The coffee cart that hatched a Kiwi brand: the design, purpose and 'kaizen' behind Kokako's 15-year story

  • Brand
  • April 21, 2016
  • Holly Bagge
The coffee cart that hatched a Kiwi brand: the design, purpose and 'kaizen' behind Kokako's 15-year story

Auckland-based coffee retailer and café Kokako started from humble beginnings in 2001 when former owners Helen Ollivier and Christian Lamdin slung their steamy brews out of a coffee cart. Now, having just celebrated its 15-year anniversary, the Kokako brand can be seen in cafes and stores all over the country, while its flagship Grey Lynn store has become a hub for customers who enjoy slick surroundings, organic food and perhaps a glass of cold brew coffee or two. 

Brands aren’t built over night, says Kokako’s managing director Mike Murphy who took over the reigns of the business from the original owners in 2007.

“It takes 10 or 15 years to build a brand and that’s something to be proud of, it’s an enduring brand with strong values,” he says, and makes the point that Kokako found success before social media came about to help spread the word.

“If you think about the launch of a lot of brands, a lot of them will use social media to try and create advocacy for their brand. And when we launched we didn’t have the opportunity to do that. We had to do it the old fashioned way, putting out our hands and saying ‘Hi, I’m Mike thanks for supporting the business’.”

Murphy attributes this friendly approach as one of the reasons Kokako gained a loyal customer base right from the beginning.

“Since I took over, that’s how I built a lot of my initial customer base. By getting to know people and networking with the right people and sticking together with like-minded brands in the sustainable business space and focusing on innovation.”

Kokako, which borrows its name from the release of the first eight Kokako on Tiritiri Matangi island, eventually grew from its coffee cart origin into a small vegetarian cafe on the corner of Parnell Road and Ayr street, where Ollivier and Lamdin roasted their own beans on a 10kg red roaster.

After Murphy took over he saw an opportunity to set a benchmark for cafes in Auckland and after learning everything he could, the team eventually moved into the old deco post office in Grey Lynn  in 2012 and transformed it into the light, airy and welcoming space it is today.

The business has now expanded beyond Auckland’s borders and supplies coffee to a bunch of cafes and retailers throughout the country.

Murphy says when he first bought Kokako, there wasn’t a lot going on in the coffee scene in Auckland.

“You can probably name about nine or 10 that have been here for a long time  … But the coffee culture wasn’t what it is now so when I took over in 2007. We hadn’t caught up to where Melbourne was at as far as speciality coffee goes (Kokako believes it was the first New Zealand coffee brand to introduce cold brew coffee) but the likes of good companies like Supreme had entered into the Auckland market … our focus was more of an organic focus, which was good for us.”

  • Read about Kokako's 15-year history here

He admits he made some mistakes at the start. “I wanted it to be an all-encompassing organic food and beverage brand but I was slightly under capitalised and there was a recession in 2009 and ever since I’ve focused the brand on being just a specialty coffee company,” he says.

“And we’ve seen a lot of success and growth just being a specialist.”

Another key element in its success, that has set Kokako apart from the rest, is its emphasis on design, Murphy says.

“Design has always been a key differentiator and I think it shows that you care. I think you can have a quality product and a sustainable product but if it’s not visually appealing aesthetically or in a tactile way, I think you’re limiting your market,” he says.

“I think design is a really important resource or tool for any company and they should embrace it.”

The talent behind Kokako’s design is primarily Design Dairy and a designer called Stephen Richardson of Pastel City who designed Kokako’s current packaging. It also works with Ctrl Space in terms of its spatial design.

“We see the investment in design as integral to brand and professionalism. We’re not in major supermarkets, apart from one New World in Remuera, so we focus more on specialty retailers but our product should pop on the shelf,” he says.

“It should be fun and you see it and go ‘Oh wow, that’s caught my eye’ and then see the ingredients and that it’s certified organic and fair trade. You have to have a reason to pick up your product.”

Since its inception, Kokako has also been underpinned by a strong sustainability message (which probably also played a role in the brand's longevity, given recent studies have shown brands that exhibit a clear purpose or direction tend to be more successful and profitable).

Interestingly, Murphy says he doesn’t know if ‘purpose’ is a prerequisite for every brand. “But for us it’s definitely been important and I think the key thing is that your purpose needs to be built into the DNA of your company,” he says.

“And it needs to be led by the managing director, chief executive or owner or it can be diluted. It needs to be genuine. I believe purpose or value can’t be fabricated and it can’t be tacked on as a marketing or PR function. It needs to be part of the DNA of that brand.”

He says when he purchased the business from Ollivier and Lamdin the values already established were the same as his own. “That gave me comfort that I was buying something with integrity,” he says.

And having these values appears to have paid off for Kokako, with the business continuing to have steady growth.

“We have a strong focus on supporting quality focused hospitality operators and traditionally we have been working primarily in the Auckland region,” he says.

“In the last two years we have had a lot of interest from outside of Auckland – it seems that the focus on quality, innovation and sustainability has resonated with hospitality operators across the country.”

He says just within the last year Kokako has started supplying coffee to cafes in the Bay of Plenty, Waikato, New Plymouth, Taupo and Queenstown. “We are partnering with a new organic concept to supply our coffee in Nelson and this will be opening in mid-May.”

Despite Kokako’s success, it’s not planning on resting on its laurels anytime soon.

“We have a highly competitive coffee environment,” Murphy says. “So we have to work incredibly hard to stay relevant with our wholesale customers. People are always looking to start something new but you need to continue to innovate.”

He says Kokako follows the Japanese principle of 'kaizen'. “It means continuous improvement. We don’t stand still. So essentially across every facet of the business we are always looking to improve.”

So, what’s next for Kokako?

Murphy says first and foremost it plans to stay true to its values of quality, sustainability and a commitment to ethical procurement, as well as a strong focus on innovation.

“Going forward we want to close the gap between coffee producers and consumers and build on the work we are doing with cooperatives such as HOAC in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. We see huge opportunities to add value to producers through education and training so that they fully understand the importance of quality in the cup. We plan to continue to grow outside of our home city of Auckland and build on great relationships with quality focused hospitality operators across other New Zealand cities and provinces.”

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