Grounded: Coffee & Investments w/ Jesse Neilson of Neighbour Cafe

Tucked away in Auckland’s suburb of Grey Lynn is Neighbour, a quaint and unassuming cafe founded by Jesse Neilson. Step through the door and you are greeted by a modern, clean and aesthetically pleasing space. Jesse talks to us about how he’s built a business in a largely saturated market, what it means to have a point of difference in hospitality and how personal interests can shape a business.

Give us a bit of a background into who you are, Jesse?

I was born and raised in Hawke’s Bay, and grew up in an art and design-focused family. Dad was a toolmaker by trade, and Mum a photographer. I grew up appreciating all things well-made. While I never enjoyed school, I was always thinking about ideas I could bring to life and that meant I spent a lot of time creating things in Dad's woodshed. My creative spirit and influences as a kid have definitely influenced the business and life I have today.

I started out my hospitality journey in Wellington in 2010 slinging pints at the Cambridge Hotel, and over the years I slowly migrated through various roles in the industry from bar to venue manager - all being very restaurant/nightclub focused.

On a bit of a whim I headed over to Melbourne. A friend had called and said they had a room going at their place and I just packed up and went. I got a gig in St Kilda and worked away in a few venues, until another friend got in touch who wanted me to help them start a cafe in the heart of South Yarra. It was a multi-million dollar venture, and it was big - we were getting through about 65kg to 70kg of coffee a week  and that got me into the depths of the coffee industry and cafe management.

What was it like being in Melbourne? Is the hospitality and coffee industry saturated or was there (and is there) still pockets of opportunity?

Melbourne was great. It’s a creative city with an amazing food and beverage scene. I think because the market in Melbourne was - and is - so saturated, it provokes new venues to better than everyone else otherwise they’ll quickly drown. It also means the established businesses need to constantly adapt to keep things fresh and change with market trends.

Some of the best new venues coming to market in Melbourne today are reclaimed milk bars and small hole-in-the-wall shops in the outer suburbs. It's great to see these cool spaces being turned into some of Australia's top spots. These new venues are something different and are executed really well. There’s still opportunity there, you just have to execute to a high standard.

How does the industry in Melbourne differ from Auckland? What parallels have you drawn and what differences are there?

The cities are surprisingly similar. The coffee industry as a whole follows most of the same patterns and trends worldwide. At the end of the day, green coffee beans all come from the same places around the world.

Because Melbourne has a bigger population, it’s more open to, or maybe just quicker to adopt innovation and new trends. That said, I'm seeing similar things happen here in Auckland too. In fact, all around the country, we're seeing some beautiful spots opening up in less populated areas such as Hawke’s Bay, Tauranga, right down to Dunedin and Queenstown.

Now to Neighbour, tell us about how it started and the story behind it.

I was looking for a way to get back to New Zealand without going into a 'job'. My partner was here in Auckland and I was over in Melbourne and we wanted to be in the same city. I didn’t want to go and work for someone else - I knew I wanted my own business.

This space came up in Grey Lynn and I started the process of taking on the lease. I did my due diligence, and I loved the creative, young family energy of the area. It was certainly a challenge because Covid was in its early stages, and just as we were settling on the lease agreement, New Zealand went into lockdown. This meant I basically had to get my lawyers to renegotiate clauses to save me from losing out down the track due to further lockdowns.

In terms of branding, I worked with Logan at Sunday Best to come up with a brand identity and name for the cafe. They did a fantastic job encompassing the local, neighbourhood coffee shop I was going for. After a couple more lockdowns and small setbacks, I packed up in Melbourne, spent my 2 weeks in quarantine, and a further 3 weeks getting the cafe ready with the help of Mum, Dad and my partner Jess.

As a cafe is it hard to stand out? What do you rely on being a point of difference? Is it location, coffee/food, atmosphere - is there something you feel Neighbour encapsulates?

I believe a venue needs to create an environment people want to be around. I can never stress this enough with my staff. Find things in common with customers. Relationships are key to standing out. Anyone can serve good food or coffee. It takes something more to create a space people want to be around.

In saying that, you also have to make sure all the small things are being done well. I never want to half-arse anything - I hold myself and the business to a high standard. Keeping the place clean, the coffee and food up to scratch and being well presented on all counts. If you can do all this, you're a winner in my eyes.

What’s involved with starting up a cafe? I assume there’s the lease, staff, suppliers and fitting out the space. Are there certain hidden costs or unexpected elements that most people don’t realise?

Ah, the unglamorous side of the business. People often romanticise owning a cafe. In actual fact, 80% of the day-to-day is dealing with suppliers and late deliveries, accountants, lawyers and making sure staff are under control. If you go into the business with this in mind, you'll be fine. If you go in thinking it's all fun and games, you'll learn to resent it.

When we first conceptualised Neighbour, I began with a reasonably tight budget which inevitably blew out. I wanted to make sure I was working within my means and budgeting for a few extra expenses but it's surprising how easy it is to spend money on things you just don't know you need, especially when you’re getting started. Coffee equipment is expensive, not to mention lawyers and accountants. It’s just hard to know how much to budget for some of that stuff [laughs].

In today’s day and age how important is social media for a cafe? Do you feel an impact from it?

It’s extremely important! But it can be difficult to understand the return on investment, because it's hard to measure a social media audience actually turning into revenue. Social media is a ‘known unknown’ for me, but I always back myself on having something online, a story or an Instagram post or something, and someone will see it.

I'm a firm believer in being top of mind. If for example, an Instagram post of our food offering gets out to a follower on a Saturday morning and that influences their decision to come down for a pastry and coffee, it's done its job.

Personally what I love about Neighbour is the things you’ve mentioned - the social media, the space and the coffee. One stand out feature or nuance is that I can just relax and be on my laptop for a period of time or catch up with a friend. It really does feel a part of the neighbourhood and is somewhat of a community space rather than a typical “cafe”. How do you think you’ve managed to do this?

A business brand generally reflects an owner's personality. I chose a holistic approach to our brand instead of trying to create something that we're not. I'm a pretty laid back guy and I wanted to feel that flow through into the shop. A coffee run for most people is an important part of the day where they can switch off and unwind from whatever it is they're doing that day. We want them to feel welcome and relaxed as they walk through the door.

I also wanted Neighbour to be more of a destination; to be located somewhere less cluttered in terms of other coffee shops in the area. I wanted to back myself on the fact that if our coffee is top notch and the food is good and the environment is nice, people will come. I also wanted to be a neighbourhood space for those who live in the area, and I think we’ve achieved that.

You definitely have achieved that and it's refreshing to see a more relaxed environment. I know that outside of the business, you’re into a bit of art collecting, alternative investments etc. What’s your approach when it comes to picking art?

Yeah, I have a few pieces I’m quite proud of - some Kaws, some Bearbrick, some Lego and I’ve just got into Pokemon cards [laughs]. I guess the Pokemon cards are moving away from ‘traditional art’ but I’ll always give something a go.

There will always be a value aspect - I want collecting to be a generational thing. Mum and Dad were into the local art scene growing up and they have lots of pieces - their house is like a gallery. My grandparents didn’t have much involvement in that sort of thing but I always appreciated growing up around these beautiful things.

I guess I have an eye for things that will hold their value - that’s part of the appeal of watches as I definitely look to grow my collection over the next few years. The trusty G-Shock has seen me well through hospo but I’m definitely after some nicer pieces.

What are your eyes set on?

I really like the Tudor Black Bay 58, it would be a good day-to-day workhorse for me in the cafe without being too flashy as well. I play a bit of golf as well so it fits well with my lifestyle. For nights out with my partner, weddings and occasions I would love to get my hands on a vintage Rolex Datejust with a white gold bezel.

Both excellent options. I can definitely see you wearing the Tudor for many years to come. What's your approach when it comes to collecting?

My approach is definitely about things I can enjoy personally. I don’t buy artwork I don’t want to put on my wall. I don’t want to buy a watch to keep it in a drawer. I want to know I can use these things and they will hold their value.

I'm glad you hold those values, a lot of people across all those facets only purchase it because of its "resell" value or "hype".

That's not what it's about, you should enjoy the stuff you own and it builds character with you.

Totally. So what's next for the cafe and yourself going into 2022 and beyond?

I'm constantly looking out for new venues, and want to expand the business. As we move on from Covid, I’m sure there will be some nuggets of gold out there. I like the idea of smaller venues - cafes or wine bars, just something with a smaller footprint that you can focus on delivering a high quality experience.

Something I plan on doing (outside of business) is to grow my watch collection so no doubt we'll be in touch about that over the course of the year!

Thanks for your time Jesse. You can find Neighbour at:

2A Hakanoa Street
Grey Lynn
Auckland 1021

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