Stuart Cross doesn’t do things by halves.
When he was working in a wine shop, he ended up becoming one of Australia’s leading experts in French wines. When he opened a coffee shop, he starting roasting his own beans. And when he decided to take a holiday, he went on a three month conservation journey across Africa. Three years in a row.
Speaking with Stuart, however, there’s no sense of ego driving his extraordinary career: this laid back surfer from Auckland isn’t driven by big-noting his reputation, but by passion for good produce, happy customers, and, well, rhinos.
Stuart’s story begun over two decades ago when he started his hospitality career at age 19, behind the counter of a bottle shop.
“I managed a liquor store,” says Stuart, “and that led to managing more shops. Then, I moved into more of a speciality wine store, then into brand repping, and finally into specialised French wine tasting.”
By this stage he was ten years into the game, and the industry had changed. Gone were the days of family run wineries and dusty old importers: wine was trending, and was becoming a trendy person’s game. It was time to move on.
With a passion for boutique hospitality and a sophisticated palate to boot, coffee seemed like a natural progression for Stuart. The intricacies of taste that he had spent a decade finessing over a bottle of wine became the perfect base for what would become his new career in coffee.
Just like before, he started at the bottom, getting to know the industry in a coffee shop. From there, he bought his own cafe, and before long, realised that he wanted to get straight to the source and start roasting his own beans.
“What I loved about wine I love about coffee,” says Stuart. “Coffee and wine have very similar tasting wheels - but with coffee, I have more control. I can control the origins and the roasting process, and create the taste I want.”
As a roaster, Stuart found that he could control more than just the taste. He now had a hand in the entire supply chain, and could dictate his own way of dealing with producers, customers, his brand, and his product.
“Quality, sustainability, and lifestyle” were the three pillars of business behind starting up Velvet Coffee Roasters, says Stuart. He wanted to create a brand that produced delicious, interesting flavours. He wanted to have a positive effect on the supply chain with sustainable practices. And he wanted to build a lifestyle of business that was all about human connection.
What this came down to was the bean. After 11 years of working with no holiday, Stuart decided to mix business and pleasure by travelling to Africa. Here, he would be able to fulfill his dream of volunteering with an animal conservation agency - and connect face-to-face with his coffee suppliers.
“One of the best things about the coffee industry is that it’s allowed me to experience travel,” says Stuart. “I’ve been able to go out to the plantations, and bring their stories back home to my customers. I have the ability to show off the origins of the coffee grower in the best possible light.”
From Kenya to Tanzania, Zimbabwe to Uganda, Stuart has travelled Africa meeting with coffee growers and volunteering his time to help save the country’s endangered species. This time spent in Africa cemented something for Stuart: he would commit his business to helping animals. Since his first visit, Stuart has maintained his commitments, with 40c from every bag of coffee beans sold going towards the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. He raised a further $2,000 from local coffee shops by selling his coffee sacks, with the proceeds going to Rhino 911 for a drone to patrol the parks for poachers.
“It’s a real passion of mine,” says Stuart. “Plus, there’s the ‘feel good factor’ for my customers - who doesn’t love an African rhino or elephant?
The diversity of his single-origin blends has created a unique flavour profile that customers of Velvet have come to know and love. With small runs that don’t exceed 400kg per week, Stuart has deliberately kept his operations small in order to maintain a personal touch on his business.
“My coffee is a reflection of who I am, my personality - and that’s something that’s quite unique with the coffee industry,” says Stuart.
From the branding down to his hand-delivered coffee beans, Stuart has committed to personal service and a sense of ‘family’ with his client base. ‘Quality, sustainability, and lifestyle’ remain at the core of his work ethic, and his connection with charity has changed his complete approach to business.
Following his journey has been the team at Silver Chef New Zealand. As a newbie to the world of coffee, Stuart started his journey with just a single espresso machine, eventually working his way up to the full roasting setup.
“I first heard about Silver Chef through my espresso engineers,” says Stuart. “Whilst it was initially for my customers to purchase machines, I ended up looking into it too. I was tired of buying grinders and having them depreciate so quickly. It’s a big hit for a little company.”
With the Silver Chef system, Stuart is able to trade in his grinders regularly, without the hassle of selling off his old machinery and facing a steep loss. His cash flow stays on track, and he has access to the best equipment possible for his business.
Looking ahead, and Stuart looks forward to his next sabbatical in the great plains of the African savanna. It will be his fourth trip back, yet another reminder of what he works so hard to create with his local community: great quality coffee with a heart of gold.