It would happen that at the time of posting this article, Flour Mill is turning 1! We are beyond proud of what Rebecca McRobie and her team have created at this cute corner spot in Epsom. Official celebrations will take place on the 21st; there will be 300 celebratory cookies amongst many other exciting things — so check it out if you can. We'll be there! In the meantime, we have an honest and illuminating Q + A with proprietor Rebecca below. Enjoy!
When did coffee become important to you? Do you remember the first coffee you had that was more than just coffee?
From an early age — I started working as a chef after leaving ATI in 1989, I was 19, and I think it was then my love for coffee was born. My shifts would start at 5 am, then the first barista would arrive at 6. I used to watch the clock in anticipation of that first fix!!
Please tell us a little more about your background in the coffee and hospitality industries.
I remember my first food memory, and I was six. I was standing on a beer crate helping my mother make a béchamel sauce; she let me stir it, I was amazed at how this sauce came together so beautifully, almost looked like velvet, I knew then food was my calling. After attending chef school, I went and worked for Geoffrey Chunn, who was an amazing self-taught chef. He owned a café in Remuera called Foodies — it was one of the first authentic cafés around. And so I worked there for five years, those years are some of the happiest memories of my life, he taught me so much about food.
From there, I went overseas for a few years, and when I returned, moved to Christchurch, where I completed a management course at the NZ School of Food and Wine. So when I moved back to Auckland, I applied for a job at Pandoro, and I worked there for seven years, eventually as the Wholesale Sales Manager (earning the nickname "bread lady " as I was so well known). And after having my two boys and a catering company I decided I wanted to do something bigger, this is when my love affair with cafes started.
You named one of your first cafés after your sons – Charlie and George; that must have made them feel incredibly proud of their Mum?
I'm sure they are proud; it wasn't an intentional name either. I had some friends over to try and help me with a name. We couldn't come up with anything, my son Charlie aged five at the time said, "Charlie and George" is a good name, we thought so too.
What inspired you to open Flour Mill? And is there a meaning behind the name?
After I sold Charlie and George, I became quite bored, I really missed my thriving Café and needed a project. After looking at several sites with different agents, I signed with Argyle for Lola. However, this was two years away. I said to Mike (Managing Director of Kōkako) and Zoe (Kōkako's Business Development Manager) that I wanted a small project to work on in the interim, and we looked at a few. However, they were not right. Then one day, Zoe emailed me, saying " This is it." I remember getting in my car and driving out to see it straight away, at that moment I knew it was the one! The Flour Mill was a real mill in 1895, two brothers opened it, and they milled flour from there and made bread, then delivered to the community in trucks. Their Bakery was called MacKay's!!
Why did you choose to partner with Kōkako coffee?
I was looking into starting a café, and I was reading an article about Kōkako and Mike, it was so inspiring. He wanted to produce high-quality coffee, yet it had to be ethical, and I knew then he was in this business for the long haul — I really wanted to meet him. We did eventually meet, discussed opportunities, Mike stated agencies regularly sent him commercial sites, and not long after our meeting one of those sites was Stone Fields. The rest is history, that was Charlie and George. While Charlie and George was being built, I worked at Kōkako in Grey Lynn as I wanted to align my services with what Mike was doing with his café at the time, which I hugely admired.
To you, what constitutes a good coffee shop?
To me, it is all about the service and love. Service has always been vital for me. Mike once said to me cafes are the churches of old and he's right!! They're spaces where people congregate, to catch up, to drink and eat together — cafes bring people together.
And with Flour Mill already, why did you choose to open Lola in Mt Wellington?
Lola was signed for a while before Flour Mill was even an idea. I needed a small project in the interim and Flour Mill was that project. I could not resist the building, and I had this gut feeling at the time. It turns out I was right!
How does Lola stand out? Did you envision Lola to bring something to the community?
Lola is bright, proud and beautiful. After meeting with Mike — we were discussing Lola, and what we wanted it to be like, I went home that night and dreamt of a beautiful Polynesian lady walking along the beach. She wore a yellow dress and flowers in her hair and smiled the brightest most beautiful smile and said, "Hi, my name is Lola." And so Lola was born. Mount Wellington and Panmure deserve a beautiful, proud cafe — there was nothing in this area. I believe I have bought them something they of which they can be proud.
I’ve heard you just got a new dog – what’s its name and does it come to the cafes with you and have a special spot to hang out?
Yes, I do, his name is Barry. He's a pedigree long-haired Jack Russell; he loves the cafes. And yes, Barry does come with me.
Can you tell us about a couple of cafe stories that you’re like, ‘this is why I do this!’?
We have a man called Don 86. He's been coming into Flour Mill since we opened, he brings flowers from his garden and in return we take care of him. Don also brings us pots of orchids and stories that have us in tears. He is however quite unwell now, so I have been making him soup from home which we have delivered. It's all about building relationships!! We are now a part of his life as he is ours.
Before I opened Charlie and George Café, I was hiring and interviewing for staff, and I met this young lad called Eddie. He had left school, was on the dole and he loved food, he told me he wanted to be a cook. I just saw something in him, and I wanted to get him off the dole. He came to work with me fulltime as my dishwasher, and when he started working in the kitchen, I bought him his first knife. From there, I started giving him more and more kitchen time until we put him on as a commis chef. Then second in charge.
I used to have him around for dinner at my house, and when I told him I had sold the business, he cried and so did I. However, I'm so proud of him, and we still talk. It's about looking after people, and I try my best with my staff to do that.
For my last year at Charlie and George, I took 23 staff to dinner at the French Cafe, quite the bill, however also extremely rewarding. A few of my team said it would be with them forever. That makes it worth it for me!!
What’s your favourite thing about coming to work in the morning?
Coffee, of course, and seeing my lovely team and customers.
Espresso or filter?