Find Out How This Māori Restauranteur and Business Shero Is Flipping Tables And Changing The World

By Beau Johns
9th Mar 2020

Damaris Coulter of Coco's Cantina and The Realness

Every day should be International Women’s Day, because no matter who you are, you should always be working to break down barriers to create an equal and enabled world. We hope you spent March 8 thoughtfully, and continue to work to make the planet a better one to live in. 

We had the privilege of speaking to wāhine toa, Damaris Coulter who has pretty much always been working to equalise inequalities in the world. Starting at home in Aotearoa, Damaris and her sister Renee started Coco’s Cantina a decade ago, and is the Māori, family-run restaurant serving amazing Italian-inspired food whilst operating on the values of kindness and supporting their community.

She’s since gone on to create The Realness, another social enterprise making it incredibly simple to find artisan, owner-operated eateries. With eateries around the country and a growing number offshore, it’s now easier than ever to support the little guys with a social conscious who are working hard to bring you wonderful experiences. Damaris talks shop and all the things she’s learnt along the way.

You’ve spent a lot of your life working in hospo, both for others and for yourself. What gave you the confidence to run your own business(es)?

I don’t know if I had confidence, I think I just knew what I didn’t want to do, and that was to work for people or frameworks that didn’t really align with my philosophy or the way I did life. I felt like there had to be a better way of doing business, not that I knew how to do fuckin’ business, cos I fuckin’ didn’t. Renee and I had literally been waitresses for 20 years, we’d always done hospo, and we’d never had a business background. I don’t think we saw business as business. It wasn’t that we had the confidence or didn’t have the confidence to do business, we just knew we wanted to work in a place where it aligned with our ways and we knew that it didn’t exist yet, so we had to create it ourselves. 

What has owning and operating an institution like Coco’s for nine years taught you about the world?

There’s a zillion things Coco’s has taught me across people, places and things. The environment, sustainability, the way we practice ourselves in business, our philosophies, the psychology of people and society, how they eat, move, and think. It’s taught me to definitely have an exit strategy, cos you know, we’re all like, “oh we’re friends, oh we’re family, nothing bad is ever gonna happen”. I think you have to have the right people around you to execute the perfect storm. We were uncompromising in our authenticity and in how we wanted to own and operate a business. Now, if I ever did something again, the biggest thing I would do is to make sure if I don’t know how to do something, I’d outsource it. Everyone’s like, “it’s all in the execution”, and it is, but as well as a perfect idea and timing, to execute your idea successfully, you need to have the perfect team who you can develop and grow as you do. People who share the same vision and philosophy.

You’ve moved on to spearhead another movement—The Realness. Tell us, how did the idea for the platform come to be?

I believe—and this sounds wacky—that the idea was planted in my head from my ancestors. I was chosen to translate it and execute it, and it’s such a privilege to know exactly how you can better the world through this tiny little idea. I was really lucky to travel a lot between 2011 and 2018, and everywhere I went, the signals I was receiving at that time was that the system and the race was fixed. It was happening all over the world, but it was happening very, very strongly in New Zealand. And that was, there were so many hospo groups that were controlled and owned by people not in hospo—advertising agencies, breweries, and casinos who were realising that hospitality was a great game to get into. Like, if they owned a brewery, they could also own a restaurant where they could load all their shit up. So, we the little guys were now in a fixed race with people who were profiting off negative effects of colonisation, gambling, booze and cigarettes and it wasn’t a game we ever wanted to enter. There are also heaps of apps and review sites clipping the ticket off the little guy, telling you they were the boss of how to find these little guys, when all us little guys only ever wanted was to be showcased. We always had to jump through hoops with review sites, food awards and newspaper reviews and adhere to what they wanted. When did there become a whole lot of people making money between you and I, when we just wanted to find you and I? So that’s when it started to happen, this revolt where I was like nah, I want the little guys to be able to be found and seen and visible and for it to be really, really easy.

Not everyone is naturally confident, but from many other women in business we’ve spoken to, being confident is really important. What would you say to people who want to get their ideas off the ground, but struggle with this? 

I find if you’re authentic, your confidence is strong. Some people just have a lot more confidence or are born with it, but I do believe confidence is an earned thing. There’s a difference between being confident in yourself and confident in an idea. If you’re confident in yourself, any idea is probably going to translate with that confidence. If you’re confident in yourself but you’re not confident in your idea, maybe you’ve just got a shit idea. Could be as simple as that. Maybe you need to work in every area of that idea and understand it so that rest of you follows. I believe your confidence gets shaky if you are being dishonest, and it’s usually when people are only in it to make money, or wanting to do something cool instead of doing something they love. People would always be like, there’s this thing with Coco's, there’s this secret with Coco's. It feels different. It’s this. It’s that. It’s really fucking simple. Most of the world doesn’t get to be themselves, or they do, but they choose not to. The reason why Coco's was always a success was because we were always ourselves. Confidence is authenticity. It’s weird that authenticity is discussed like a tip on life. It’s like, dick weed—its called just being yourself. I feel like confidence is you being brave enough to just be you and strong enough to listen to your inner self.

Which woman or women inspires you the most and why? 

There are a few. Anna from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective who does the most phenomenal work for sex workers Australasia. She is a representative for the UN on this topic and is someone who is in the trenches everyday, protecting and bettering conditions and raising awareness for sex workers globally. She’s about indigenous women, she’s just like, next fucking level. Another is Charlotte, who is in the same community as Anna and runs Liston House. It’s emergency housing for people where it’s their last resort. What I’ve witnessed predominantly is people who have been affected by those knock on effects of colonisation. Those two women do work which is unrewarded and unspoken about, and just quietly do it, and it’s because they’re just good people. And of course, my visionary sister Tiffany Jeans of Curionoir. She is the most uncompromising, independent artisan and boutique fragrance-maker who is out there being a role model for so many indigenous people.

What have been some of the most challenging moments you’ve faced in your career?

Definitely exiting Coco’s. That was definitely the most challenging time. Because it was having to decide on changing my role and venturing into The Realness. Coco’s was my child, my art and my form of expressing my ideas in the world. Coco’s was a platform where I could do that easily. If I had an idea about politics or how I wanted to see society or my community change, I could integrate that into Coco’s. Whether it was a community market, a garage sale, creating a happy hour, making art, or changing suppliers with our toilet paper, not having that platform, and then having to go and build a new platform which was completely foreign to me, was massive, and I’m still navigating that. 

What lessons have you learnt along the way?

When I was in my mid twenties I lived in Italy and I loved it so much. I was nannying and working in a bar and I was just happy. And then I met a guy and he was like, I can’t live in Italy anymore, you have to move to London with me if you want to make this work. I remember being like, I don’t want to move to London, I fucking hate that rat race culture. London was the opposite to what I was living in Italy. It ended up being like a flip of a coin. I kind of wish that I hadn’t moved to London because life was just perfection. But on the other side, I had a conversation with my friend's mum who was like, you’ve got to eat the frog. No one wants to eat a fuckin’ frog, but you’ve got to eat the frog. And I was like, what does that mean? I don’t know what that means! It means it’s time. You’ve got comfortable and now it’s time to challenge yourself. No one wants to challenge themselves when they’re comfortable, but that’s when you leave. I remember saying, “if I get a job at Peter Gordon’s restaurant in London, I’ll move”. I got the job. I moved. It was great. And then I got the opportunity to maitre’d at E&O in Notting Hill. Again, I was like I don’t want to. I want to stay where I am. I’m comfortable. My friend's mum was like, it’s time to eat the frog. It was another big time in my career and it was hilarious, I had like a headset on and was serving Kelis, Elton John and Lily Allen. It was the best part of my career stepping into that role, but I was so fearful because I wasn’t ready to go into that next stage. So I suppose there’ve been these times whenever I don’t wanna leave, it’s been these monumental moments when I had to leave to in order to grow.

What does being a woman in 2020 mean to you?

Lol, the same as being a woman in 2019? I just have more responsibility. I just have more fucking work to do to equalise inequalities in the world, to celebrate and uplift indigenous women and people and to rectify the wrongs that corporate greed and western culture is constantly forcing down our throats. If anything I am just highlighting stronger my position on the planet and how much work I’ve got to do. Sometimes the celebration of women brings a kind of flip side mentality, and I don’t like that. To me, there are shit humans on the planet, and good humans on the planet. If anything, being a woman in 2020 to me means ihirangaranga pai. Bring the good vibrations, and promote being a good human. Calling out things that are not just, fair or honest. I’ve got a real clarity around what my job is, and that’s to flip fucking tables. 

The theme for this year's International Women’s Day is Creating an Equal and Enabled World. This is how you live your life and run your businesses, so what advice would you give to others wanting create this kind of life for themselves?

Just be really conscious and connected to your choices. To create an equal and great society, it really is connected to who you spend your money with, who you spend your time with and where you spend your time. Investigate their kaupapa, what they’re about about. When we start being critical and thinking around every choice we make, things will start to equalise.

What are you really excited about for the future?

I’m excited for indigenous peoples’ mana being heard and being implemented. That’s around Papatūānuku, our whenua, our water, our wairua, our choices. Indigenous people around the world have for decades have been saying the same thing: look after the planet, look after the people. Corporate greed and capitalist western culture have constantly ignored that. It’s comical that it’s now cool and mainstream to look after people and the planet. But what excites me is that indigenous people are now the ones leading the conversation. Finally, we’re being heard. Look after the land, look after the people. Everything else will be well. Why would we rather go to Mars and live there when we could live here and everything could be better? So I feel excited about indigenous people, us maybe just being humble and wanting less. Us going back to the realness. Actually, I feel excited about The Realness. I feel excited about people operating and doing things not just for money. I feel excited that indigenous people will be strong and heard and visible. I would also be really happy if I saw the Māori flag on the harbour bridge, not just Waitangi Day. It fucks me off.

Support local, owner-operated eateries by following @therealnessworld on Instagram.

For more chats with game-changing women, check out these 8 female foodies who are totally killing it in Auckland.

Image credit: supplied

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