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Designed to work: Art and business collide in the capital

It’s not all about ‘Silicon Welly’. Artisan Welly is also going strong. And from surfboards to peanut butter and beer, the city’s vibrant design culture is being harnessed in an effort to grow great businesses. 

From the suburbs to the CBD and throughout the Hutt Valley, Kapiti and Wairarapa, Wellington has a rich stock of artisanal companies serving loyal locals and those further afield. Whether they’re making bespoke surfboards or bars of luxurious chocolate, creative entrepreneurs across the city say the same thing: the network of creative people and the supportive community helped them get off the ground.

Making waves

One such venture is Organic Dynamic, where sustainable, natural wooden surfboards are crafted. Jack Candlish started the company after getting frustrated with the fragility of conventional surfboards and realising how toxic they were to the environment.

“It didn’t sit right with me,” he says. So he set up shop in his hometown.

“I love it here, I studied industrial design at Massey [University] and made the most of their world class workshop facilities. It would be nice to have a bit more surf but other than that it’s a pretty sweet town.”

The community’s values of sustainability and quality, combined with the agencies available for business help turned Organic Dynamic full-time.

After completing Creative HQ’s manufacturing accelerator Lightning Lab, and getting help from coders at Xero, his boards have gone on sale globally. Not only that, the one-of-its-kind machine used to build them will join them on the market soon.

“Over the years I’ve been posed with lots of production challenges but I’ve always managed to find someone in Wellington with the facilities and know-how to solve these problems,” Candlish says.

He’s also involved with local manufacturing businesses Proffer, a joinery company that has designed and built café interiors throughout Wellington.

“I often get the sense that small business operators in Wellington adopt a ‘rising tides lift all boats’ mentality. Everyone seems really happy to help and support their counterparts and work together to make Wellington a better city.”

Lifting the cup

Before making the descent into Wellington Airport, travellers and locals alike have got the message: try the flat whites!

Wellington’s café and coffee culture has been going strong for decades and is something Wellingtonians are proud to boast about across the globe. It is helped by the fact that Wellington reputedly has more cafes, bars and restaurants per capita than New York City.

Pioneering coffee brands including L’affare, Havana, Supreme, Mojo and Peoples Coffee were all born in the capital. 

Peoples Coffee, with its flagship café and roastery in the colourful suburb of Newtown, has ethically sourced and sold 100 percent fair trade and organic beans since 2004.

“We work closely with small-lot farmer cooperatives at coffee origin and do a lot of work here at home because we believe that business can and should be a force for good,” Jesse Finn of Peoples Coffees says.

With Wellington being a leader in the coffee industry and having “a lot of love” for independent business, it made sense to base the business there.

“People are really willing to embrace new concepts here, we have a very diverse and curious consumer base,” Finn says. “I think there has been a real drive over the years by many organisations to encourage consumers to be more involved with their purchasing practices.”

He says that's allowed a range of businesses focused on ethical and sustainable trading to flourish, and the concentration of the city has led to a lot of positive collaboration between businesses to make things better. 

Get yourself another 

There’s a trail, a dedicated website, awards pinned to walls, a host of bars pulling brews with odd names and, of course, the annual Beervana festival.

There’s no doubt in Wellington: it’s New Zealand’s craft beer capital and locals reap the rewards.

A number of national treasures are brewing up liquid gold, including Fork and Brewer (which recently experimented with playing music to its beer during the brewing process and successfully increased efficiency), Panhead, ParrotDog, Tuatara and Garage Project.

Garage Project, established in 2011 and based out of a former service station in Aro Valley, has basked in its fair share of success, not just for its mouthwatering brews, but also its innovative approach to marketing and commitment to independence – even as fellow Wellington-based craft breweries Panhead and Tuatara have been snapped up for big bikkies by Lion and DB respectively. 

Pete Gillespie and Jos Ruffell

With a 50-litre "glorified home brew kit", open minds and the desire to be nimble and creative, brothers Pete and Ian Gillespie teamed up with Jos Ruffell to start the Wellington business.

The brand has forged an army of loyal supporters including Tim Brown, a former Wellington Phoenix and All Whites footballer and co-founder of woollen footwear company Allbirds. He told Idealog that the amazing artists used by Garage Project, and the established branding rules they break, make for a product line that feels like an Instagram feed

Ruffell says Wellington is the “home and heart” of the brewery. 

“It’s an amazing city to be based in. There’s such a vibrant creative scene there, a great culture and a real willingness to try new things. When we turned up with our 24 beers in 24 weeks [concept], people were really responsive to giving it a go. I think it’s that openness that makes Wellington the perfect spot for starting a business like a brewery.”

He says Wellington is crammed full of amazing artists, musicians, and chefs, as well as being home to the likes of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Fringe Festival and the Richter City Roller Derby.

“You name it, there's just great people for us to engage, collaborate and share ideas with, which is what makes Wellington such a special place.”

Ruffell says the craft beer market is maturing and as more breweries set up and produce quality beers, the more Wellington becomes a drawcard for beer tourism. 

“People are wanting to visit just to check out the breweries. But the audience in Wellington is pretty sophisticated. You're generally pretty spoilt for choice so you've got to make sure that everything you're producing is of outstanding quality. ”

Big guns

Mike Stewart and Joseph Slater

It’s not just alcoholic brews filling fridges across the land. Six Barrel Soda has found its niche in the artisan soft drink business.

“The craft beer thing was taking off and there was some great wine around but we couldn't find enough interesting, independent soft drinks,” Six Barrel Soda co-founder Joseph Slater says.

Slater and his business partner Mike Stewart started by creating natural soda syrups that they mixed with soda water from a beat-up ‘90s Soda Stream. They haven’t stopped, aside from upgrading equipment.

Slater says he loves Wellington for its creativity and casualness, and knowing the demand for quality products he thought the business would be welcomed in the city. He was right.

“There is a nice openness to business here, it's less cut-throat than other cities, maybe because it's so compact and you'll probably be getting coffee next to your competitors so there is no point having a beef,” he says.

Nut jobs

The quest to find a perfect peanut butter is one shared by many, but few are determined enough to perfect it themselves. Even fewer go on to make it a successful business.

“Our nut butter odyssey kicked off in 2013 when I had a New Year’s resolution to become more ‘horizontally skilled’ as opposed to ‘highly skilled’, which seems to be the focus of a lot of jobs,” Fix and Fogg co-founder Roman Jewell says.

Jewell and his co-founder and wife Andrea spent day and night perfecting the recipe and selling their peanut butter at the weekend markets until they couldn’t keep up with demand. 

So they took a leap – Jewell quit his legal job to make peanut butter full-time.

“We’re lucky to be in a place that has a lot of independent, creative food and beverage businesses – it’s a community in itself,” he says.

“We’ve found that we’ve learnt a lot from places like Garage Project, Supreme Coffee and Six Barrel Soda who are always keeping things fresh and interesting,” he says.

Building blocks 

The strong foodie culture in Wellington also brought about New Zealand’s introduction to craft chocolate.

Gabe Davidson and Rochelle Harrison opened Wellington Chocolate Factory on Eva Street, a once hidden laneway which has been transformed into an artisanal food hub, in 2013. The business was the country’s first open-to-the public fair trade and organic bean-to-bar business.

“I've always opened ethical businesses and I saw the bean-to-bar movement as a great opportunity to make a difference,” Davidson says. “I also saw parallels with specialty coffee and craft beer, two things close to my heart.”

Davidson says the collectable chocolate bar wrappers feature custom illustrations and designs from the “world-class artists” at Inject Design.

“Wellington is a great place to work, small enough and big enough. It’s easy to get around and collaborate, and for food and drink brands it's a great place to be based.”

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