Small town gets big city flavour amid pandemic

By Stefan Dimitrof

For most people the idea of starting a business amid the pandemic wouldn't have been appealing. Starting a café? Even less so with the restrictions in place for the hospitality industry. For Te Teko native Tasha Dimitrof (Ngāti Awa) and her partner Canadian export Nathaniel Koko Jones though, they found an opportunity in the market too good to pass up. The family saw a unique opportunity to bring high-quality artisan coffee to small-town Aotearoa, and that’s exactly what they did. In the heart of Whakatāne in the Bay of Plenty the coffee brew bar Volk & Co was born.

Just before the morning rush Tasha sat down for a cuppa to tell us how she did it.

Where did your passion come from to start this business?

Ultimately my passion comes down to my love and obsession for food, coffee and Café culture – I have always loved food – possibly a little too much– but I knew from a very young age I want to own a business that worked with food and serving the community. And after working in a speciality coffee roastery for 5 years my passion for coffee grew, and that when I started forming and solidifying the ideas that became Volk and Co. What lead me to open my own business after 14 years working in the industry for other people, gaining valuable experience and insight – is I knew I could do something amazing if given the right opportunity, and covid provided that opportunity. Even when people said it was crazy to start a new business, let alone a hospitality business now of all times - when so many in the hospitality sector are crying out in pain and closing their doors because they have had enough – I decide to buck the trend and take advantage of new available spaces and make something that is mine. Mine to mould and change as it needs to – to be more flexible and adaptable and thrive.

What is the name of your Café?

I came up with the name about two years ago and was one of about 15 names I had kicking around for possible names for the business. But every time I kept going back to the name I chose for the business. The name of my coffee brew bar is Volk and Co, which is named after my German Shepard Volk, and he is also the symbol of the business –a lone wolf head. The word Volk in my Grandfather's native language means wolf (even though the spelling isn’t the same) and I want a strong memorable name for my brand and a unique symbol and stood out from the throngs of cafes – and Volk and Co just ticked all those boxes.  

How long has the business been operating?

We are just over 2 months old – opened our doors October 23rd 2021 – so we are a very new business!

How many staff do you have employed?

I originally started out just myself full time and my partner and parents helping as I need it– as a new business just opening after the latest rounds of Covid lock downs, I wasn’t certain that people want to stray too far from their local café’s and try something new – so I started out a bit understaffed at the beginning.

Now I have three new staff members joining my team to help with the staff shortage, but Covid has made it really difficult to get staff in my area in particular – as we relied on travellers to fill in the summer work gap and Covid has made travel between cities and countries very difficult.

How has Covid impacted your business? Did you have to let go of your staff?

I had found two amazing staff members and unfortunately, I had to let them go at the beginning of December due to the vaccine mandate for hospitality staff. I respect their personal decisions, but for such a new business I could not risk incurring that fine – we are just too little.

I would also say that the next biggest impact of Covid has been hampering our potential growth - as locals and domestic tourists have not been out in numbers like they have in previous years and especially with the Auckland lockdown it has been that much more noticeable for our area.

How is your business doing?

Well since we are so new, we don’t have a previous year haha! However, since opening we have grown considerably in the past month and weekly we break records that we had only set the pervious week!

Vaccine passes have you had any issues?

I believe since I am such a new business, it has worked in my favour in regard to how vaccine passports being implemented and how people have reacted to those changes. I have no regulars that have been coming to me for years, none of my customers expect special treatment and I was upfront from the time the doors opened, that if regulations change - I will change to meet them. I have only had one negative reaction and I believe the person didn’t do it on purpose to make a scene and get attention, but that was within the first week of the vaccine pass and since then I have had no issues. Everyone has been nothing but polite and understanding which I have been very grateful for and feeling very lucky, with all things considered and compared to how many other hospitality staff and businesses have been treated. I have tried to accommodate my customers to the best of my ability and provide as many options as possible to still enjoy a great cup of coffee no matter what you've personally decided to do.

What’s the most popular dish on your menu?

Oh that is a hard one, in terms of sheer numbers – the classic Flat white coffee is king! However, if you are talking about the coffee that brings the most new customers through the door and also has the most hype, I would say the Volk and Co style – Vietnamese Iced Coffee wins hands down.

Volk & Co is on Boon St in Whakatāne.