Geoff Marsland: the life of a coffee baron

From Saturday Morning, 9:00 am on 26 November 2016

Geoff Marsland is arguably one of the founders of New Zealand’s coffee culture.

He and his then-business partner Tim Rose founded Havana Midnight Espresso in Cuba Street in 1989 and shortly afterwards Havana Deluxe. Then came the roasting business Havana Coffee Works and the beginning of the importation of coffee beans from Cuba – a decade after they'd adopted the name ‘Havana’ for the business.

Geoff Marsland has collaborated with writer Tom Scott and photographer Grant Sheehan on a history of his life as a coffee baron, Coffee U Feel.

Geoff grew up in an adoptive family and didn’t meet his birth parents (who didn't stay together) until later in life.

About 15 years ago, he flew into the small Australian town where his birth father lived and headed to the bowling club, where he’d been told he could find him.

“When you’ve been adopted, your whole life you imagine your father is someone quite special. I’m watching this short little fat guy bowling and I’m sitting there going ‘Uh…’ I go and get a gin-and-tonic from the bar ‘cause I’m all nervous. I go ‘Which guy is it?’ They go ‘That guy there’. I look and the guy was me. He was my height, big hands, tall… I walked up to him and said ‘I’m your son. He said ‘Yeah, bush telegraph. I heard you were coming’. I said ‘I don’t expect anything from you, but I’d like to meet you.’ He said ‘Okay, cool. Now I’ve got to get back to my bowls.’ So that was a bit weird.”

But they do have a relationship now, he says.

“I’m his only child and my sons are his only grandkids.”

Geoff's primary education was at the "magic school" of Matauranga in Wellington’s Aro Valley, where he says "anything went". He says it was a rude shock arriving at a state school (Wellington High School) and three months in he was suspended for talking back to the teachers. At 14 he left.

“I got suspended on a Monday and I went home on the Monday night, and on the Tuesday I shaved all my hair off, ‘cause I’d been suspended. My father arrived home at nine o’clock at night after a few vodka-and-lemonades. He saw my hair and he goes ‘Get out! Get out! I’m not having a punk rocker living under my roof!’… I got on my bike and rode off at ten o’clock at night into the dark, milky, still Wellington night, rode along the wharves and thought ‘Where am I going to go?’ At about 11 o’clock at night I got to Queens Wharf. This guy said ‘What are you doing? I said ‘I’ve just been kicked out of home’. He said ‘That’s my boat there. I’m going to Cook Strait at midnight. If you want a job and somewhere to live put your bike under the net and jump on the boat.”

Geoff loved the freedom of the sea and worked on fishing boats until the age of 19, when he got tired of smelling like fish, he says.

Some friends were making and selling tie-dyed clothing and he joined in, eventually taking off for London with a bag of clothes. He set up a stall in Camden, marketing his wares as ‘nuclear-free clothes from New Zealand’.

They sold well and people kept saying he should connect with a band he hadn’t heard of – the Grateful Dead. Geoff flew to America to find them and ended up joined their tour for four or five shows – just one of around 25 tie-dyed clothing stalls that were travelling with the band, he says.

“The Grateful Dead would arrive at a town with all the tie-dyed stalls and all the young American kids would come and buy a tie-dyed t-shirt, buy an acid trip and go to the Grateful Dead. It was like a rite of passage for young Americans. I met such colourful, interesting, people. It was an amazing time.”

After the tour, Geoff took the few clothes he had left up to Vancouver, where a school friend Tim Rose was living. Tim took him to Joe’s Café [on Commercial Drive] where he says he found inclusivity and eclecticism like nothing he’d ever experienced.

“It was a big place, it had a coffee machine, pool tables… But it had a real mix of people, all sorts of people. Sailors and hookers and suits and breast-feeding mothers – everyone in the community... Back in New Zealand it felt like you were either this or that or that.  People didn’t really mix.”

When you’re sitting around drinking coffee you get a lots of ‘wow’ moments, says Geoff – and at Joe’s Cafe he had one. “We had a ‘wow’ moment! We said, let’s do this! We can do this!’”

Geoff and Tim made a plan to open a café in New Zealand – not for profit as much as because they wanted somewhere like Joe’s to hang out.

The Portuguese ex-bullfighters who owned Joe’s sent them to Vancouver’s Italian quarter to procure a machine – and  they arranged for one to be freighted back to New Zealand.

Once back in the country, the call came that the coffee machine had arrived and they jumped in a Kombi van to Seaview and picked it up.

They bought as premises a former 'greasy spoon' in what was then a sleazy part of Wellington and ripped it apart.

The day after a huge party, they opened Havana Midnight Espresso to a line of people.

"The line just got longer and longer and we realised there were heaps of people that really wanted what we’d built.”

Their first café's name was a compromise of sorts, says Geoff. 

“Tim said I want to call it ‘Havana Coffee Lounge’. I said ‘No-one is gonna know what ‘Havana’ is (back in 1989). I said ‘Let’s call it what it is – midnight espresso, late-night coffee. So we called it ‘Havana Midnight Espresso’."

Despite the Cuban connection in their name, Geoff's first coffee-buying trip was to Jamaica – which claims to have the best in the world. He ended up in Cuba, though, where the coffee is just as good, he says.

Soon Havana Coffee Works may be competing with American buyers in Cuba, Geoff says. Soon after talk of the trade embargoes between the US and Cuba being lifted he was contacted by Americans.

“Already Nespresso is getting coffee out of Cuba, so me and George Clooney are both muscling in on the same crop. I better get a new shirt.”

Why does Geoff think New Zealanders are so obsessed with coffee?

Simply because we’re spoilt for quality.

“We’ve got the best coffee in the world and we’ve got the best dairy products in the world."