November 22, 2021
Rebecca McRobie, Flour Mill & Lola: Building Communities
“I always work with my gut. It defines everything that I do in business and my personal life,” says Rebecca McRobie, the founder and previous owner of Stonefields cafe Charlie & George, and the founder and current owner of beloved Auckland haunts Lola and Flour Mill.
Rebecca has made a name for herself by founding cafes in areas that previously didn’t have a cool local spot. Lola’s on the Ellerslie Panmure Highway in Mount Wellington, and Flour Mill’s on Manukau Road in Epsom.
When she started out, she had two boys and a catering diploma; “I thought the best thing to do with my background was open cafes, because I love food and I love people.” Rebecca’s always served Kōkako Coffee in her cafes, and from the very beginning has shared our Managing Director Mike Murphy’s love for community building and creating hubs through warm and welcoming spaces. Back in the day, they’d go on expeditions together to find places that could be reimagined into the best new spot in an area.
Since 2012, Rebecca’s built a loyal bunch of staff and implemented thoughtful design that takes into account customers’ comfort and needs. The spaces she’s created each add to the atmosphere of their areas and feed the vision of Tāmaki as a joyful and innovative city.
Here, we speak to Rebecca about trusting her gut, forming strong bonds with her staff, and what makes a great cafe.
When you took over the Charlie & George space, Stonefields was in its very early days. Was it daunting?
I’m a bit of a risk taker. Financially, I remember what my budget was and I met with Fletcher’s [Building], and I had an amount in mind but it was double that. I remember driving home and thinking “oh my god”, but I’ve got a really supportive husband so it wasn’t a problem. But it was a bit daunting because it was my first one, and it was quite a big project. I think we seated 85-90 people there, and it wasn’t even a community, if that makes sense? I was basically opening a cafe in the middle of nowhere, so that was a massive risk – it’s either going to work or it’s not going to work. But I’m such a fighter and always knew it would work.
How did you go about creating a space that was community-centred in Stonefields? [Stonefields is a purpose-built neighbourhood in east Auckland]
I couldn’t just rely on the Stonefields community, because we had seated it up for 85-90 people, so needed it to be a destination cafe. Therefore we really needed families there, so we had this little hopscotch outside and we had buckets of chalk and kids would go crazy. If you look at Charlie & George, it’s like a glass box, so any parent can go and have a meal inside while their kids are outside drawing chalk on the pavement.
Was finding the right staff really integral to creating the atmosphere you wanted?
Absolutely, it always starts with staff. One thing I’m really big on is service. I’m such a big believer in doing everything right, so not only do the food and coffee have to be incredible, but the service has to be great, and that comes from your staff. I always treat my staff like my family and I’ve always had a good team. I still have staff working with me today that worked with me at Charlie & George. Some of the people I took on had no experience. But your people stay with you, always. The thing about treating your staff well is that they then give off this amazing aura to your customers, and that to me is the most important thing.
Since then, you’ve gone on to create Flour Mill and Lola. How did they come about?
After I sold Charlie & George, I had a lot of agents calling me saying “I love what you did with Charlie & George, can you recreate that?” There was a lot of building going on, a lot of complexes and things going on around greater Auckland. So Mike [Murphy] and I would get in the car and go and look at sites and when the Lola one came up, that was another no-brainer for me. But I knew it was going to take another two and a half years and I needed a new project, as I was bored. So I said to Mike and Zoe [Fawcett, our business development manager] that I was looking for a suburban cafe in a beautiful heritage type building. I remember Zoe called me and said she had found it, so I drove to it straight away and an hour later I knew it was going to be my next cafe. I know it’s weird, but these things happen! So now, Flour Mill is my little baby and Lola is my big baby.
How can you be sure about a space? Is it about envisioning people sitting there and having a good time?
Absolutely. It sounds a little bit crazy and I am a bit of a risk taker, but I do believe it’s what you put into a place. So I knew there was good parking, I knew Epsom didn’t have any good cafes, and I just got a really good feel for things. It was a beautiful building that had quite a lot of history; it was actually a flour mill in 1885, so that drew me to it.
How do you encourage your staff to build meaningful relationships with customers and keep them coming back?
I feel like my staff really take on how I treat them. I remember a few months ago I walked into Lola and gave everyone in my staff a hug and a woman came up to me and said “it’s quite incredible that you did that. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.” And I said to her “these people are my people, they are part of my family.”
Why is your relationship with us at Kōkako so important to you? And why have you remained so loyal to our coffee?
You know what? I honestly believe that I would not be where I am today without Mike Murphy. With my business life and what I’ve done with my cafes, it all started with him. Putting the brand aside, Mike has so much integrity and I really like to align with people who go about business in that way. He’s basically my mentor. Kōkako has always given me such great back of house support, and that’s really important for a cafe operator.
I remember for example, at Charlie & George, I think it was a Saturday or Sunday, we got a stone stuck in our grinder and it was a massive problem. We had a queue of people waiting and I remember ringing Mike and saying “I don’t know what we’re going to do, we’ve got a queue of people and we can’t serve coffee.” Mike actually got in his car and drove to Charlie & George to set up a new grinder. That sort of thing says a lot to me.
And finally, if you were to say what makes a cafe special, can you place your finger on one thing?
It’s the service delivery and knowing customers’ names – people love that stuff! If you don’t nail the service, you’re never going to go anywhere. You can have the best food, you can have the best coffee, but if your service is shit, it’ll never work. It’s creating a bond with people. I’ll tell you now, they don’t come back for the cheese scone or the coffee, they come back for you and the way they like to be treated.
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