Wellington, New Zealand
New Zealand is spectacular in more ways than common lore and Lord of the Rings landscapes might indicate. It’s home to some veritable, life-changing dairy—as Nick Clark, one of the co-founders of Flight, told us, “When you come to New Zealand the first thing you have to do is grab a glass of milk.” The land of the long white cloud is also where you can find Flight’s sweet, mouthwatering coffee. We would advise you, before that glass of milk, to head straight to Flight’s shining outpost, The Hangar, where six different espresso and filter options and two tasting menus await you.
Flight was founded by three friends, all in their early 20s when they first began, and the roastery and two cafés today owe much of their success to the strength of this friendship. Over the years, Matt Graylee, Richard Corney, and Nick Clark have grown Flight from a fledgling operation to a significant institution within and beyond New Zealand. In 2011, Matt began a greenbuying operation with Richard, Raw Material, to improve coffee production in Colombia, Burundi, Rwanda, and Myanmar. Through Raw Material, Flight operates the El Fénix farm in Colombia for processing and agronomic experiments and with the view of full transparency, they invite customers to join them every year to stay on the farm. Recently they raised funds to develop a community wet mill at El Fénix and they have continued with their Helena Project to transform commodity Colombian coffee into specialty coffee.
Nick Clark directs Flight’s coffee—he won the national barista’s championship in 2013—and Nic Rapp, Flight’s roaster, won the national brewer’s cup champion twice, in 2014 and 2015. We spoke with them both on a still wintery Monday afternoon (the time difference between New York and Wellington is 16 hours!) and we were immediately at ease by how warm and personable the two were. Flight is entirely beloved and it’s easy to see why—they are hospitable, quality driven, and supremely likeable.
Nick: We started Flight just over seven years ago. Richard at the time was in Hawkes’ Bay—he’s a trained chef and started a café to pursue his culinary dreams. As time progressed, he found himself managing more and more of the operation and the espresso preparation. One day he was closing the floor and started thinking. He rang up Matt who was living in Wellington—they’ve been friends since they were four or five years old—and said, “Matt you’ve worked for a coffee roaster in the past and now you’re an espresso machine technician. Listen, I’ve got this idea for roasting coffee and giving that a good crack. What do you say?” Matt said he knew a mate in Wellington who works on the front end side of things who could help as well (this would be myself). My expertise at the time was customer service, coffee preparation, and managing cafés. I had also worked for a roastery for about a year and half and I liked the idea of being a part of my own roastery. So I decided join them—we had a handshake on it and had a lovely dinner and they actually gave me a coffee tree as a welcoming gift.
The three of us realized pretty quickly that we were trying to create a coffee brand with no face and no real identity and no real experience that we could offer to anybody. We acknowledged that coffee roasting wasn’t really our strength at the time but what we did have were skills in running coffee shops and providing amazing experiences. So we developed the concept of our first coffee bar and I don’t know how we did this but five months into it we won café of the year in Wellington. That gave us a bit of fire in our belly.
We’d like to grow at a pace where it’s not just about growth. We want to do everything in a style where it’s top notch.
The challenges we faced at first were that we were not coffee roasters. We were aspiring coffee roasters with a hunger for knowledge about everything coffee. Back in the day information was pretty scarce. The term “specialty coffee” was relatively new to most people in coffee in the southern hemisphere. And at the stage, we were super young—22, 23, and probably a little too naïve—but I think at the time it worked in our favor. Because of the size of our company and the way the industry was changing so much, we were able to evolve every month or even every couple of weeks and review our strategies constantly and make some pretty big changes when we needed to.
In 2012 Matt was trekking through Colombia. He was updating Flight’s social media, when about five minutes later, he gets a message from an old customer, a lady called Jade. It turns out she had moved to Colombia, met a Colombian boy, and was now living on a coffee farm. And so she says, “Hey Matt, I’m half an hour down the road from you on a coffee farm—do you want to come hang out?”
A week later after hanging out with her and touring the farm and tasting coffee and getting an idea of what they do and their model, they came up with the idea of transforming a normal, commodity Colombian coffee farm into a specialty coffee farm. The idea was they could increase the revenue of what they do there with minimal investment in infrastructure. The first experiment was to incentivize pickers who were employed by the farms. Essentially, they wanted the pickers to pick cherries within a window as opposed to picking as much as they could. The pickers would come back at the end of the day with fewer cherries of higher quality and get paid twice as much more.
On the first day the pickers came back, about 60% of the cherries were good. By the third day they were hitting over 90%. Just massive, massive improvement in just 48 hours. The farm was called Helena, and this became the Helena Project. From there we realized we could add a lot of value not just by teaching people how to pick coffee but by improving everything. And that was the beginning behind Raw Material.
The kind of thing I like about our team is that I wouldn’t even look at anybody first and foremost as coffee people.
In our flagship cafe we have a pretty awesome coffee offering. I don’t think it’s ever been better, which is awesome to say. When you go into the Hangar we always have three different espresso options on offer: one’s a house blend, and the other two fluctuate between blends or single origins. Then we have three options on the batch brew—all different single origins and which can serve as a tasting flight—one hand-brewed pourover, a few different cold coffee options. We’ll do coffee three ways, which is one coffee as espresso, drip, and a flat white. We’ll do a flight of flat whites if you want to live a little and try something new. It’s very much like a tasting flight that you might have at a brewery. We’ll give you tasting cards with every coffee with info and flavor notes on the coffee.
We’d like to grow at a pace where it’s not just about growth. We want to do everything in a style where it’s top notch. We’re lucky enough where we don’t have to be in a position where we have to take on the whole world just to survive. A big part of the business for us is we just want to have fun, to be honest.
One of the talking points I find myself bringing up is our team. What we achieved in the last seven years is all due to people behind the scenes. As a company we have New Zealand champions and champions who have competed around the world, a world barista certified judge, a couple Q-graders. And then when you look away from the accolades of what our team has achieved here and look at the achievements of their personal lives before Flight. Our wholesale manager, before he was working for us he was managing the wholesale arm for free-range poultry in New Zealand and before that he owned a couple of his own cafes, so he’s got real life experience. And it’s actually really amazing, there are not many wholesale account managers out there who can speak to an operator as an operator.
The kind of thing I like about our team is that I wouldn’t even look at anybody first and foremost as coffee people. There are some people who live and breathe coffee, but I think all of us have a very healthy amount of awesome things going on in our lives. At the end of the day, we’re people first and we happen to love coffee and work in it. I think sometimes this is a thing that can be overlooked too easily.