As I sat down to chat with Kokako Coffee’s front man; Mike Murphy I was preparing myself for the rundown of this passion project turned growing empire. I imagined he was going to tell me he started drinking coffee at 3 years old and was now living his dream….instead I found myself, ears pricked, listening to a fascinating story about business based spirit, an intense self starting attitude and the respectful transformation of one couples ethical start up into an exciting industry leader.
Photo by Sarah Grace
Mike Murphy grew up in Otahuhu, South Auckland before moving with his family to Bucklands Beach at 12. From 17 he picked up his first major job, working at “Dial a Dino’s” pizza, first as a dishwasher before graduating through all the roles to delivery guy then, by 20, the manager. Mike cites this as his first taste for business and the hospitality industry. Despite his growing interest and knowledge in the area he held the job while studying Social Geography! On his graduation he realised that hospo and its opportunities were still calling his name and by the age of 21 he was the Area Manager of Eagle Boys Pizza, advising their new franchisee’s.
At 22 the “big OE” was beckoning and Mike set off for London. Here he found work in hospitality recruitment beginning by placing temps and then permanent staff in the corporate industry. Unlike many of his other compatriots, he spent his three years in the UK avoiding “kiwi clusters”. After a year of living with friends he then moved into his DREAM flat in Trellick Tower – a Brutalist apartment building in South West London that had captivated him. On the 24th floor he shared a 2 level duplex and immersed himself as deep as possible in London life, making friends with a large diverse crowd of locals and foreigners and along the way finding his own identity.
Photo by Sarah Grace
With a Visa that had run out of juice it was time to return back to NZ. At 26 years returning and settling into Auckland was a struggle. To dodge the fact that most of his good friends were still overseas Mike decided to launch himself into creating or buying a business. After some looking around and examining the gaps in the industry paired with what his own knowledge base offered, he jumped on a plane and flew down to Wellington to meet with the exciting Hell Pizza team. Here he helped write franchise manuals, assisted in the set of the first Auckland outlet in Grey Lynn before opening his own franchise in Botany at the age of 27.
Despite being a franchise, he was able to “up” spec the fit-out in line with his own interest in design and detail. By the time he sold the business a year later it was running as the most successful Hell Pizza at the time, however his involvement was extremely “hands on” and he needed a change of scene.
Melbourne was his next destination where he took up work as a Retail Food Consultant – a role that saw him helping people innovate and strategise in the food and beverage industry. As part of his time with Future Food, he was sent to Dubai to assist in the set up of an office there and have high involvement in large commercial projects. After 2 years with the company he was offered the chance to head all regional projects, a leap forward and a juicy opportunity! At this point Mike stopped to take stock. He realised that the glossy expat lifestyle just didn’t really align with this personal interests…so it was a “No!” on this one.
What HAD really grabbed his attention was Melbourne and her inspired new wave of design led coffee outlets and cafes. Mike had spent much time exploring these as they popped up and armed with a notebook of ideas he headed back to Auckland in 2006 with his mind buzzing.
Initially the plan was start a design store with furniture, plants and great coffee (the ultimate combo yes?!) It was while reading Wallpaper magazine that he spotted an amazing Japanese based furniture brand, oozing a simple modernist style and enough of it for Mike to pack one suit and boost to Tokyo to meet with them! The meeting was a success and on returning home he was now fully focussed on finding the right space…..something that was proving to be very difficult!
While patiently viewing and waiting for a space to come available he was keeping an eye out for any businesses for sale. This is when things took a new turn….
Spotted was a listing for an “Organic Coffee Roastery + Cafe”. Mike immediately knew this was Kokako, as organics at this point were well below the radar. The passion project of couple; Helen Ollivier and Christian Lamdin, the roastery and vegetarian cafe were now under negotation and quickly in the new capable hands of Mike Murphy.
This was May 2007. Mike admitted it was a biggy – up until this point he had never operated a cafe before and thus a lot of effort was about to be poured into the business. Recognising the interesting point of difference of the organic and vegetarian offering, he decided on retaining that ethos and went full bore into rejuvenating the Parnell space. He painted space, installed “industrial-esque” lighting, blond ply furniture and in all, a much cleaner, modern vibe that wouldn’t normally have been attached to the niche industry he was entering.
By 2008 Mike had pushed forward and built a commercial kitchen in his roastery warehouse – he had identified a gap in the market for supplying delicious raw salads to outlets such as Farro Fresh. While the idea was great (and hugely popular now) at the time ingredients were hard to source and between that, the GFC, running the cafe and roastery it was becoming at outrageously full on for one person to head!
So the cafe was sold to a like minded member of the local hospo industry and Mike was heading what was suddenly a wholesale only business!
While the plan had been to streamline, he was still extremely aware that without his own Kokako cafe it was difficult to present the product in a way that customers could experience the full culture of the brand.
It was on his way to a meeting with his graphic designer; Jonathon Templeman of The Design Dairy and interior designer Chris Stevens of Ctrl Space that the conversation strayed to the concept of a new cafe. Chris then shared that the he knew of the old Grey Lynn Post Office coming up for lease. Ears pricked and ideas started getting flung around! By January 2012 the lease was signed and Mike his existing business partner Chris Morrison (of All Good Organics ) were joined by new partners, Jonathon and Chris in creating what is now a local favourite and citywide destination – Kokako Cafe in Grey Lynn.
In constant evaluation of his business and market, Mike decided to sell the commercial kitchen later that year to tighten the focus on Kokako. They were a coffee company with a strong unwavering focus on sourcing fairtrade beans, developing their product offering and innovating from the front. An example of this was their pioneering development of Cold Brew Coffee in the Auckland region.
Initially the roastery was housed in the cafe – a super cool feature for coffee lovers to observe while waiting for their brew! However the rapid expansion of their wholesale business was becoming hindered by the small space, so it was complete luck when one of their coffee technicians stumbled across an old garage space just across the street!
They gutted it, took it to food grade and installed a 25kg roaster alongside the 10kg roaster from the cafe (soon to be joined by another!). They had a space for their cars and vans, hungry bins for cafe and coffee excess and an easily accessible spot for dispatch. Not only that, they had managed to stay close by their cafe and office HQ, creating a real sense of community and full immersion as a growing business based in the heart of Grey Lynn.
As a non vegetarian, I had personally visited the cafe no less then 3 times before realising the absence of meat! The food is AMAZING as is the interior – a true modern but casual meeting place for people of all walks of life.
Its really obvious that the entire Kokako team are on board with the brand and share Mikes ambition. I was SO fascinated to hear his story and learnt so much more in understanding that creative endeavors need to be partnered with critical business thinking.
Imagery courtesy of Kokako
Photography by Josh Griggs unless specified other.
WHAT I LEARNT FROM MIKE MURPHY
Be flexible, light footed and in constant evaluation of your business and its direction.
Nothing is stagnant and nothing is permanent.