NZ’s Evolving Cafe Culture

By Fred Lunjevich (Originally published in Cafe Culture– February/March 2009.)

The “credit crunch” is real. I know because I haven’t got the dream writing job I want and therefore I am currently plying my coffee making skills for Rivet Cafe in the little slice of Wellington we call Ponsonby, Auckland.

Three-months ago, my fiance and I returned to New Zealand after 18 months of living in Birmingham, England. While Birmingham is a cool place to live, its major benefit to us was that its airport is extraordinarily well connected to Europe.

That means we got to experience several European countries – food, language, music, history – and of course, cafes. It is from this European vantage point I now view New Zealand’s cafe culture in its young and evolving state.

Unlike New Zealand, European cafe culture has been evolving for more than 300 years. This becomes abundantly clear when one begins exploring a European city. In Krakow, Poland there is the Singer Cafe, a small off-the-beaten-track establishment that has Singer sewing machines bolted to the tables and only candles for internal lighting. In Prague, one might step into the brilliant art nouveau ballroom hall cafe “Kavárna Obecní Dům” in the municipal building complete with period chandeliers and stunning mosaic exterior.

European cafes reflects the region’s vastly multicultural and rich history. Many cafes survived through turbulent economic and political change and served as meeting places for many of the best known and most influential figures. Franz Kafka was a regular at the Louvre Cafe in Prague while Cafe Central in Vienna boasted the likes of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

European cafes were often meeting places for academics, artists, bards and scheming political activists. Local thinkers would often congregate to debate and exchange ideas.

New Zealand’s cafe culture can’t boast the same history nor can our cafes claim to have regular patrons of such world changing significance. Our cafe culture is still in diapers relative to our European cousins.

What I can say, from my observations behind the coffee machine, is that cafes seem to be couldrons of a mixture of different people. While New Zealand cafes have a unique charm to them, we are still watching our cafe culture evolve. Even so, our cafes seem to mirror the European style in that they are havens for creative people and deep thinkers.

During the past three months as a Rivet Cafe barista I have had a myriad of discussions about philosophy, politics, science and culture. I have seen many actors studying lines with the intensity of a teenager in an exam.

I’ve talked to artists and musicians and even landed myself acting classes from highly regarded acting teacher Sally Spencer-Harris. All of these people have enriched my life in some way and I would never have met them if it wasn’t for the credit crunch, as it has allowed me to temporarily stave off an office job.

Cafes in New Zealand certainly offer modern alternatives to the fringe benefits often associated with bars and pubs. The association between cafes and relaxation often means people allow their defenses to drop to an extent. This puts the barista in the position of the mythical barperson who can offer a sympathetic ear to the patron with a story to tell.

And while New Zealand doesn’t have the 17th century architecture to house our cafes, we do have a way of creating a uniquely Kiwi atmosphere. We know that Rivet could use a makeover, but we take a strange sort of pride in the scarcely painted beams that complement the retro-atmosphere created by the orange “boogie nights” wallpaper.

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