has been developed and for every Black & White Coffee Cartel with a micro-roaster there will be a smaller-scale Black & White Coffee House. The first of these opened at The Crossing in May. The next Coffee Cartel and Coffee House combo is opening soon (Lichfield St in October 2017 and High St in February) under licensee Chris Meyer.
Reflecting on market trends, Bink says people today generally prefer smoother coffee that isn't too bitter, but he is sceptical about the fad for filter and siphon coffee.
"What we have in New Zealand is a culture of medium-roast espresso coffee. We do beautiful flat whites and amazing lattes. We sell 300 flat whites a day here, versus 10 filter coffees."
It hasn't all been plain sailing for this talented 27-year-old, who admits he's had to overcome a few demons to achieve his dream.
After learning the ropes in Wanaka, he went straight to Wellington. At 18, he landed on his feet at Mojo Coffee, immersing himself in a whole new world of coffee roasting, flavours and origins, before moving on to smaller-scale roaster Peoples Coffee.
Life started to come unstuck several years later at the award-winning Memphis Belle. His first foray into cafe ownership ended on a sour note, with the venture descending into debt, worsened by Bink's heavy drinking at that time.
"People used to call me the King of Cuba Street. It was a massive social scene and I thought I was invincible."
Today, Bink's a different man. Sober for a start, but also older and a good deal wiser. Christchurch has provided a fresh start.
"Everything is black and white. The button-up man on our logo is our way of saying 'everything is clean and square'."
His brother, Luke, is on board as a director (and head roaster), along with former All Black captain Reuben Thorne (who Bink met through the Angel Investment Network).
"Reuben is very experienced, calm and grounded, and I am also very grateful that he taught me how to pay tax," Bink says.
Both Bink and Luke have recently become fathers – yet another incentive to keep a steady hand on the tiller.
It seems the knocks have only made Bink stronger.
"You often find that the people who have failed in the past are the ones who end up doing really well in business. Failure is such a hard thing, but you learn so much from it."
I leave with a flat white in hand, and a very smooth cup it is, too.
ON A GELATO ROLL
Savouring the sweet taste of business success at just 19 years of age, Jed Joyce must surely qualify as one of the city's youngest rising stars of the hospitality scene.
From a modest start in 2013, selling gelato part-time from a cart at the end of New Regent St, Jed graduated to permanent premises in the same street with the opening of the Rollickin Dessert Cafe in November 2016.
The original cart still operates at the Margaret Mahy Family Playground and a second cart covers weddings and other special events. In early September, Rollickin is due to notch up another level with additional premises at the Boys' High building in the Arts Centre, offering a sweet cabinet, gelato and coffee. This summer, at the height of the season, Jed will likely be employing about 25 full-time and casual staff.
It looks like an easy and natural progression from the outside, but, as Jed observes, it has taken more than three years to crank the business along to this point.
"In this time, I've focused hard at growing Rollickin, learning and jumping at any opportunity to see if they work."
Having self-employed parents undoubtedly provided a good grounding for Jed, who recalls growing up in a 24/7 business environment. His mother, Tania Smith, is creatively geared and works in advertising, while his father, Paul Joyce, is part-owner of Mother Mary Construction.
Yet, the original impetus for setting up the cart was not a desire to launch a business career, but to raise money for a school trip to Vietnam through World Challenge.
"I did go on the trip; it was for four weeks and the group of us who went [from St Bede's College] had to plan everything ourselves."
Jed settled on a gelato cart as his fundraising vehicle, having had a summer job at the Berry Shop in Sawyers Arms Rd, selling fresh and frozen berries, along with sundaes and icecreams.
"I thought I could give something like that a go."
He persuaded a horse-float builder to put a cart together, found an award-winning gelato supplier in Wellington – Gelissimo – and off he went. So successful was the cart that, after his return from Vietnam, Jed decided to keep it going as a summer holiday job and then as a way of earning money after school. While classmates planned university studies, Jed knew he had a business scoop to manage.
As demand began to outstrip what Gelissimo could supply, the move to permanent premises – with capacity to make gelato in-house – became inevitable.
"I'm lucky to have been mentored by the owner of Gelissimo, Graham Joe, who has been really supportive in helping us to nail recipes. A supplier of the Italian ingredients also came over from Australia to help us.
"We're still learning and improving; it's a work in progress."
It is no surprise to learn the most popular Rollickin flavour is chocolate, closely followed by salted caramel.
"We have 10 set flavours and two new ones that we rotate all the time. We love trying out crazy new flavour ideas."
The creative gelato-making team is led by Jed's girlfriend, Sorayya Sabbaghi.
Finding his feet in business has had its challenges – not least being the tough job of convincing building owners to give a teenager a lease – but it helps that Jed is an astute learner with a keen eye for a bargain.
"Just about everything in here is secondhand," he says during our interview at the Rollickin Dessert Cafe. "That includes furniture and the equipment we use to make the gelato. I often go to auctions or the EcoShop in search of a bargain."
To keep the business humming in the off-season, Rollickin's New Regent St options include winter warmers such as mug cakes topped with gelato. In time, Jed plans to set up a proper dessert menu with a range of hot offerings.
"I don't know where I'll be in five or 10 years' time, but as long as I'm enjoying it, I will continue to grow this business and be a part of Christchurch."
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