When I was seventeen, I got my first job as a pizza delivery boy. I had an amazing boss and over time worked my way up through the ranks to managing the stores. I was with this company right through university and it really threw me into the world of hospitality.
I did a Bachelor of Arts, studying topics like social geography, anthropology, the Pacific Islands and coastal erosion, never really thinking that I’d end up using this knowledge in my future career. After graduation, I stayed with hospitality and ended up working as an area manager for Eagle Boys Pizza. I was working with franchisees to set up and manage their stores, so from quite a young age I learnt how to read profit and loss statements, understand food and labour costs and all of those fundamentals to running a successful business. In my early twenties I went to London and worked in hospitality recruitment, which was a really different side of the industry again but invaluable learning. When I came back home, I helped to open Auckland’s first Hell Pizza and managed that before opening my own one in Botany, East Auckland. It was a really big success and I was immensely proud of what I’d achieved. In time, I sold and moved to Melbourne and worked as a retail food consultant where I worked between our Melbourne and Dubai offices.
How did Kōkako, as we know it, come to be?
During my time in Melbourne I’d often find myself scouring the city for specialty, independent coffee shops. The industry was just starting to take off with the third wave of coffee being established. They were roasting their own beans and had these beautiful fit-outs in restored factories. I used to draw pictures and write down what I noticed. After a while, I decided to head back to New Zealand and do that in Auckland. Eventually, after a lot of market research, I bought Kōkako in May 2007 and since then the brand has been a bit of a chameleon within hospitality. We’ve been a food and beverage company, catering business, two cafés, pop-up shop and a coffee roastery. It’s been quite the journey. When I purchased Kōkako there were about 120 coffee roasters within New Zealand, and now there would be well over 300, so the industry has grown a lot.
Are there any standout hardships you’ve come across?
There have been lots over the years, of course. I’m not sure I really expected to be in it for this long. Starting out, I was overly ambitious. I was trying to build this company of scale with commercial kitchens and cafés, without the financial backing to really do. I was being a generalist instead of a specialist, which is something in hindsight I would’ve changed if I could go back. Then the recession hit in 2008, and that was really challenging. It was a pretty tough time. I managed to sell my Parnell café in 2010 which helped to float me through that economic crisis, but I didn’t make a profit for about seven years due to that and a lack of strategic planning. I definitely don’t recommend that sort of output without financial gain and proper support. It was a long time and came at the cost of relationships and physical and emotional health. You really give all of yourself to an industry like hospitality and it can be detrimental to other areas of your life. I think, in time, things like the single use coffee cup will become like a cigarette, something that’s seen as undesirable to be seen walking down the street with.
What advice would you have for someone in business?
I think collaboration is really important in business and in sustainability. Really early on I worked to become Fairtrade and organic certified and joined the Sustainable Business Network. We also worked hard on ‘outside the box’ methods and did marketing activations and collaborations for small events. We got our name out there like that rather than with big billboards. We’re a grassroots organisation and really bootstrapped; we never had a big bankroll to work with so had to grow organically and slowly, which there can be a lot of merit in.
What, to you, is the company’s biggest success?
There are many things I’m really proud of within Kōkako; we’ve stuck to our values and never compromised. Over the years, so many people (especially in the tough times) told me to drop Fairtrade and organics but we were always really resolute about that and never faltered. I’m also really proud of our transparency as a company within sustainability and our two sustainability reports. We’ve shown a lot of leadership in promoting sustainability alongside coffee. Our relationship with coffee producers in Papua New Guinea has also helped to put their coffee on the map. In the twelve years I’ve had the business, I’ve had over 400 employees, which is a huge amount of people to affect and empower. It’s been great to see the development of team members over the years, many of whom have gone on to own their own businesses. A better world is one where human beings have a greater awareness of how we can live in a considered and less impactful way. One in which people realise we’re living in a circular economy and that we need to be regenerative.
In your words, why is Fairtrade important?
I see Fairtrade as an empowerment tool that’s about a hand-up, not a handout. It’s about ensuring producer groups and coffee farmers work collaboratively in a democratically elected cooperative structure to ensure they can collectively sell their coffee for a minimum price guarantee. It’s about the tools and resources that the Fairtrade system provides on the ground from pest control to improvement in soil quality. And it works to ensure the Fairtrade premium they get goes back into projects that fairly benefit their community, like water sanitation initiatives or building a new school. As a company, we want to see that the Fairtrade premium is being spent properly so we go on origin trips to immerse ourselves in their culture and check that it’s been validated, which is really important.
In your words, why are organics important?
Chris Morrison, who’s one of our shareholders and the co-founder of Karma Cola and All Good Organics, has taught me a lot about the importance of organics over the years. The bottom line is healthy soil, equals healthy food, equals healthy people. I don’t think enough people really understand the importance of healthy soil and how much we’ve lost. Over time, I’ve become more personally passionate about organics and have made sure there’s continuity between my work and personal life in that regard. I take pride in how little landfill my household produces, composting and buying organic food where possible.
Can you explain how Kōkako works to offset carbon emissions?
It can be quite hard to understand the logistics of carbon offsets and why it’s important which is why we developed our sustainability reports. But the bottom line is we should be trying as best we can to exist personally and professionally in a way that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. As a company, this means understanding how we can work with coffee farmers to offset our carbon footprint. We worked with Fairtrade to refine a tool that works out what the emissions are on every kilo of coffee we roast. We get invoiced from Fairtrade for carbon credits which go to Ethiopia to pay for cooking stoves, so they don’t need to chop trees down for cooking or heating. It’s a good start, it’s not perfect, but I believe as an organisation you have to start somewhere towards aiding a better, more regenerative circular economy.
What does a better world mean to you?
A better world is one where human beings have a greater awareness of how we can live in a considered and less impactful way. One in which people realise we’re living in a circular economy and that we need to be regenerative. For example, I often go and get sushi for lunch and I’m often the only one who orders it to eat in on a tray. There are countless people every day that come in, purchase a plastic container filled with sushi and sit down for ten minutes to eat the contents before throwing the packaging away. I sit there and watch them and think this is so f*****d. How did it come to this? We’ve become so blind to our actions as a society.
What would be your biggest sacrifice in running a small business?
For me the biggest sacrifice would be not creating enough time or space for myself personally throughout the time I’ve owned Kōkako. Any business owner will probably agree that it can be all encompassing and this often comes at the sacrifice of things like buying houses, relationships and health. That’s quite a big deal and sometimes these sacrifices don’t sit that well.
What are your biggest passions beyond Kōkako?
I’m really into architecture. I’ve built a house in the bush on a section I purchased a few years ago in the Kaipara Habour with my KiwiSaver because Auckland was too expensive. It’s very modest – two bedroom, 108sqm – and looks out over the water. Over the years its location and size have become a much-loved element. I love design and things that have a utilitarian function. I’m naturally an introvert, so the idea of having this little sanctuary in the bush works well.
Who’s your biggest inspiration?
I’ve been really inspired by my business partner, Chris Morrison. He’s a pioneer in the New Zealand organic sector and has had a long successful career where he’s really stuck to his values. From starting and then selling Phoenix Organics, to starting up companies like Karma Cola and then investing in others like Kōkako, what he’s done is huge and really admirable. I also admire Jacob and Georgia Faull from Nature Baby; they’re super progressive and are so true to their brand. They’re not in it just to drive profit and I think that’s really important.
What does success mean to you?
I think success is being aware of the positive influence you’re having on others, be that personally or professionally. For me, it’s less about building a company to a certain stage and more about the people you positively impact or inspire along the way and the impact and influence you achieve in your industry.
In the world of environmental sustainability, what’s an innovative company you’d recommend?
I think what Ben Bell from Hungry Bin Worm Farms is doing is really cool – he’s creating something environmentally friendly for residential and commercial use that reduces landfill with a design element that makes it desirable to use.
Where do you hope to be five years from now?
I currently do quite a lot of business consulting with like-minded sustainable companies. I like the idea that in the future I can take everything I’ve learnt from Kōkako and the networks I’ve built and use them for the greater good. Where in the world I’m not sure, but I think that I can create greater impact beyond Kōkako one day.
This interview is extracted from the book ‘Wild Kinship, Conversations with Conscious Entrepreneurs’ by Monique Hemmingson Published by Beatnik.