November 09, 2021
Helen Ollivier and Christian Lamdin, Our Founders
At Kōkako, we think it’s important to honour the people who got us to where we are today. And none of the coffee we make, or the work that we do, would exist without our founders following their dreams and creating Kōkako back in 2001. Now 20 years ago.
In 2007, our managing director Mike Murphy bought Kōkako off a passionate couple who had founded the business six years earlier. As their family had grown, their priorities had shifted, and the business needed a new custodian so they could focus on other work and ventures. We feel lucky they chose to sell the business to us, and will be forever grateful to Helen Ollivier and Christian Lamdin for what they started with Kōkako. Their passion for organic coffee and their entrepreneurial spirit still courses through our business today.
Nowadays, you can still catch Helen and Christian’s two coffee carts at a bunch of Tāmaki Makaurau markets, including the Parnell Farmers Market, the Britomart Saturday Market, the Titirangi Village Market, and the Coatesville Market. They still serve Kōkako coffee, of course.
Alongside the coffee carts, Helen is an artist and Christian is a lawyer, and although they’re not roasting coffee anymore, their love for living an organic-focused lifestyle is still strong in everything they do.
Here, we speak to the pair about why they started the business, how the name came about, and what it was like being dedicated to organic back in the early 2000s.
You’re the reason we’re here today! How did Kōkako come about?
Helen: When Christian and I met, we were both baristas. Shortly after we met we went on a big trip to Europe. We actually went on bikes and did a lot of travelling around and one of the things that struck us was the coffee culture, particularly in Italy, was one that New Zealand had really latched onto, and a lot of the blends in New Zealand were called Italian names. The coffee in Italy was absolutely spectacular, especially in the North. It was nutty, beautiful ristretto shots and it really resonated with us as New Zealanders. And then when we got back to New Zealand, we were like ‘well why hasn’t New Zealand got their own coffee identity? And why are we borrowing our coffee identity from Italy when Italy doesn’t even grow coffee either?’ So we set about creating a brand that was quite uniquely New Zealand.
Christian: We’d been to Europe and cycled around England, France and Italy, covering over 5000 kilometres. Before that we were both involved in hospitality, we both had university degrees but we were working in New Zealand making coffee and loving it. Then we went on our trip overseas and we loved cafe culture in Italy, drinking coffee in Milan and Florence and Barcelona… Kōkako was the end of a lot of brainstorming around what our identity could be.
Where did the brand formation and inspiration come from?
Helen: The Kōkako brand was inspired by Christian’s trip to Tiritiri Matangi, which at the time didn’t have any Kōkako on it. And he went to the release of the first eight Kōkako on Tiritiri Matangi. He was so blown away by the beauty of these birds, and it had a big impact on him. It was a not well known New Zealand native bird, and it resonated with us because we were coming out of leftfield a bit with New Zealand brand of coffee and the Kōkako being quite rare and unknown, then the other part of it was the organic angle which we were really passionate about.
Christian: We came to Kōkako because we were honing in on our New Zealand identity and what we love about New Zealand and what our personal values were. I think Kōkako captured the spirit of developing grassroots in New Zealand at the time. Having New Zealand identities, nature inspired identities and organic, vegetarian, environmental identities is so popular now. I wouldn’t say it’s because of us, but we were part of the breaking wave at the time.
So Italy inspired you, but you also wanted to give it a uniquely New Zealand flavour. How did you get the right flavour profile?
Helen: So it was pretty much just what we wanted to drink, and not what we thought everybody else would like to drink. I guess part of it was that we drank milky coffees, so it needed to be robust in milk, and the long black was secondary. It needed to hold its own with the milk coffees.
And why was organic so important to you from the start?
Helen: We had done a bit of research into organics and we were already going in that direction in our personal lives and choices. We didn’t really want to do it any other way, it was a bit of a no brainer. We wouldn’t do it unless it was organic. There would have been no integrity if we didn’t, so that was what we wanted to do. Coffee was the second most sprayed crop in the world, so it was quite significant to be going organic. We didn't get a lot of good feedback from it when we started; people would say how amazing the coffee was, but they’d say ‘why would you go organic? Organic hasn’t got a great reputation, you’re really paddling up the river with this one’. We had to do a lot of educating people, people were quite skeptical with organic coffee and would say to us ‘has it still got caffeine in it?’. There was also this idea that organic coffee was really tasteless, that was the reputation, they were really surprised when it tasted amazing, so word just spread.
Christian: We are organic, vegetarian hippies at heart. It was just a totally organic step to be organic!
How do you feel when you look at Kōkako now?
Helen: I’m so proud, every week people come and say ‘oh yeah it’s Kōkako, it will be good!’ and people really recognise the brand. Even people who don’t, go ‘oh yeah it’s organic, I know it’s going to be good’. The reputation of organic has totally changed and I think Kōkako has really pushed that. Even though we started it, there’s definitely been a continuation of the ethics that we really cared about and the New Zealand-ness of it and the environmental angle.
Your kids have worked at the coffee cart. What’s it been like, being a family affair?
Helen: All four of them make coffee for me in the coffee cart! That’s been an amazing journey, that Kōkako has trained them and supported them, and they’ve got those skills. It feels really strongly about culture and community; they’ve always been super supportive and one of the parts that’s been really valuable to me is that they’ve acknowledged us as founders and never pretended like it was their idea. It came as an expression of us.
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