Coco's Cantina on the Cusp of Bigger Things

There’s no seven-year itch at Coco's Cantina, the K Rd restaurant on the cusp of bigger things

It has been seven years since sisters Renee (left) and Damaris Coulter opened restaurant Coco's Cantina. Picture / Babiche Martens

The pasta pomodoro at Coco’s Cantina may not be the fanciest dish on the menu but it could be the most meaningful. Since the K Rd restaurant’s seventh birthday in September, owner-operator sisters Renee and Damaris Coulter have offered the $13 vegan-friendly meal at happy hour, shaving about $20 off the price of the mains. Now they’re getting the full gamut of city dwellers: students, artists, even the after-school crowd, joining their regulars, whom the sisters have long since noticed tended to be “white, middle to upper-class creatives who can afford to eat free-range and drink prosecco,” says Damaris.

“We want to always be accessible to everybody. Renee and I have always been activists for equality and we find when you’re just serving one sort of person, it’s not good for the community, society, anyone.”

Expanding their clientele makes business sense too but it’s a restaurant that’s as much about values as it is about food. It’ll be over Damaris’ dead body that they’ll ever serve anything other than free-range meat. A recent proposal from a brewery was turned down once they questioned whether the suppliers really needed the support, in favour of a brewery that “jam the hours out”.

Since day one they’ve operated on the modus operandi “be kind”, a motto they say extends to the staff, diners and anyone in need of a meal (on one of Viva’s visits, they’re feeding homeless people with food from the staff lunch). Naturally, their dictum to treat others a certain way could be interpreted as paternalistic. Some people are offended by their Be Kind T-shirts, says Renee. Others feel talked down to by the “equality” posters in the toilets.

“People often accuse Coco’s of being ‘do-goody’,” says Damaris. “We just do what’s in front of us . . . It’s not a big deal.”

Now Coco’s is on the cusp of a new era, to become the restaurant they aspire to be: part diner, part community centre. Success, they say, is just as much about being able to pass down their knowledge and expertise to their staff as it is about financial freedom. Earlier this year they sat at the drawing board (one of the checkered table-clothed tables), and brainstormed.

Problem was, they were popular — it’s rare to find the place not heaving, particularly on weekends — but not always at the times people wanted them. And popularity doesn’t necessarily mean you’re flush. For nearly seven years they’d been doing it tough. Rather than bow out, burnt out, they toyed with the idea of opening a second business up the road in St Kevin’s Arcade to cater to the drinkers and the groups. Then they realised they had everything right under their noses. They just needed to maximise, but this was impossible without expanding their tiny kitchen.

A protracted process followed, during which time they struggled to secure a loan, switched banks and called in a favour from a regular. Now the new kitchen, about three times the size of the original, has transformed their capability, allowing them to keep the bustling bar area and restaurant going, develop the courtyard out the back and install a private dining room upstairs. Since their birthday they’ve been open for the first time on Mondays. Friday lunches are now in the pipeline.

“We didn’t come from a business background,” says Renee. “We were two waitresses who became maitre d’s that then opened a restaurant. Just because you know about running a restaurant doesn’t mean you know about running a business. We’re still learning.”

They’re also still growing. They’ve just launched a website called The Realness, an Auckland network of owner-operated restaurants and cafes. (The app is coming soon). There are plans for a Coco’s Cantina book in the new year. They’re also keen to knock a hole in the wall, to make service more seamless between the bar and the restaurant area. Rather than expanding by opening eateries all over town, they love the idea that Coco’s, having mastered what they do, will still be going in 20 years — even if K Rd’s gentrification means they’re the last of their kind on the block.

Part of their charm is the sisters themselves, one half of the “four-headed taniwha” with head chef Guilherme (Will) Bezerra and bar manager Petaia Unoi, who have run Coco’s since day dot.

“I see us as artists constantly collaborating,” says Damaris, “and this is our 24/7 art gallery.”

Their passion, though fiery at times, is palpable. Not a day goes by that the sisters don’t butt heads, to the point where it was stressing their parents out so much they decided to go to therapy together. At their worst, they’ve argued in full service, pulling the finger at each other across the room, although things are better now.

“Part of Coco’s success is that we’re quite human, authentic,” says Damaris. “Coco’s is that weird cousin that’s always a bit unpredictable and somehow it works.”

That means doing things their way. It could be something as simple as asking diners to wait for the rest of their party to arrive before being seated. Or posting negative reviews on their website to show they don’t take them too seriously. Do they ever kick people out?

“F*** yeah!” says Renee. “Heaps!”

It’s also about the personal touches. The walls are anointed with family photographs and paintings (Damaris’ “lover” painted the Tretchikoff-style lady opposite the bar). And, of course, it’s about the food. The rustic Italian dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs are delicious — and who hasn’t drooled over a plate of polenta chips? — but it’s the fun, casual atmosphere that reigns, the feeling that you’ve been invited into someone’s home for dinner. You get the sense that no matter how much they grow, that will never change.

“A lot of our success comes down to the fact we’re not far away, we’re always in the business, working close to the business, working on the business, around the business, everything’s about the f***ing business,” says Damaris. “Even if we have no idea what we’re doing tomorrow or next week or next year, we have a clear confidence about who we are.”

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