They started small, they’ve built big reputations: Denise Irvine visits two much-loved Waikato artisan businesses marking their 25th anniversary, the first – Rocket Coffee
‘It’s what we do’
You wouldn’t read about it, really: in 1995, a couple of men named Glen decide to open a café in Hamilton with a coffee roaster planted in a corner. It’s a big beast of a thing and they’re still learning to drive it; they roast their first batch of green beans the night before opening and they scramble together a menu in a very basic kitchen. The food is vegetarian, different from most.
They name the business Rocket Espresso Lounge and they roll it out on September 26, the night after a big party with a live local band, Hand of Glory. The first customer through the door for an espresso is friend Matt Maihi. He is determined to be the first. And Rocket is the first in Hamilton with a roaster on the premises.
It’s in a vintage building on the corner of Hood St and Victoria St. After some negotiation with the landlord, the two Glens pay $150 a week rent for a space that has previously been a BSA cycle shop, a shoe shop, sex shop and stamp shop.
Now it’s selling freshly roasted coffee, the two Glens are flatting upstairs, and on their first day in business they ring up $623 on the till. They are incredibly happy with that. The lease is for two years and they think this could be café’s lifespan.
Not so fast. This month Rocket Coffee Roasters (slight name tweak) marks its 25thanniversary; Glen Crompton and Glen Woodcock are still friends, and they’re still at the helm of a local business legend. Woodcock oversees coffee roasting and green-bean buying. Crompton is on general management, overseeing staff, customers and sales. And he does regular barista shifts.
Nowadays, Rocket is tucked down a lane off Barton St, still in Hamilton’s CBD. It’s another vintage building – formerly Doyles Army Surplus Store – this one with a more industrial edge than the old shoe/sex/stamp shop.
The Italian coffee roaster in the back room at Barton St is way bigger, and more sophisticated, than Rocket’s original. It does about a 1 tonne of beans per week compared with 90kg at start up, and Rocket supplies its beans to clients throughout the North Island. As well as keep its loyal locals charged with top brews.
On this Tuesday morning visit, my flat white – Rocket’s Espresso Blend – is fresh, velvety, and it has beautiful natural sweetness. It is from the hands of experts, from go to whoa; Woodcock and Crompton drink coffee, too, and talk about how they got to this point.
They were in their mid-20s when they started, “half a lifetime ago,” says Crompton. The pair, born a day apart in October, met at Woodcock’s flat in Hillcrest. Crompton, from Auckland, was studying English and film at Waikato University – “nothing very handy for work” – and he was doing shifts at cafes in town. Woodcock was a chef, and on a visit to Queenstown he saw a coffee roaster in a café.
Back in Hamilton, he said to Crompton, “they get these green beans and they roast them, it’s simple, we should do that.”
So they did. They consulted Craig Miller, of Auckland’s Miller’s Coffee, the godfather of coffee in New Zealand. They bought their first roaster from him, and got on with it. It wasn’t as simple as Woodcock thought, of course, and as the years went on, they learned more, and devoted themselves to getting better and better at their craft. This, they say, may be the reason for their longevity in a competitive market.
While it may seem a fun thing to do, Woodcock and Crompton say it’s a hard way to make a living, you have to be totally focused and do a great job. Or it doesn’t work.
When they started, there was nothing to compare their business with. “There was no-one roasting like us, you could just do it,” says Crompton.
Over the years, Rocket has done food as well, and it has had off-shoots such as Rocket in Hamilton East, SL-28 in Victoria St’s Riverbank Lane, and John Knox (now Anne Fern) in the South Bloc building, on Knox St. New owners were found for each of them, food’s been abandoned, all the more time for the primary business of coffee.
Says Crompton: “We’ve always focused on coffee. That’s the best thing we’ve ever done. We’ve maintained and developed our standards, we’ve always tried to be ahead, we keep progressing in our styles of roasting, and in our equipment. We’re investing and learning, and we have access to higher quality green beans. Premium specialty beans.”
Rocket’s beans come from Central and South America, and Africa. Woodcock has travelled to South America and met some of the coffee farmers they buy from. They’re always searching for new coffee; when they’re trialling beans, they roast them and cup all the samples blind before selecting beans that are sweet, clean and have distinctive flavours. Rocket’s beans are all batch-roasted, and then blended. Some single-origin coffees are regularly available.
As their competition has grown, so have the customers. Woodcock and Crompton say more and more people drink coffee, can’t start the day without it. It’s become a universal drink with no particular demographic. Rocket has embraced the growth of filter coffee, cold brews, and specialty milks, and they welcome everyone who walks down the lane to get a caffeine fix.
They see the same faces, they’ve built a community. Wandzia Butcher was an early customer in the mid-1990s. She has fond memories. Back then she was raising kids on a rural property near Hamilton, and she’d drive into town about three times a week for a Rocket coffee.
She says: “It was a really neat place to go, and to feel transported. I loved the whole vibe of it. It was a first for Hamilton. They got to know me, they knew my coffee. It was my treat.” She moved from a latte, to flat-white, to espresso. She still calls into Barton St for coffee and beans, is pleased that they’re going strong.
In a serendipitous link, her daughter, Renée Evelyn, who sometimes came to Rocket with her as a young child, later became one of Rocket’s star baristas.
Woodcock and Crompton continue to enjoy their own coffee each day. They’re not planning anything special to mark the 25th anniversary. They’re here for the foreseeable future, still learning, developing, and delivering a great product.
Woodcock jokes that they couldn’t go anywhere else because they’re basically unemployable. Says Crompton: “It’s what we do.” – Denise Irvine
Photos: Kate Shanasy @kateshanasy on Instagram