Culture

The sisters behind K’ Rd smash-hit Coco’s Cantina

Renee and Damaris Coulter of Coco’s Cantina

The sisters behind Auckland’s K’ Rd eatery Coco’s Cantina turn their business philosophy into an ambitious website – and stop calling each other the c-word in the process.

While I love my sisters very much, the idea of working with them every night in a hot kitchen sounds like a recipe for sororicide. Apparently, it’s often no different for Renee and Damaris Coulter of Coco’s Cantina, their perennially pumping Italian restaurant on Karangahape Road. Renee: “We’ve said it to each other heaps of times: ‘You can have this restaurant. I don’t want to work with you anymore. You’re crazy!’”

The problem seems to be that Renee, older by two years, is, in Damaris’ words, “straighty-180”, while Renee says Damaris “does not give a f**k what she says and who she says it to. She would sit down with the Governor-General, or the Queen, and swear.” (Early in our interview, a staff member delicately places a note on the table that reads, “Keep it clean!” but alas, it was already too late.) The sisters’ different styles manifest when they encounter a difficult customer. “Renee’s like, ‘thank you for your feedback’, and I’m like, ‘f**k off!’,” says Damaris.

The sisters’ different styles manifest when they encounter a difficult customer. “Renee’s like, ‘thank you for your feedback’, and I’m like, ‘f**k off!’,” says Damaris.

About seven months ago, they decided to seek professional help. Damaris: “We go for couple counselling, but it’s sister counselling.” (Renee: “You don’t need to point out that we’re not a couple!”) The first sessions were grim. They arrived and left in separate cars. The only way was up. “This shrink has been amazing,” says Damaris, “because she’s outlined our characteristics independently and how they work together. She said, ‘you’ve got a responsibility to your restaurant and your community to sort this out.’” My neighbour, Coco’s employee Sam Te Kani, confirms the therapy has been effective: “They don’t call each other the c-word in the restaurant anymore.”

They may bicker, but the pair shares what Damaris calls “painfully liberal” politics and a sense of fairness. They’ve described Coco’s, which they started seven years ago after both working as maître d’s elsewhere, as a socialist restaurant, because they value the people who work for them over profit, and source their food locally. It’s called Coco’s because, Renee says, “We wanted the restaurant to have a feminine identity, but calling it Renee’s or Damaris’s – that’s just not cool.”

Coco's Cantina

Now they’ve launched a website named The Realness, a project that aims for a Marxist levelling of the culinary playing field by shining a light on small restaurants that are owner-operated (with no silent partners or subsidies from bigger businesses), have just a single site, and use ethically sourced protein.

Damaris says The Realness was spawned at a time when about 20 restaurants opened in Auckland in the space of six months. “We all went super-quiet – us, Ponsonby Road Bistro, Meredith’s. It was like a state of emergency for the little guy. There was a group of us who would meet here every Monday, and it was supposed to be like a morale Monday but everyone would just drink. Everyone was quite afraid, like how are we going to pay our bills when we’re up against restaurants that can afford billboards and ads on the telly, and when all the tourists at the airport get told to go to Federal Street and Wynyard Quarter and Britomart? How are they going to find us? So The Realness is a brainchild of desperation.”

I mention that after becoming horribly addicted to the reality TV show The Real Housewives of Auckland, I will always associate “realness” with fashionista Angela Stone, who launched her meisterwerk, a book entitled How To Be Real, on the show to much hilarity. But Damaris says Kanye West had already tainted the term two years after she purchased the domain name when he uttered the legendary phrase “I’m sorry for the realness,” after an epic rant on Ellen. As for Angela, it’s best to say Damaris isn’t a fan, but “I don’t mind Gilda,” she says. “She just says it how it is. And she’s loaded, but I feel like she would still do the vacuuming if she had to.”

The sisters have big dreams. “I’ve had discussions where people look at me as if I’m some sort of lunatic, but I’m like, ‘this is going to redistribute wealth’,” says Damaris.

The Realness currently includes 14 Auckland restaurants, ranging in price from Ralph’s on Dominion Road to The French Café. It’s free for users, who will be able to use the site to find restaurants who subscribe to The Realness’s principles. In time they hope to add other industries and services such as bars, cafes and fashion boutiques, and spread throughout New Zealand, Australia and eventually the globe. The sisters have big dreams. “I’ve had discussions where people look at me as if I’m some sort of lunatic, but I’m like, ‘this is going to redistribute wealth’,” says Damaris.

They also aim to allow customers easier access to what Renee calls “authentic experiences”. Adds Damaris: “There’s this layer in the city that is just the main street, and then there’s a layer below which is the veins of the city, the artisans, the people who are doing the interesting things. Everyone’s looking for authenticity, whether it’s the wine they’re drinking or the shoes they want to buy. So you can go to some multinational coffee shop, which is probably owned by some fat cat sitting on his yacht counting his coin, and he’s probably got 12 [of them] all over the country, or you can go to Eighthirty coffee and Glenn [Bell], who pays a liveable wage, is in his business roasting. So it’s just trying to take the minority to the mainstream in a really easy way.”

Coco's Cantina

In short, the sisters eventually hope the website will help Coco’s Cantina lovers find a Coco’s wherever they are in the world. Damaris recounts a recent trip to Croatia with her parents. “I’d want to go over the hill and find the Coco’s of Split or Dubrovnik, but Mum’s like, oooh, what if we can’t find our way back? So we stay on the high street and have the worst meal of our lives. It’s some overweight American with his fanny pack complaining about the octopus, and you’re like, what the f**k? Did I just travel halfway round the world to have this terrible meal?”

They also hope The Realness will counter a scourge of uninformed personal opinion on websites like Trip-Advisor, Zomato and Yelp. Damaris: “If you trust a stranger from Ireland who’s never been to New Zealand, who probably feels like sashimi but he’s ended up at an Italian restaurant, to tell you whether or not you’re going to enjoy this restaurant, the world’s in trouble.”

Other independent operators are coming out of the woodwork to join the network. “My [business] mentor rang from Porirua last week,” says Damaris, “and she said, ‘I just had a conversation with the lady who owns a local Italian restaurant there. She’s an owner-operator, no big brand partnerships, she’s only got one restaurant – but her chicken’s not free range. So she’s going to change her chicken so she can get on The Realness’. And I said, ‘that’s what I’m f**king talking about!’.”

Meanwhile, the Coulter sisters’ interpersonal relations are still a work in progress, as they discuss the chilling prospect that not everyone wants to be real.

Renee: “When people come to Auckland, or any city, they want to have an authentic experience. We’re at that tipping point where that is what we want, and that’s what our guests and customers and family and friends want. [But] there are always going to be the people who go to TripAdvisor and follow the Irish octopus man.”

Damaris: “That f**king guy.”

This article was first published in Paperboy magazine.
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Words: Julie Hill
Photos: Meek Zuiderwyk

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