Crave café has been serving locals in Morningside, Auckland for almost a decade, and is spearheading plans for a major regeneration of the suburb over the coming year. Alice Webb-Liddall talks to Crave manager and co-founder Nigel Cottle about the neighbourhood-orientated social enterprise.
In 2009, Morningside existed as an in-between suburb. A train station was the landmark that kept it on the map, but creeping borders of neighbouring suburbs like Kingsland and Mt Albert seemed to stunt the growth of the quaint area that seemed confused about whether it was residential or industrial.
Nigel Cottle moved to Morningside that year and became one of a small group who saw the potential in reclaiming the suburb from its bigger, older, more recognisable adjacent siblings. And this is where he opened his café, Crave.
It was humble beginnings for Crave, which is now the beating heart of Morningside and is expanding year on year. “One of the guys in the group was a hunter and he’d shot a pig so he had that in a chiller somewhere. We literally just hired a spit and put it out on the street with a little sign saying ‘free food at 5 pm’’.”
“That was the beginning,” he says, looking around at the 190 seat building Crave now occupies.
Since that first street gathering in 2009, Crave has become a Morningside institution and draws hundreds of people into the small suburb each day. Cottle says that’s because it has made people feel the sense of community that was lacking here before the cafe opened. “It’s the business community that makes people feel local. How do you know if you belong, how do you know if you’re a local? It’s when you’ve been to the dairy enough times that the guy knows who you are or the Indian restaurant or the laundromat. It’s shop owners who make people feel like locals because other locals don’t do that here.”
Crave operates as a social enterprise, which means profits from the café get invested back into the suburb. “The Creation of Adam mural across the road, that was one of our projects,” says Cottle, pointing to a huge recreation of the Vatican’s iconic painting that adorns a brick wall overlooking McDonald Street. “We’re not lining our own pockets here,” he says. “In hospitality, it’s hard work to make a profit. It’s a terrible idea as a money-making strategy, but as a social enterprise we exist for a social reason, not through grants or funding.”
But business wasn’t always as busy as it is now. When the company first started, they found it hard to get locals’ trust, something Cottle knows is a key to running a successful local business. “We started Crave as a 20 seat café. It was in the back of Morningside. It was south facing, had no carpark, a generally terrible location for a café from an Auckland perspective. We got to the end of the first year and it just wasn’t happening. There was no depth and we started to question our strategy.”
But hard slog and belief in their community values pushed them on, and after the first Christmas break, Crave started picking up. With the sudden spike in business, Cottle and his partners knew they had to increase their size. A few knocked down walls later, and the café had stretched into 60 seats. Now locals were starting to catch on to the purpose of the café: “It’s all about making Morningside a better place to live.”
These values have helped Crave keep its focus on the community it was serving at the same time as it grew. “We identified three particular pathways that the business has been running since the beginning. The first is connection – anything that helps people to connect, meet, and engage is good for the community. Food is a great connector.” He first saw this in that very first street party, the pig on a spit, and the small group who gathered on the street to join in the food.
“The second is pride – anything that makes people more proud of being in the neighbourhood, so people are more likely to say ‘oh, this is a cool neighbourhood and I like living in it’.” Cottle loves the idea of people ‘moving suburbs without moving houses.’ He says he’s heard stories of people who now say they live in Morningside, when a few years ago they would’ve said Kingsland or Mt Eden.
“The third is empowerment. We try to give jobs to people who may otherwise struggle to make independent choices.” Crave has a history of hiring people with disabilities, criminal records and addiction backgrounds, and they’re proud of their role in supporting people others were choosing to ignore.
With a 20% growth each year for the past seven years, nobody can deny that Crave is drawing people into the suburb. Its site is now home to other companies, which Cottle says is one way they’re helping small local businesses get off the ground. “Hannah Wood runs her business Little Lato, a takeaway gelato store in the café. Downstairs there’s a workshop called Goose Boards who make recycled skateboards. As we go forward, we want to hear more stories of the birth of little businesses in the neighbourhood.”
But it’s not just other small businesses that the team at Crave have set their sights on. The suburb is set to get even busier in the next year with the Morningside Project (home to The Spinoff) currently under construction down the street. A collection of offices, retail, and hospitality businesses built by some of the same people who made Britomart, the Morningside Project will also be home for the Crave team’s second outlet, a new café called Kind.
It might not seem like the best idea to open a café less than 100 metres from another one, but Cottle says the new 110 seat premises will be environmentally focused, where Crave’s focus is primarily community. “We knew that this café would be influential to the neighbourhood and you’ve got to start that influence from the inside, not the outside.”
The plans for Kind’s profits include planting throughout the community, walking and biking programmes, and healthy eating education. Supplied with an Investment Readiness Grant from social enterprise development agency Ākina, the Crave team was able to use professional services to help them package their business to attract investors. This package explained how the new café’s profits will deliver benefits for the community, specifically its natural environment, and helped them to secure investors for Kind. The idea was so popular the project was over-subscribed by 50%, and Crave’s latest offshoot is well underway.
Cottle explains that the new business model is creating a profit for investors, but with Crave as a 60% investor, the majority will still be invested back into Morningside. “The first third of the profits the café makes will go back into its social purpose of making the neighbourhood a greener and healthier place. In five years time, we want to look at a Google image of the neighbourhood and for it to look more green. The last two thirds will go back to the investors.”
With Kind on its way and Crave growing each year, Cottle believes the future of Morningside is becoming closer to his dream. “It comes back to the three things: trust, empowerment, and pride.”
A street party now bookends summer in Morningside, an ode to the humble hog-on-a-spit beginnings of Crave. It’s a business that’s helped to grow a suburb and will continue to for years to come.
This article by Alice Webb-Liddall was originally written for The Spinoff.