First published in New Zealand Herald 17 March 2015
I love a New Zealand success story and in an elitist coffee city like Melbourne, I love it even more that a kiwi coffee can carve out a name for itself.
Al Keating and Justin Emerson, based in Auckland and Melbourne respectively, have been with the company since the early days. Emerson was one of the original founders and came across to Melbourne with his wife in 2001.
Both have seen massive changes in the industry in New Zealand and Australia. Long before hipsters and pour-over coffees were the norm, the industry was largely about the espresso and influenced by European coffee culture. Now we’re in the third wave or in simple terms, the era of specialty coffee.
Coffee Supreme just celebrated 21 years and, as Keating says, they’re no longer the cool young teenager, but not quite an adult either. The business – and the whole coffee scene – finds itself at a turning point.
“The scene has definitely changed,” says Keating. “I’ve been in the industry for about 16 years and there were some good strong roasters in this country. Now I hear there are close to 200, which is kind of ridiculous for a country of our size. Our industry globally is at a crossroads, everyone is doing the same thing over and over. This part of the beach is seriously crowded.”
Emerson agrees and sees the same happening in Melbourne, with roasters springing up and opening their own little digs all across the city. Many of these independent roasters and café operators cut their teeth with the pioneer of the local Melbourne scene, Mark Dundon.
In fact, Dundon’s legendary cafés Ray and St ALi were early customers of Coffee Supreme. A testament to the New Zealand blend and the hard yards Emerson and his team put into developing the Australian market.
“The hardest thing about breaking into Australia back then, was that we had to change the way things were always done,” says Emerson. “Today if you’re roasting, selling or wholesaling coffee, everyone expects you to throw everything at them, practically the kitchen sink and a free trip to the Bahamas.”
“We were different and still are. We differentiate ourselves through what we buy, how we roast and deliver it. Service is a massive component of what we do.”
If you read the reviews, Coffee Supreme has many ardent fans of its fine brew. New Zealanders have every reason to be proud of the kiwi company.
Ironically, as happens in so many industries and companies on the road to success, the tall poppy syndrome kicks in. Very quickly the biggest supporters can become detractors.
“One thing we’re up against,” Keating says “is that kiwis are reluctant to stick with somebody when they become big and popular. I mean, you get popular because you do something well and people want you. Then they say ‘we’re going with so-and-so, because you’re kind of everywhere now.’ I take some pride in that, but how can we win? If you stay small you’re unpopular. And then you get to be in all the places people like good coffee, why? Because we make good coffee!”
Australia-based Emerson calls it Melbourne’s laneway syndrome. “Melbourne thrives on the café-down-the-laneway that no one can find. Yet, when your coffee gains momentum and more cafés start using it, as they have with Coffee Supreme, I find myself having to defend the company size.”
Partly for that reason and also because it resembles the nostalgic coffee scene of old, Supreme has entered Brisbane.
“We ended up buying a coffee roaster in Brisbane and rebranded it as Coffee Supreme,” says Emerson. “The original owner, Josh, stills runs it for us, but rather than freighting coffee up there and managing it from Melbourne, we do it all locally. It’s a great place where people can congregate, with loads of ex-Melbournites. We’ve started going up there a fair bit, it’s a really interesting scene, still quite a small tightknit community. Like it was when we first started.”
Emerson and Keating say they’re looking even further afield for their expansion and have hopes of breaking into the US.
“Coffee is quite faddish and it’s a bit of a blazé industry,” says Keating “but for us it comes back to people we hire, investing in the next generation of young baristas and having an attitude towards customers that stands the test of time. We may all be a bit bald and wear glasses, but young people keep us agile and honest. If you do what you do well, it insulates you against the challenges.”