When its new owners took over the ailing café in downtown Wellington a year-and-a-half ago, their timing could not have been worse.
New Zealand was inching towards a prolonged, near-total lockdown brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the border had closed, the traffic light system as part of the pandemic management was in place, and it flashed red.
“The streets were deserted,” recalls Arjun Sharma, who runs the Arabica Café on Grey Street along with his brother-in-law Varun Jaggi.
“People were too scared to step out of their homes,” adds Varun, originally from Goa in India.
Amazingly, the café stayed open – without shedding staff, cutting salaries or doing any of the things businesses do when they go horribly wrong.
Arjun, who hails from Rajasthan state in India, remembers telling himself that he would keep his café running, no matter what.
And he did.
Today, you’ll be lucky to find a table on any day of the week. It’s as if there is no other place to have a quiet cup of coffee.
Quiet is probably the wrong word. The noise of animated conversation greets you the minute you enter.
It’s a mixed crowd, but mostly Pakeha office-goers from Westpac, ANZ, Nova, WorkSafe NZ, Nokia, Sorts Capital, Grant Thornton, BNZ, Maritime and more, dropping in for a quick sandwich and a cuppa.
The menu on the wall reflects that.
The fare is standard continental coffee-shop cuisine, casual yet formal, which reflects the look of the customers huddled around the Parisian-style cafe tables that clutter the expansive interior.
What was the survival strategy that kept the café open through what can justifiably be described as the bleakest phase for businesses in the country?
Arjun goes to the heart of the strategy very quickly. “Word of mouth,” he says. “For instance, that guy there, he comes in three times a day, maybe more.”
It’s a simple strategy, but it worked. People felt grateful that the café held out through the worst of times, never lost heart, that it refused to cave in to the pandemic and stayed open.
Arabica was there for them, and now the public is paying back for true grit in the face of adversity.
The government’s Covid relief fund also came in handy.
A look at the raw material supply tells you that business is good.
The café uses up to 250 litres of milk per day. Around 100 Kg of coffee beans are consumed every week.
That’s a lot of goodwill.
Arabica has maintained a consistent staff strength of two head chefs, two sous’ chefs, two kitchen hands, two dishwashers, seven front-of-house and three Barista staff.
The key to the entrepreneurial style of Arjun and Varun is their hands-on approach to business.
“We are involved in every department. We work as kitchen hands, waiters, chefs, front office, cash counter, nothing is off-limits,” Varun declares.
The duo also run the Tequila Joe’s joint on the corner of Vivian St and Tory St, where there is barely standing room on any evening. Customers, mostly youngsters, jostle shoulder-to-shoulder for a taste of the popular Mexican fare doled out by Arjun’s wife, Priyanka, who manages the outlet.
If there is anybody sporting a smile through the pandemic, surely they are Arjun and Varun of Arabica Café in Wellington.