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Coffee Supreme and the rewards of risk, trying and failing

So many idioms about success – they’re overwhelmingly everywhere. 

Even failure quotes are actually quotes about success, all dressed-up in wording to make you ponder and nod and try harder next time.

Failure is normal, but it’s rarely talked about as failure alone.

Then, when we do talk about it, we weave it into some poignant prose about how the road to success is paved with failure and how we’ve successfully uncovered another dead-end. 

Our industry is no different really.

We read daily of new beginnings – of openings and refits, expansions and pop-ups – all cool and amazing and winning. They all make us look on enviously while wondering how we’re getting on with keeping up, wishing we too had the seemingly bottomless resources to create new thing after new thing.

Still, amongst all the new-and-shiny, scrolling past on our high-resolution screens, there must surely be a pile in a corner somewhere, all the failures quietly accumulating – flawed and chipped and dated. The projects that didn’t quite deliver. 
The Trekkas and the Newtons and the KZ-1’s of the coffee industry. ROIOU’s we call them here at Supreme.

I’ve got a few of those under my belt. I’ve tried some things that didn’t go so well. I’ve taken risks that haven’t all ended with high fives and ‘best of’ awards and fist emojis.

I wish I could say they were all happy accidents and unintentional discoveries on the road to success. 

But they weren’t. 

Some cost a lot of money. Some missteps could have been avoided by paying more attention at different stages throughout the planning or early days. One example of this is Supreme Seafarers.

We closed the doors on that just last week, to the disappointment of many fans and customers in the neighbourhood. Shareholders too. 

It wasn’t cool having to let staff and customers and friends down like that. Tom and his crew, and many other team members at Supreme tried valiantly to keep those sails full and trimmed over the last 3 years, but the ship was doomed from the outset. In the end, the commercial doldrums and tactical failings were overwhelming. 

The voyage went something like this…

We jumped at an opportunity years ago, pitched to us by a fast moving visionary with a big picture of what they saw. We were offered a space in a part of Auckland’s downtown that was being transformed by architectural brilliance, big ideas and even bigger pockets. It’s always been the case for me, the greater the risk, and the harder the road – the more alluring it is. 

@crumb_greylynn, brewing in the ‘burbs.

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So the invitation to build a conceptual retail/espresso bar in the old rubbish-bin room beneath the Seafarers building was too tempting. Sure it fitted loosely into a wider strategy we had at the time to head downtown with a retail/hospitality hybrid idea. And of course, we liked a few of the neighbours and were watching with great interest to see who else was going to park up in the hood. But it also broke a few of our ‘golden rules’ of hospo and went against some of the advice I’ve given confidently in the past to people embarking on similarly-doomed voyages. 

We had no sun.

Coffee is something most normal people drink in the morning, or during sunlight hours at least, yet we thought we’d give it a go selling cups of coffee on the south facing side of a narrow street in a concrete bunker. Winters were tough. 

We had very little control. 

Like I always say – ‘When you have no control, you have no control.’ Our space was the entrance to another hospitality site upstairs. This meant we had a continual torrent (sometimes a trickle) of someone else’s customers walking through our service area to go to long boozy lunches. It also meant we had to pack down completely at the end of every day for security reasons, because half of those boozy lunch going patrons were also staggering back down the stairs again with light or clumsy fingers.

We had no lease. 

Just an MOU and a couple of firm, dry handshakes. Now the handshakes were with great people, and our failure is in no way a reflection of their part in this. The point is, there were too many loose ends and unknowns, and that became like entering a boat race equipped with a selection of sails you found in unmarked bags in the basement of the local yacht club. It was destined to be full of surprises.

We had no kitchen.

We wanted to play in one of the city’s most competitive dining precincts, but we couldn’t properly feed people. This needs little explanation I’m sure, but in short, selling only $4.50 cups of coffee to other peoples’ customers in a sunless bin room Monday to Friday down a side street that has three and half car parks monitored by Auckland’s most vigilant parking warden means you have to sell a shit-load of those cups of coffee, and all within the council’s 10 minutes free parking ‘grace’ period. 

Well, we found that tough. 

Even with the Italian tiles and the lime-wash and the indoor/outdoor feels the architect sold us by way of expressive pencil-work, it was pretty much like tacking all the way home up the Waitemata in a Hartley 18 flying nothing but a storm jib. 

We went into it knowing all of these things, and I still let my optimism and competitive courage cloud our strategic process. 

Now I should say at this point, that there are situations one might let one or two of these golden rules slide, if it is calculated and there are a convincing number of other factors available. Some of this city’s most successful eateries and coffee joints have overcome some glaringly obvious challenges – no parking, hidden down back streets, tyrannical landlords. There’s a time to let one or two negative elements slide when there are many positives available.

In this situation however, we struggled from the start. We were not able to work with our trusted architect, we inherited a builder we’d only just met, and opening day was bearing down on us faster than Jimmy Spithill. 

This was not a success story that started with a fail. It wasn’t a string of unfortunate experiments that led to a commercial epiphany and a full blown win. It is an honest and transparent confession, written publicly to our fans, our customers, and our competitors – anyone who’s interested. Although there are some changes in store for the space now we’ve upped anchor, I’ll spare you the version laced with excuses about lease expiration or landlord’s developments – that wouldn’t be entirely truthful.

One of the redeeming parts of this story, however, that I do feel is appropriate to mention were the recent words of a wise man regarding this particular failure: He said simply, “…fail fast! If you’re deciding it’s a fail after all, do it quickly, and move on…“. 

Where there is risk, there is always a chance of failure. And I am truly grateful for the opportunity to not only take risks, but also to fail.

So although the Instagram images told a different story, and the likes were abundant and emojive (might have just invented a word), I thought it perhaps most diligent to share the other side of the story for once. 

You will most likely not read about it in next month’s Metro Top 50 Successful Fails. Although that would be a satisfyingly informative read, would it not…?

Al Keating is former CEO of Coffee Supreme
Coffee Supreme can also be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
This first appeared on Coffee Supreme’s blog.
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