Coffee Supreme are on the march again. Born in Wellington in the early 1990s and now bi-national, the New Zealand / Australia brand have just opened their latest cafe, located in the city of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Christchurch made global headlines back in 2011 when the city was struck by a devastating earthquake, and while recovery narratives may not drive clicks, the stories that come after a disaster are often the most intriguing. This is one of those; our friends & partners at Supreme lost their original Christchurch cafe in the quake, and now nearly four years later, here they are another brick in the wall to help rebuild Christchurch.
This is Coffee Supreme’s largest and most ambitious cafe yet, featuring a full service kitchen and bar. It may be why they named it twice: Supreme Supreme is the shop’s formal title. To learn more, we sat down digitally with Al Keating, Coffee Supreme’s managing & creative director, for a bit of Q&A back and forth across the international date line.
For starters, give us the big picture overview for folks around the world who might not be familiar with the Coffee Supreme brand. Where are you based? What do you do?
We are Coffee Supreme. We began roasting coffee in New Zealand over twenty years ago, around the time Gandalf and Frodo had just taken back Middle Earth from the loathsome talons of The Dark Lord Sauron, and the grass and trees and stuff was beginning to grow back.
It started without a business plan or growth strategy as a small but salty little cafe called Reds, and has grown to become one of the region’s most respected specialty coffee roasters—which is quite an achievement given there are more coffee roasters in these parts than there are coffee drinkers.
We roast and/or brew coffee in Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland, Melbourne, and Brisbane, serving coffee in our own sites, or supplying and supporting independent cafes around Australia and New Zealand. We also have a bustling online store that ships our wares to far away places like the UK and the USA. We love sharing our coffees, and our enthusiasm for all things coffee—be it roasting, brewing, hospitality, ideas, and good design—all of it.
Talk to us about the Supreme Supreme space. It used to be an Asian grocery warehouse?
Land Rovers, skyrockets, and bulk hoisin sauce—these are some of the symbols representing the rich tapestry of the building we now call home. It was built last century as the South Island’s Land Rover dealership. Then it became Hop Yik—a busy Chinese supermarket famous for its dried shiitake mushrooms and annual fireworks sale. After the earthquake in 2011, both the building and neighborhood sustained crippling damage and sadly, as a result, they had to close up shop. This was the case for many parts of Christchurch’s CBD, and now, we are proud to be playing our part in bringing business and life back to the city’s center.
Who did the distinctive neon work for you?
The term “Double Happy” strikes a deep chord with us Kiwis. Back in the days before the politicians banned everything—like flying foxes, bare feet, smoking in the library—we had an amazing little firecracker called a Double Happy. It was like a miniature stick of dynamite, and would go off with a pretty impressive bang. As young men, however, we did silly and dangerous things with our Double Happys, often resulting in minor injuries, until eventually they too were banned and replaced with sparklers and more handrails.
Double Happy is our nod to those good ol’ days, but with a Supreme Supreme—”twice as good”— twist.
The neon sign was designed by our uber talented Doug Johns, and made by Frampton Signs in Wellington. These guys have been around since before Gandolf even, and have erected some of the city’s best known signs like Thai House, and OfficeMax. They’ve even once made a sign for Wellington’s only Starbucks in the central business district (or, CBD).
We’ve learned some tough lessons in all our years of opening cafes. One of the lessons we learned is that if you don’t have anything to sell, you won’t make very much money. So with that in mind, we decided to go all out, build a decent kitchen so we could sit folks down for a proper meal. Supreme Supreme is by far the biggest thing we have ever done, and is the first cafe we have built that has a full kitchen and menu, is licensed, and has enough chairs to seat the throngs of Cantaburians looking for good food and coffee.
Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake, but is now rebuilding. How is Supreme Supreme part of that? What are your brand’s roots in the city?
In 2011, Christchurch was devastated by a massive earthquake, leaving much of the city destroyed or damaged, 185 dead, and all of us deeply affected. We had a cool little cafe in the city then too, not far from where we are now—but we lost that like many others. Slowly but surely, the people of Christchurch have been rebuilding the city. What was once the city’s central hub, has spread out and changed shape, but the visionaries, the builders, and the doers are pouring back in to set up shop again. We are by no means the first, but we have taken some risk and have built Supreme Supreme in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other leaders of the rebuild. We wanted to put our roots down once again in the center of the city, to make it clear that we are here for the long game—we’re a part of this great city for good.
This is your only cafe on the south island, correct? Notice any big differences?
There are a number of interesting differences, but being an Aucklander, I’m not at liberty to discuss these. However, among many of the positive responses from locals, one common theme has been very encouraging for us—”Thank you for building something light, modern, and permanent.”
Supreme Supreme reviews have alternately called it “Scandinavian” but then also “American diner retro”—which is it?
That’s a good question. It’s neither of those really. But, that’s not to say we drew no inspiration from our love of your diner culture. We have used American Ash throughout and have tipped our hat to many things diner-esque in the fit out, from the coffee mugs and crockery and corned beef hash, to being served breakfast up at the bar with a good stiff APA. For our aesthetic, we drew more from the heritage of the building, and our love of weaving those pages of the story into our own.
Who designed the cafe? Who built the chairs and things?
The café was designed by our dear friend Jessica Barter from Bureaux. She was also the architectural genius behind Good One. Her and I designed the furniture together. Doug designed the brand, and all of the collateral and touches that we love, and we hope will cause others to fall in love with it too. We make a great team.
It all started when we’d just signed the lease. We rummaged through a skip bin full of the last tenant’s cast-offs, as you do, and found an old accounts ledger book. It was a beautiful old book with blue and red gridded pages, and Chinese characters. We fell in love with it straight away and declared that it would be a central part of the brief.
You don’t have to look too closely to see how those elements are in fact the DNA of Supreme Supreme—the gridded wooden panels, the terracotta tiles in the bathrooms, the grid pattern on a coaster, or the tables lined up straight in the main dining room.
Gordon, our neighbor (not the sex shop right next door, but a couple of doors down on the other side), made us our steel sign on the building’s front. He had a pretty impressive mathematical system for working out how the sun’s shadow would create the other “Supreme” to create “Supreme Supreme”. He’s still working on something for cloudy days.
What espresso machine are you using? What filter options do you offer?
We have a La Marzocco Linea PB. It’s a great workhorse, and is serving us well.
We also offer batch brewing through our Fetco. Great coffee, and super easy even in the busiest service periods. Everybody’s happy.
Is this your first cafe with a liquor license? What have you got planned there?
Well, we’re glad you asked… We’ve teamed up with one of the fine local brewers—Three Boys—to produce two beers for Supreme Supreme. We wanted the “double theme” to spill through into other aspects of what we do, so this was an easy one. We pitched the concept of “The Old One Two” to Three Boys and they were into it. What they have produced are two beers as a combo. The Old One (the jab) is a lightweight easy drinking golden ale, a session beer, and The Old Two (the right hook) is a strong hoppy red ale. They’re being labeled as I write, so available to spar with in a couple of weeks.
What’s the local press response been like so far?
The best line we’ve read so far has to be this one from The Christchurch Press: “…Supreme, we’ve missed you…” You can’t buy that kind of love. Well, you probably can—at the sex shop next door.
Where to next for Supreme?
We got a few pots bubbling away, as we strive to make things better. We have some projects on this year that will keep us busy, keep our customers coming back happy, and keep the financial controller up all night—everybody’s a winner!
Shortly, we’ll relocate our Wellington retail store from its historic site on Woodward Street to just across the road. A bold move given we’ve been selling coffee from there since we began more than 21 years ago, but a move we’re confident will make it better. We just love making sh*t better.
All photos courtesy of Coffee Supreme / Simon Devitt.