Raglan Roast |Coolest Coffee Shop in the World
A cup of coffee today is too expensive. Gone are the golden days of $1 black coffees. If I pay over $3.50 for a long black, I’m stoked. I saw a flat white for $5.00 today in Hamilton, New Zealand, what the fuck is that about? Sure, the price of milk has risen (our chief export) as has the price of coffee beans; take inflation into account and the rising minimum wage most baristas are working for and I almost get it, and I pay without reluctance.
However, one kiwi business partnership have put their feet down and lain their profit margins on the line (much to their accountant’s chagrin) in the name of coffee-lover-altruism: Raglan Roast’s Tony Bruce and Bobo, legendary legends behind the country’s coolest coffee organisation, Raglan Roast.
The first taste
About two weeks ago, one brisk but sunny Sunday morning, me and my stunning girlfriend turned up our collars and braved the markets on the windy waterfront of Wellington. Despite our punctiliously early arrival, crowds already surged against one another in the tight labyrinthine aisles. Combined with an ice cold breeze that sends my arthritic spine to tumult, I became a Grinch, refusing to hold so much as a plum without first indulging in a hit of caffeine. The queues for every coffee truck snaked through the markets, a dozen shivering Wellingtonians deep, so I wandered afar. Down the waterfront past the boats, through the rich person’s market and into a quiet coffee shop called Raglan Roast, unique in its disparate decor; wooden crates fashioned into coffee tables and old couches dominate the space where you’d expect chrome and steel.
Behind the counter were two friendly faces, fingers itching to tamp and steam. No queue. I held back my reservations and bought a long black. I was charged $2.50. My mouth opened to query the price when I saw the chalkboard pricelist, then my mouth opened further, then twisted in a smile, then made small talk until the shot had extracted, then puckered and sucked in a gulp of strong, deliciously dark brown coffee. Alanah, a tall, blonde, beautiful and warm person (I swear this didn’t affect my response to the coffee), told me a little bit about the business. The founder and owner who I would meet two weeks later is her amicably brusque father Tony Bruce.
Alanah told me that all the beans Raglan Roast use are fair trade and that they’re roasted in Raglan with a blowtorch by her old man and his friend Bobo. I was intrigued. The business started because they were sick of waiting in line at the local cafes, so Tony started brewing up for his friends. One thing led to another and now they have seven stores across the nation as well as a loyal customer base who buy their blends online, not to mention the throngs of locals who culminate in the Raglan sun outside the hole-in-the-wall outlet. I figured I better check it out and sing some praises.
Hauraki radio blaring in my mum’s speedy green Golf, I pulled into Raglan around noon. The clouds seemed to be having a whale of a time, darkening the sky then pissing rain only to move on leaving a shining blue day then return to restart their maddening procession. I shook the hand of Gene, the barista on guard, and introduced myself, catching the eye of a rugged farmer type in a thick woolen jersey and mince pie in hand, standing in the background.
“Ah,” he said. “You’re the guy.”
He strode forward and shook my hand. “Have a coffee and sit in the sun for a minute, I’ll come down soon.” This was Tony Bruce.
I grabbed a long black, peppered it with cinnamon and sat on the homely table and chair setup outside. I watched as a man ordered his coffee then pulled a battered notebook from the counter, made a quick note, put it back, then sat down. Seeing my camera, he asked what I was taking pictures of. I briefly explained that I wanted to show the cafe culture community the story of the Raglan Roast coffee shop.
“We love it here,” the man (who later introduced himself as Mark) said as he held up his latte. “You watch. Watch how many people come and watch their attitudes to the place.”
Under ten seconds after Mark finished this sentence, a young lady wearing a hood and large glasses waltzed over.
“Gene! Mocha time, I reckon,” she said with a smile. Gene bantered as he steamed the milk and the lady sat down. “Hi,” she said, and her eyes darted to the camera and my notes. “Hey Mark,” she said, then asked me about the camera. I explained again. “Oh yeah,” she said. “It’s awesome.”
Just as Selena (she introduced herself) was telling me about her day’s work ahead painting, a bushy-haired rocker ordered, sat down and introduced himself as Oliver. Seeing the camera, he asked what I was doing. I told him. As I finished, four young travelers arrived. They crowded around the hole-in-the-wall and ordered, all of them handing over ceramic cups to Gene they’d brought from home.
“Mind if we join you guys for a bit?” asked the most confident of the group, her blonde hair swinging around her head in time with her loose-fitting clothes. Nationality: Canadian. Name: Crystal. Drink: Capuccino. Seeing the camera, the inquiry came. With the help of Mark, Selena and Oliver, I explained.
The others gathered around and opened out boards of backgammon. After setting up her pieces and shaking the hand of her opponent, Crystal stretched her arms back in the sun. “It’s rad, man,” she said. “We come here every day before work to play backgammon ‘coz the coffee’s so tasty and cheap.” Tantalized, I asked about the cups.
“You get 50 cents off if you bring your own cup,” explained Tillman. German. Flat white.
“And the book?” I asked Mark.
“You prepay your coffees and cross them off as you come,” he said, showing it to me. “It’s a sweet deal. Based on trust.”
The backgammon boards seduced two more customers from the surf shop next door who grabbed a coffee and took a seat. With the ten of us crammed around two backgammon boards with a coffee each, the sun shining on our backs and rock’n’roll on the radio, I felt like I’d been transported to another time.
The Roasting Room
A large white van backed itself down Volcom Lane (where Raglan Roast’s hole-in-the-wall resides). The back door opened up revealing four large cardboard boxes of surfboards. Then Tony appeared. He’d helped pick them up for the local surf shop. After helping him carry the boards up a tricky set of stairs, we retired to the coffee shop and Tony handed me a beer from the fridge. The sun had sunk to the horizon and the coffee machine was having its chemical clean. A few dudes I hadn’t met had wandered through to the shop and were enjoying a beer together in the small room next door, sitting among the stacked containers of beans.
“It’s time to roast,” Tony said and tipped his head to the metal contraption at the end of the room. My first thought was, looks like a barbeque fucked a dryer. An LPG bottle with a weedkilling flamethrower spewed flames into the opening and the beans churned and danced through the fire until their second crack was heard by the roaster, a handsome, stylish man – the exact opposite of the image you get in your mind when you hear the name Bobo.
“All good if I…?” I raised the camera in question.
Tony shrugged and poured some beans from a container to a bag. “‘Course.”
Raglan Roast imports beans from everywhere. South America, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, India, and other countries I don’t trust myself to spell. When I asked about Fair Trade, Tony spoke with confidence and professionalism, stating the importance of ensuring environmental sustainability and positive relations. When I asked about how they started, he shrugs it off and said offhandedly, “I was just sick of queuing.”
When I ask why he set up shops in Wellington, he told the story about helping his daughter move into her flat. “I’d been to a few cafes that day and every coffee I tried -” he winced, “so I thought why not? I was standing outside Southern Cross waiting for the girls and I saw the spot. Little place. Simple. So I called the number and I knew the guy. He asked what I wanted to pay and I told him,” then he shrugged again.
This store is the legendarily always-busy Abel Smith street Raglan Roast, managed by Jed, “a very talented kid with coffee talent to burn,” said Tony. It epitomizes what Raglan Roast is about and, as their first foray into competitor titan Havana territory, would be the real test of their coffee and style. “I feel that was the single most important thing for us getting traction further afield than Rags. We tried to make it how Cuba street used to feel and look,” Tony said, then with a smile: “And it worked.”
Raglan Roast Abel Smith has a roomy seating area, a DJ spinning tunes and the same friendly vibe as Raglan. Customers greet Jed by name and as he busies himself with their order (showing off his sparkling memory), they make conversation with each other, including me while I took this photo. Raglan Roast tends to attract friendly people, I decided.
And Nelson? “Same story. Went down. Bought some coffee -” he winced again. “Found a spot, called the number and I knew the guy on the end of the line. And I was sick of it being so expensive. It doesn’t have to be.” Raglan Roast Tahunanui is the newest addition to the whanau. Resting in the heart of Nelson, the geographical centre of Aotearoa, it snuggles next to a kite surfing shop and the famous Nelson all-year sun has assured consistent crowds.
Where Raglan Roast differs from most cafes is the price. Black coffee is $2.50 and a white coffee is $3. That’s it. Pouring the roasted beans into the cooler, Bobo laughed about it with me. “If you charge people five dollars for a flat white, it feels like you’re suddenly in a totally different ball game. You’ve gone from providing an semi-addictive beverage to… drug dealing.”
With 14 original blends and dozens of tonnes of roasted beans per year, Tony and Bobo seemed remarkably nonchalant despite evidence of their ongoing growth. “We’re not even a pimple on the arse of the coffee industry,” Bobo said. “It’s just heaps of fun.”
Tony agreed. He even seemed slightly embarrassed about being interviewed. Of course, it didn’t help that his mates stood by listening in, smirks on their faces.
“He’s the mayor of Raglan,” a friend said. “He knows everyone, gets stuck in, helps out.”
I left at dusk in good spirits. After a day of chilling in the sun drinking good coffee, learning how to play backgammon and chatting to genuine, passionate creators, one of Bobo’s yarns in particular stuck in my mind.
Raglan Roast isn’t part of the NZ Roaster Guild or Specialty Coffee Association. “Na, Tony’s keen to keep it light and fun. We just wanna make coffee that’s good, tasty and cheap. It means we can’t go to the Award nights or anything, but my award is the lines of customers on a weekend.”
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