One of Wellington’s ‘coffee kings’, Geoff Marsland helped kickstart the capital’s café culture in the 1980s, co-founding (with Tim Rose) Wellington café fixtures Midnight Espresso and Deluxe, and launching Havana Coffee. He now operates out of Cuban-themed premises in Tory Street, where he held court, with cigars and shots of rum all round, to writer Max Rashbrooke and photographer Caroline Atkinson – although only after startling them with a revved-up chainsaw.
So, what’s the story with the chainsaw?
Whenever I see a chainsaw, I get excited, so I like to start it up.
Right. Anyway, it’s been 25 years since you launched Midnight Espresso.
Twenty-five years. Isn’t it amazing? It’s unbelievable. Where has it gone? I’ve become an old man. The other night I was at this mansion in Khandallah and somebody had the crew from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra there, just as a bit of a fundraiser. I thought, “Shit, this is amazing – but I must be getting old if I’m enjoying this.”
And you’re doing a book to mark the occasion.
Well, in the last five years, I’ve suddenly thought, maybe there is a story to tell, and the story is the early days. It was much more pioneering, since there was no café culture in Wellington at the time. If you trace it back, most revolutions start in coffee shops. So this was the Wellington Revolution!
Also I thought it’d be quite nice to do a book, because books are nearly extinct. A book could be a nice old-fashioned way to document something.
What’s going to be in the book?
We definitely want to have a chapter in it called Bastards We’ve Known. Who’s on the list? I couldn’t tell you now. You’ll have to buy the book. But we’ve come up against a few, as you do in Wellington. You know, councillors and landlords…
So councillors aren’t your favourite people?
I do laugh about the Absolutely Positively Wellington. Just like the Seaview Motel having no sea view, I think Absolutely Positively Wellington is a joke. One of the biggest hurdles has probably been the council for us. Even small things like the parking make it so difficult to run a business in the city. The revenue gathering…
A lot of the things that we’ve done for the city have been a shitfight to do. Like back in the late 1980s, trying to put tables on the footpath… We tried to put tables out on Courtenay Place, which you couldn’t do. So we got an old car and chopped the roof off, made hubcap stools and everything, made a table and then we put it outside the café, parked like a car. Then the council said we could only leave it at the meter for two hours, so we had to keep swapping it around the meters.
Now, all of a sudden, you can do it, putting tables on the street – but they charge you.
And there was the way the whole ‘apartment living’ thing was handled.
The council let developers build apartments in the city. All these people sold their apartments in Khandallah and moved to Wellington, but as soon as Nightline was finished at 10.30pm, they wanted everything to shut down.
I just wanted to smash eggs on my face. We’ve built this culture, now you’ve sold this culture so that people can come in, and now the culture’s got to shut down. In what other city in the world would that happen?
Other than work, your great love is sailing, right?
Whenever I’m not working I’m sailing. Because of the weather, I always end up out on my boat with the most unusual people. It’s like, whoever I saw on the way to the boat. And the funny thing about getting on a boat is that people always talk candidly, like they’re never going back to land. So you have the most interesting conversations out there. You might go out for an hour on the harbour and they might tell you things they wouldn’t say in a normal environment.
But are you still loving Wellington?
I’m sort of a little bit tired of Wellington. I’m a bit trapped here because of the business and my kids all going to school. I’m just tired of the wind, which is unusual for a sailor, but finally it’s just beaten me. I love Wellington, but I wake up every morning and I can hear the wind beating at the window and it’s really starting to get on top of me. It’s repressive. It makes you more hardy but it makes you hunch down. It’s tiring me.
Having said that, I’d quite like to move onto a boat, to live.
Wouldn’t that be a bit cramped?
I quite love small spaces… I lived in a house truck before I had cafés. I have got claustrophobia, though. I was in Cuba recently, in one of those old lifts with gates across them. It started to go down and then, bang, there was a power cut, and in Cuba, when you have a power cut, it can be for 24 hours.
All of a sudden, I’ve got the dry horrors, and I’m not breathing very well. It’s a sudden panic, like I’m going to die in a lift. In fact, the gates did open and I could see the next floor down. I thought, “Shit, what do I do?”, so I actually jumped out, but I was freaked out that the lift was going to start again.
Now, sometimes I freak out driving through tunnels. I find myself driving through the Mt Vic tunnel and suddenly I have a claustrophobia that I’ve never had before. That lift thing. I hate that feeling of being enclosed.
But living on a boat would also be, well, quite enclosed.
Maybe I like the womb-like aspect of it. I was adopted, so maybe it’s like being back in the womb.
Would you ever be a politician?
People keep saying I should run for mayor, not that I would even entertain it. I actually am the deputy mayor of Cuba Street. I was the mayor for years, because I was on Cuba Street, at the old Havana. Then they said I couldn’t be mayor, because I moved to Tory Street, but they knew I was a mover and shaker so they made me the deputy, which I wasn’t very impressed with, cos it’s the deputy mayor who does all the work, isn’t it?
So you wouldn’t want to be the city council mayor?
Not at this stage, no. I would never say never. I think it’d be hard work. And I’m more of a free agent. I’m more like, “Shit, this is good, let’s do this, and if people don’t like it, they don’t like it, they don’t have to come.” Probably because I’m left-handed and hyperactive and dyslexic, I’m not very good with the whole process and systems things. I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s do that”, and then I think, “Shit, that wasn’t a very good idea, was it?” I’m more off the cuff.
But if you were mayor, hypothetically, what would you do?
I’d probably have lawless days – days of anarchy, one day a week. There’d be all things like clothing optional, free parking, and all the services would be free on that day, like buses and trains. It’d be just one day a week, and we’d change the day. It wouldn’t be announced until that day.
It’d encourage more free spirits. Also it’d probably make people think it’s a good thing to bring back laws. It’d make them appreciate them more.
I’d also bring back the Cuba Street Carnival if I was mayor. I’d make it monthly.
How’s the hospitality industry doing?
Wellingtonians are totally spoiled. If you know where to go, the food and the environments and the alcohol are totally world-class. Look at Al Brown. All he’s done is taken little bits of Wellington to Auckland and they’re loving him up there, you know?
But a lot of people are suffering. Say there’s 400 cafés in Wellington, there’s probably 20 doing really, really well, 50 doing OK and the other 300, if they had to pay their bills they’d close tomorrow. The rents are a real killer. Rents up to $200 grand a year are not unheard of, so in some cafés, they’re just working for the landlord.
Are there too many cafés in Wellington?
I don’t think there’s enough good ones. So what happens is that the really good ones are really getting slammed. They are doing well, but it’s just so hard on everything: it’s hard on the facilities, it’s hard on the staff. Everything has to have two lives. So I think there’s not enough good cafés in the city. There’s a lot of mediocre ones.
Why are your cafés still going after 25 years?
Because they’re not perfect. At certain cafés in town, you’d want to put on your best lipstick and go in there and feel like a million dollars, and everything is perfect. But Midnight Espresso is like people’s real lives – people’s lives aren’t perfect, they don’t always do the dishes or make the bed, so you can walk into Midnight, you can go in there with your bad hair day, and it’s warts and all, like people’s lives.
The area – Cuba Street – has changed in that 25 years, though.
It was dark days, when we opened. It was all politicians and hookers.
Which would you rather hang out with?
They all come in the same car: these days, everyone’s both, aren’t they? Politicians are hookers and hookers become politicians. It’s the same career move!
A lot of people are talking about the Living Wage campaign, which is calling for people to be paid $18.40 an hour instead of the minimum wage of $13.75. What do you think?
I think it’s a great idea. I just don’t understand how people get by on the wages they’re on. It costs you $60 just to go to McDonald’s and have something with your kids. And most of my staff are probably nearly at the Living Wage, yeah. A lot of them are way above that.
And you think businesses can afford it?
If people are getting paid more, they’re going to go out more, aren’t they? So it ups the ante.
I’m definitely a newspaper reader. I’m one of those guys from the school where, if I haven’t read the newspaper, I can’t go to the next day.
On social mobility:
I went to bloody Matauranga in the Aro Valley. Also I got suspended from Wellington High and they haven’t rung back yet. Now I’ve got a kid at Scots, a kid at Wellesley and a kid at Worser Bay. Work that one out!
On small children:
It was a boarding kindy I wanted to set up when I first had kids. There’s no boarding kindy where you can send them away for the week.
On coffee’s free-wheeling nature:
Coffee’s like that as a drug: it’s quite irrational, it’s got its own energy, it’s phonetic.
Heritage is bullshit. When I was doing Havana bar, there were three cottages. One day one of them went away on a truck, and it’s now up in Newtown Avenue. So it’s all right for the council to take one away on a truck and put it up in Newtown. That’s still heritage. But I had someone tell me the roller door on one of the cottages is heritage. How can a roller door be heritage? Roller doors are 1960s or whatever.
On Wellington’s weather:
If you met a woman in Australia and said, come and live with me, I reckon your success rate would be pretty low, d’you know what I mean? I’ve had that. I’m not blaming it entirely on the weather, though.