Christy Tennent, Eighthirty, Impolitikal

Q&A | Christy Tennent on doing business good with Eighthirty Coffee

As is again becoming common around the globe, there’s a tight-knit but growing group of independent, owner-operated hospitality outfits in Auckland, New Zealand. Those that pay staff a living wage, think about their footprint and work hard to ensure customers feel not only welcome, but like they’re part of a community. Eighthirty Coffee Roasters is such an enterprise. Sarah spoke to part-owner Christy Tennent about the company’s operations and ethos.

What’s your background? How did you end up at eighthirty?
I grew up in Christchurch and got quite involved with community development stuff at a young age. I helped start a social enterprise down there called Addington Coffee Co-op, which seeks to provide employment and a community space in quite a low socioeconomic area. It’s a coffee roastery and café, and it’s partnered with the local primary school. All profits go to the school and to the coffee growers – none go to shareholders as dividends or whatever. It is a pretty amazing initiative that was a result of a lot of amazing, like-minded people, who had resource, working together. That was a really great project. I was doing that, and community work, and youth work, and I just actually started getting really exhausted. I thought maybe it was time for a change. I came to Auckland and enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Work at Auckland University. And not long after found eighthirty in its very infant stages, and got on-board there.

How long has eighthirty been running?
Five years. It was just our little site on K Rd then. I was our third employee. It’s just kind of grown – we’ve done one espresso bar per year since. Ponsonby Central, then Little Johns in Parnell, and then High Street. And we partnered with a couple in Sydney, who have started a place called Skittle Lane over there.

What’s your role at the company now?
We’ve just gotten to a point where we’ve got a really great team, and a really great core team. So we’re at this next stage of our journey, where we’re working out what each of our roles are a bit more robustly and where we are headed towards. Currently my role involves being our coffee trainer and doing wholesale account management stuff, as well as making coffee at our espresso bars. We’re also working on building our education of our staff and baristas on our accounts, and hopefully the wider population soon as well.

We’ve talked a bit about the ethos of the company. Is it too far to call eighthirty a social enterprise?
It would be a little bit far. Social enterprises are businesses that start to meet a specific need in society.

Coffee is very important.
Yeah exactly! Well, the baseline is that we do the best that we can, and I don’t know if that’s quite a legitimate social need. I think it’s more about the vehicle that we use to create that best coffee – the business model we choose to try to explore, and grow with.

How would you describe the ethos behind how eighthirty do business?
First and foremost we’re about doing the best coffee we can, but the ethos of how we create that – and I guess the benchmark of measuring the success of our business – is three-pronged. Rather than just profit, we’re interested in environmental, social and economic factors. I like to say: people, profit and planet. More of a triple bottom line. We really do hold dearly to each of those principles, and outwork them in different ways.

How does that work in application?
With the people side of things, we really value and try to look after our team and our staff really well. Every staff member is on more than the living wage, which is something that we believe in really strongly – that all staff get to share in the profit side of things, and the success. I’m also proud of our ownership structure. There’s space for employees to buy into the business. Three of us are part-owners, and that door’s open for future employees to come in. It’s all owner-operator, and all the owners work within the business. For staff also, we’re really committed to creating space for people to achieve their own goals, or develop their own careers within the company. Lots of staff have done that in different ways. I guess we’re fortunate in that a lot of our staff are really passionate about things within the coffee world. We really want to support them to be able to do the various things that they want to do. Whether that’s participate in a barista competition, or be a part-owner of one of the stores, or learn how to roast – or go and set up a café in Sydney.

Not just turning up to work and making coffee for a few hours.
Yep, there’s definitely room to grow and explore. Also under that people umbrella would come our community partnerships, which are something that we’re really committed to as well. We’re not just interested in looking after our people, but also our wider community. Local organisations Like the Nga Rangatahi Toa youth mentoring programme, a local church that works with some of the vulnerable communities around K Rd, Sustainable Coastlines, and Odyssey House – who work in the addiction space with at-risk youth. All of those places we donate or supply coffee to where we can, or provide spaces for events. We offer what we can at this stage, and as we grow we can offer more, in training and education and partnering with different initiatives.

Also, I love that people feel welcome in our spaces. Our local homeless on K Rd know that they can come in and have coffee; we know their names and they are welcome there as much as the business owner around the corner or whoever. I like that those places are melting pots where worlds break down, and the only barrier is the appreciation of a good coffee. I like that the space can do that, and that coffee can do that.

What about the planet side of things?
Compostability has always been really important for us in our packaging. That’s an area where we’re always seeking to improve, and develop. All of our packaging is currently compostable, and we’re working with another supplier to improve our coffee packaging on that front. There’s this company in Auckland, We Compost, and Steve is the great guy that runs it. We were his first customer when he started it five years ago, and we’ve both seen our businesses grow so much. We’re working with Sustainable Coastlines this year. They’re doing an initiative with offenders, where they’re planting hundreds of trees, and companies can sponsor that programme and use those trees to allow the company to be carbon neutral. We’re going to work with them on that.

I guess overall it’s just taking responsibility for the pollution and the output of your business. We really believe that’s our responsibility. It’s an old school idea that businesses would create pollution and it would be society’s responsibility to deal with it. There has to be a shift. The change in our environment has to come from the businesses who are causing that pollution, and creating a new normal to take more responsibility. Those externalities have to be a part of the cost of the product.

How do you source your beans?
We’re still pretty small, so we work closely with coffee importers. We don’t actually go directly to origin to get beans. We pay a good price for our beans but have to trust that our importers are treating those farmers well and enaging in ethical trade. All our importers have longstanding relationships with the farms we source our beans from, and we have good relationships with our importers. At some point we’d like to go to origin, and have our own direct trade routes where we can build our own relationships with coffee farmers.

What are the main regions you currently look to?
We source from Colombia, Brasil, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Indonesia. All around that equator belt.

Eighthirty’s been growing during a time when the coffee trade has changed quite a lot – the idea of craft coffee has expanded around the world. Meanwhile, New Zealand takes coffee really seriously. What’s it been like to enter that market?
Like you say, coffee has changed a lot in the last five years, and it will change a lot in the next five years. For us, it’s important to be able to change with the times, and read where New Zealand is at right now in their coffee drinking tastes – and to be able to evolve as the global coffee scene changes too. Being responsive to your environment is a really important part of staying relevant, and not just being stuck in your ways. All the equipment, everything changes so rapidly. People’s palettes change, but at the moment New Zealanders still really love their full-bodied, rich, smooth, sweet coffee. And usually a double shot. Whereas in Melbourne they’re going really light and they’re all about acidity. But if we had that in New Zealand our palettes would be like, I’m not into all this acidity, it’s not that enjoyable. It’s just different ways of enjoying this universal drink. Everyone has such different ways.

What are some other trends at the moment? Cold brew?
Yep, cold brew’s a big trend, and I guess it’s part of what’s deemed the third wave of coffee – which is centered around soft brew, or all the different kinds of filter methods you see now. Like you say, specialty coffee has really boomed in the last few years. There’s a lot more communication between our end – the people making the coffee – and the growers and farmers. We can get a much better result from the coffee being picked. The way it’s processed, when it’s picked and all those things.

We can get these really amazing high grade specialty coffees now, which actually are not very good at all in an espresso machine. An espresso machine really strips the coffee, it’s a very highly pressurised form of extraction. Whereas a filter, or soft brew is a lot gentler. You can appreciate the delicacies of a really high quality bean through filter methods. That’s one big shift: to appreciate the quality of beans that are now coming out from the coffee growing regions we need different ways of brewing it. It works out better for the farmers as well – when they’re creating a really high quality product that can fetch a higher price.

So the growing industry has changed a lot as well as the service side?
Yeah, I guess the communication has improved. It’s allowing the growing side of things to improve also. And there are more partnerships – companies helping growers and farmers by sponsoring better equipment, so that they can be more effective on the ground, and everyone can win.

What do you hope will happen with the business going forward? Or business culture more broadly?
I guess that the value of ideas such as the triple bottom line will continue to grow. Our ideal is that these kinds of principles will just become the new normal for all businesses, and the norm of what people expect from the businesses they choose to frequent. I guess that’s why we want to talk about it a bit, because if no one’s talking about it then how does that change happen?

For more on Eighthirty Coffee Roasters, including where to find them, visit

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.