If our Midland Park store is the heart of coffee for home, Customs is the centre for what’s current in the world of coffee preparation, located just off the cultural melting pot that is Cuba Street, Wellington. The name Customs comes from the idea that the best experiences with coffee often begin with rituals inherited from the customs of global coffee drinkers. The name is also a hat-tip to the journey coffee takes to arrive in New Zealand, with every bean having to be imported from distant, far-off lands.
Customs partners a revolving menu of single origins for home, offered by the 100 gram, with both filter and espresso drink options. The coffee experience wouldn’t be complete without a morsel to accompany it, and Customs offers an ever-changing menu of fresh toast and pastry options, made either on site or by local suppliers.
All this is set in an environment that is rather domestic, and intentionally so. This home-like feel puts people at ease and relaxes an experience that could feel uptight if held with too much reverence.
Right from the start, the filter offering was a central part of the space, and, though it took a while to build up the customer base, the adoption of filter coffee as a premium drink is the most pleasing aspect of how Customs has fared to date. The influence Customs has had on us as a roasting company, and on the specialty scene in general, has been quiet but reasonably profound. Six years after opening the doors, there a dozen or so other spaces in Wellington following Customs’ lead and we’re installing an ever-increasing amount of commercial filter coffee brewers in the cafés of our wholesale customers.
Back before Customs opened then, the coffee landscape in New Zealand looked quite a bit different from that of today. Words like ‘Chemex’, ‘single origin’, ‘pour over’ and ‘hipster’ were being used, but still not part of the everyday industry vernacular. We had wanted to open a café in Wellington Central for a number of years and had a few ideas of what we wanted the space to be and the fresh perspective we wanted to bring to the table. We knew that timing would be everything if we wanted to be one of the first to help usher in the Third Wave of coffee (as the jargon of the time would describe it).
Then, in 2010, our moment came. Jenny Neligan, a long-time friend of Chris and Maggie and the co-owner of Bowen Gallery, purchased the ground floor of 39 Ghuznee Street and offered us a slice of the space. We finally found ourselves in business.
First and foremost, and quite obviously, we wanted the space to be about coffee. But not coffee as we’ve all known it. We wanted to create some space from the blends we had been learning to master, so we could experiment with unblended coffee that tells you something about its origin, that takes you somewhere and generally advances your thinking about the product and its possibilities. Specialty coffee, to coin a phrase.
This new space came at the same time as the re-emergence of older, non-espresso brew methods (like Chemex), the simplicity of which partnered beautifully with the specialty coffees becoming increasingly available. So another of the challenges in opening Customs was representing and trying to re-legitimise some forgotten domestic brewing styles. We wanted to sell to the public the idea that not only could coffee become a product as revered and sophisticated as wine but that you didn’t need a fancy espresso set-up on your bench at home to appreciate it. So, although we had a state-of-the-art espresso machine lined up for the bench in Customs, our key sales pitch, our point of difference, was going to be high-end coffee brewed to order using everyday domestic tools.
Fast forward to 2016. As we celebrated six years of pushing the boat out, we reconfigured Customs to accommodate more people. The change at Customs also reflected the rapid evolution of these specialty coffees. As more coffee fans caught on, the need to produce filter coffee at volume drove us to look at more efficient yet equally high- (if not higher-) quality ways to brew it. So the updated space at Customs is our adjustment for what we think is coming down the line over the years to come.
As we wanted to inspire people to rethink their personal experience of coffee, the idea was to create a domestic environment, rather than a commercial one. We wanted to evoke the feel of a kitchen/lounge, rather than a café. As we were also celebrating some of these older brew methods, many of which emerged in the ’50s and ’60s, we decided to go with a mid-century feel with the décor. In no small coincidence, our Head Roaster at the time, and Project Lead for Customs, Justin McArthur, was of the belief that design aesthetics peaked in that era, and no one did it better than the Danish.
Coffee Supreme owners Chris Dillon and Maggie Wells were working with the architects at Jasmax at the time on their own home build, so we engaged a couple of designers from their ranks, gave them a book of ’50s Scandinavian interiors, and were away. We were able to score a decent amount of lovely aged timber from the dismantled farmstead on Chris and Maggie’s property, and this was readily put to use in the construction of joinery and wall cladding, really helping to anchor the space back into the timescape we were aiming for.
Three months and a swag of eBay and Trade Me purchases later, we were ready to open the doors.
Jasmax won a couple of awards for making it look pretty, but the most gratifying aspect was how readily the non-espresso offerings were embraced by the curious clientele who braved the front doors and made Customs a new habit.