Dry Dock Cafe – serving up great coffee


One of Tauranga’s tiniest cafes is now one of its most successful. During the last eight years the Dry Dock Café has tripled in size and increased its turnover 1000 per cent, thanks to the hard work and vision of its owner, Sandra Johnson.

Sandra describes her purchase of the café as a midlife crisis. “I’d never been in hospitality before but I knew a lot about customer service. We started as the tiny former Sierra coffee bar in Wharf Street, with virtually no kitchen. But from the beginning I knew we had to deliver great coffee and great service, and that philosophy has enabled us to grow.”

In 2014 they expanded next door into the premises of the former Sunrise Café, and the larger floor space and kitchen has opened up a number of opportunities for the popular café.

“I am passionate about supporting our community and we’ve been able to get involved with so many of the city events now we have the capacity. Previously we could seat 40 people (inside and out), now we can seat 100. We hosted ten sold-out performances during the last Tauranga Arts Festival, and prior to that an Alice in Wonderland Tea Party. We regularly host art exhibitions for local artists, and during February we were involved in BikeWise Month.”

Sandra’s goal has always been to create a safe, warm, happy environment for her customers. “I love knowing that someone is comfortable and having a good experience here,” she says.

“We are friends with so many of our regular customers, and we know what kind of coffee they like.  We find ourselves sharing stories and providing comfort to many of them – it’s a bit like the relationship people have with their hairdressers.”

Sharing the load

Sandra’s partner Roger joined the business in 2013 and they’ve proved the old adage that two heads are better than one. “Roger is an engineer by trade and his experience and skills were invaluable during the expansion renovations. But just being able to share the load and bounce ideas off each other has been great,” she says.

She’s eased back to a 6.15am start, rather than the 4.30am of the early days and they’ve just appointed a manager to enable them to put more time into planning and strategy.

Sandra is well known in the CBD, from her 10 years managing key accounts for the Bay of Plenty Times. Support from her former colleagues helped keep her going in the early days, when things were tough at times. She’s been a real estate agent, a factory hand and raised four children, and all of those experiences have helped her build an excellent hospitality business.

“I’ve always loved working with people and the first few years pushed me out of my comfort zone every day.  But I’ve worked hard to get to know customers and it’s really paid off, on so many levels.”

She estimates about 75-80 per cent of her customers are regulars, with many coming in every day for their coffees or lunch. Nowadays there are three chefs and three baristas, and they are humming from 7am till 3pm every day of the week.

“It helps that we are in such a great location,” she says. “We have the waterfront and the playground on one side, and the art gallery up the street. We’re on the sunny side of Wharf Street, so people can sit outside and enjoy the atmosphere.”

Plans for the future

Having the chefs on board has meant they’ve been able to provide catering to the businesspeople in Tauranga, and they’ve won a number of catering contracts in recent years. It’s an area they are keen to expand into, along with getting involved in more events.

Hosting community group meetings after hours is another way Sandra likes to support her customers. “There’s a huge goodwill factor in this business, and it’s humbling being able to support people with really challenging lives.”

Recently Sandra and Roger managed to have a few days off, and she came back with renewed energy and enthusiasm for the next stage. “It’s hard work, but for the right person, it’s awesome.”

Sandra’s five top business tips

Love what you do – it will help you go the extra mile under pressure.

Listen to what your customers need, and provide it.

Welcome your customers – a smile and a friendly word go a long way.

Have good systems in place.

Make sure your staff are on board with your business values.