Bags of beans aren’t the only measure of growth at a thriving Manawatū coffee roastery eager to foster conversations and community.
The large windows inside Arrosta Coffee Co on John F Kennedy Drive in Palmerston North are purposefully placed to stir the curiosity of customers in the espresso bar, providing sight lines into the neighbouring testing and training room and the roastery.
It is indicative of the importance that owners Simon and Kirsty Fowler place on the journey of their green beans from plantations in Kenya, Brazil and Ethiopia to customers’ palates, and of the respect they have for consumers’ burgeoning knowledge and expectations.
They have high expectations too.
Simon Fowler speaks of baristas executing coffee orders with the same precision and passion as a chef cooking a steak perfectly.
The former DB Breweries sales manager was confident that coffee had eclipsed beer as the preferred liquid conduit to conversation.
“It’s all part of the fabric of people getting out and about and doing things,” he said.
“We go to Melbourne quite a bit and that’s massive over there – people spend so much time and do so much work in cafes, drinking coffee. It is the new social drink.”
It has been two-and-a-half years since the Fowlers took the plunge and built a new roastery and espresso bar on JFK Drive, after outgrowing their old drum “workhorse” at their Victoria Ave premises, which had been the heart of the operation since 2007.
Spurred on by the success of Arrosta’s full-bodied house blend, which claimed bronze at the Australian International Coffee Awards four times between 2016 and 2020, the business had “beautiful problems to play with” during the Covid-19 pandemic, Simon said.
The pair were struggling to accommodate the demands of their blooming wholesale trade on Victoria Ave.
“It was like playing Tetris – having to move something to, then move it back [each time we roasted]. It was inefficient and difficult.”
Bordered by car yards, trade stores and a state highway, the new premises might not be the most obvious spot to stop by for a flat white, but what it lacks in foot traffic it makes up for with space – which is being put to myriad uses.
The move from a 15-kilogram drum roaster to a new 45kg hybrid roaster was a game-changer in terms of efficiency and output, allowing them to roast twice as many beans in half the time.
They are also able to host barista workshops, cupping sessions – much like wine tastings – and tours of the roastery.
Kirsty, who manages roasting and production while Simon is in charge of servicing and customer relationships, said it was a fantastic environment in which to talk about coffee and where the beans come from, and a place they could work with baristas.
“We want to build the coffee industry in Manawatū – we want to make it something people are aware of and proud of and want to be part of.”
While 85% of the business was the “backdoor” wholesale supply of roasted beans to cafes and stores throughout New Zealand, the test kitchen was a crucial “1%”.
“It’s where we can have meaningful conversations with people about coffee, and help them out at home. It’s important – it’s our marketing and quality control area.”
The seeds of Arrosta’s social ambitions could be found in the Latte Art Throwdown events it hosted at Brew Union in pre-Covid times – and still hoped to bring back in some form.
Simon compared the events to Twenty20 cricket, as opposed to the “test cricket” of the more intense barista championships, with loud music and revelry providing a fun way to bring together baristas and coffee fans.
They were also seeing a wider understanding of different brew methods developing, as coffee lovers sought a better cup away from cafes, be it at home or on a camping trip.
Kirsty said that when they started out there was a fairly rigid perception that “a proper coffee” had to be espresso style – hot water forced through ground coffee – and made with milk.
“And that’s fine, and that is the majority of coffees sold.
“But we are noticing we’re having more and more conversations with people, and are selling more and more product for people to make coffee at home. It’s brewing equipment, the Aeropress.
“Consequently, we’re roasting coffee that suits those brew styles as well, which is generally single origin, generally lighter roasted. Because you want those inherent characteristics to come out through those soft-brew methods.”
Kirsty pointed to a cold-brew coffee spritzer as the “softest” brew you could get – brewed over 15 to 18 hours – as opposed to the “hard” 30-second espresso brew for a flat white.
“And the softer and more gentle you do it, the more flavour notes you’re going to notice … So you can get coffee made in many different ways, and we’re just adjusting to that.”
Simon said instant coffee was making a comeback but emphasised it would still be from a speciality seller, and consumers would taste the difference.
It looked as though Arrosta was widening its hospitality ambitions in 2018 when the business opened a full kitchen cafe in the new FMG building on Church St. However, that was sold within 18 months as the Fowlers realised the roastery required expansion.
“We always knew we were in the coffee business,” Kirsty said.
“We thought it might be a great opportunity to assist FMG when they moved into that building … But at the end of the day we really just felt we needed to focus on the coffee, rather than coffee and food.”
Though content with being “small guys” in a giant industry, they are extending their reach to more cafes in both the North and South islands, and they’re aware that being small allows them to be agile and retain a more personal touch.
“We could see the efficiencies that could be gained from having a larger roaster,” Kirsty said.
“And now we just leverage off what we have around it in terms of systems, processes and people. Because we’d never be able to do it without the people.”
Partnering with a cafe goes well beyond supplying fresh coffee. It’s training baristas, servicing machines, ensuring there’s a contingency in the event of a breakdown, and sharing knowledge.
“You can have all the best equipment, but if the barista doesn’t understand how to glean the best from the coffee, then the whole thing can fall over,” Kirsty said.
“We want to help them grow the coffee part of their business, but it’s also talking through, from our experience, good workflow practices, keeping things clean, understanding the milk.”
Finding ways to work more efficiently, such as reducing milk wastage at cafes, was essential, Simon said, as production and supply costs increase and margins thin.
“A latte should be $7, but the market’s not going to wear that. We’ve had to go smarter.”
The pressure was also on the consumer. Inflation is routinely conveyed by the media through the price of a latte, and coffee drinkers’ ability to maintain their fix is a familiar barometer for the cost-of-living crunch.
Kirsty says the pair have observed customers being more mindful – a daily coffee routine dropping to three days a week, or a two-coffees-a-day habit cutting back to one.
“But it’s also made us realise that for a $5 coffee, you know, I’ve got $5 and I’m not just going to give this to anyone.
“It’s important, when someone is paying that across the counter, they’re actually getting a good product. Life’s too short for bad coffee and a bad experience.”
A key marker for success going forward was sustainability.
Arrosta has a scheme at its two espresso bars where customers can take a reusable cup at no charge, then return it to be cleaned the next time they visit. It works like a library, with cup exchanges recorded through a phone app.
“What we want to do, because we have the connections with wholesale customers and other cafes, is we want them to get into that as well, so we get rid of all those single-use cups,” Kirsty said.
“We have actually applied for funding because there is a capital cost in [the] setup. So far we’ve been unsuccessful, but we’re going to keep trying.
”Someone’s going to see the value in it – it’s that circular economy.”
Following bans on single-use plastic bags and clamshell containers, she said a law change was just a matter of time, and Arrosta was keen to be ahead of it.