Written by John Williams
Too Good Espresso is an inconspicuous café squeezed into a ground floor tenancy in that commercial stretch of Brown St, Ponsonby. Blink, and you’ll miss it. ‘Another café in Ponsonby?’, I hear you yawn. What’s the big deal? Well, coffee’s the big deal, here. Unlike many of its neighbours, where coffee plays a supporting role to the food, at Too Good it’s all about the coffee, according to its owner and barista, Rata Miller.
And Rata can claim this fact with some authority – he’s been around coffee for most of his life. His father, Craig Miller, of Miller Coffee fame, started roasting coffee over 30 years ago.
“I was 15 when I started roasting coffee, there were three of us kids, and we used to help out mum and dad. I remember us hopping on the bus into town after school and hanging out at their café in Grafton."
At the age of 18, Rata started work at Cafe Extreme, in the now defunct Levene’s store in Newmarket. “At the time we used to make more coffee than any other cafe New Zealand,” says, Rata. “On an average Saturday, I would do over 1000 coffees… the queue was out the door every lunchtime. Even to this day, that was the peak of how to make coffee and how to run coffee in New Zealand.”
Compared to today, his was a long apprenticeship. You weren’t allowed to even touch a coffee machine until you had run the coffees for at least three months, learnt what all coffees were and what cup they went in. Only then, were you let onto the machines.
"My record was 1157 coffees before midday, one Mother’s Day.”
“When you’re making over 1000 cups of coffee a day, you need to be constantly on your game," he says.
It seems like a natural progression, therefore, for Rata to now be running his own café. Too Good was two years in the planning – getting advice from his father, Craig, and looking for the right premises. Eventually, it all came together when he took over an existing lease from Native Agent, a retail store that sold cool Kiwiana stuff and coffee on the side.
“I was familiar with the space and the area, the rent was reasonable, with a straight-shooting landlord, and there was a bit of a coffee trade already going on. It was a perfect set up.”
A year on, and the café is definitely moving in the right direction. “I add things as the finances allow. It’s a slow evolution,” he says. “I don’t have a kitchen, I don’t want a kitchen. For me, it’s all about the coffee. Without a doubt, it’s 100% my focus.”
Four Quick Questions.
Q: What makes a successful coffee shop?
“Consistency. And of course, building a good rapport with customers, making people feel welcome,” he says. “I’m all about service – probably more than the chat. I’m going to know what coffee you drink before I know your name. But I’d like to think the two wouldn’t be too far apart. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about consistency – serving a good coffee, every time.”
Q: What makes a great coffee?
“Obviously you’ve got to start with good, freshly roasted coffee beans. But then, it’s all down to the barista. How fine is the grind, how hard is the tamp, How long is the extraction? You’re very much in the hands of the person making it, every time. If they’re not consistent in their methods, then you can quite possibly get a bad coffee from a person that made you a great coffee the day before.”
Q: What do you drink?
“Double flat whites for 20 odd years,” says, Rata. “I’m a bit of purist. I don’t buy into flavours or trends, and I’ve never served flavoured coffee in my life. Good coffee shouldn’t need sugar, or half a litre of milk.”
Q: And the beans?
“Of course, I am biased, but I think Millers is the best, consistent, fresh-roasted coffee around. Miller’s coffee is a blend of Kenyan, Colombian, and Papa New Guinean. It’s always the same, always has been. My father created that blend, and he likes it, so why change it. Millers is a taste not a brand.”
This article is part of a series brought to you by Angela Saunders featuring some of the characters and personalities that live and work in our neighbourhood.