Matt's observations

Matt works for us a couple of days a week whilst he studies among other things Spanish and Sociology at Victoria University.
This is the unedited version of his observations of Nikau as part of one of his Sociology papers.
I thought it has captured a nice take on cafes and Nikau in particular.

It’s freezing outside. Howling rain is driven sideways by damaging winds that can only be described as arctic. As I approach one of the three entrances to 101 Wakefield Street, the very aspect of escaping the elements excites me and I am almost enthusiastic about the prospect of starting my observation. From outside and through the foggy glass, I can make out a number of figures, some seated, some appear to be standing waiting, while the rest dressed predominately in black rush about with purpose and determination. This is a familiar place, a place where I am recognized and where I recognize faces. As I enter I am greeted with assorted hellos, brief smiles (some resemble the generic kind everybody gets when entering a café) and one look of confusion. As if to help rectify this look of confusion I imitate the very same look, and to that the Maître D inquires, “what are you doing here on your day off? I smile and reply, “school work” and take a perch at the bar, remove my pad, my pen, and order a coffee (she understands that when I say coffee, I want a flat white, only through repetition does she know this).

Nikau gallery café is an architecturally designed space inside the city gallery. Four days a week nikau is where the majority of my everyday life activities take place, however today I intend to observe and document the everyday activities of the staff and customers that inhabit and navigate this busy space. Through this observation I intend to offer and insight into how supposedly naturally occurring action is a foundation for understanding behavior and the way we act within certain social settings. Often the most mundane externalities of life are expressions of the wider social and cultural order. The boundaries that establish nikau as a space separate from the art works hanging inside the city gallery or the giant globe in civic square are walls, windows and doors. Some glass, some concrete, some state opening hours and others simply state ‘staff only’. In society we understand that walls and doors act as silent signposts establishing one thing or place from another.

From my stool I can see nikau consists of one bar, eight stools, one coffee machine, four sinks, one dishwasher, one glass cabinet, five fridges, three tills (all complete with cordless eftpos), various tables, chairs and benches. There is one barista making coffee, a handful of waitress’s and three chefs who move hastily around a stainless steel kitchen. In New Zealand we identify this space as a café, although I can see no evidence stating this. Inside there are two areas that harbor the vast majority of tables, chairs and customers. These seated areas are designed around consumption in the form of eating and drinking. From what I can see it also appears that these areas encourage numerous other aspects of socialization often associated with eating and drinking, for example chatting, flirting, waiting, etc. Nikau is an aesthetically pleasing space; exposed pipes, tasteful light fixtures and the sweet sound of the fleet foxes create an enjoyable and relaxing environment. This space can be identified not only as a cafe, but also as a business.

My position at the bar can be considered an area indiscriminate of specifically dinning or drinking. Customers use it as place to wait for friends, coffee or for an available table. The gentleman two stools to my left, waits patiently for this bacon and eggs while browsing the dominion post. I notice him listening to me explain what I’m working on to another member of staff and he seems interested. I return to writing but cannot help notice he remains focused on me. I look up and meet his confused gaze with my eyes as if to answer his stare. He looks perplexed and appears to be wondering why I’m where I am, doing what I’m doing, as if a café is simply a place to eat. He indicates too what I’m writing and inquires “couldn’t you just make it up?” I think for a second and then reply “yeah I suppose I could, but that’s not really the point.” After another brief explanation about what I’m trying to accomplish, he replies: “oh, so its like thirty minutes inside the life of a barista.” In order to avoid another lengthy explanation (third so far) I reply “yeah kind of” and return to writing again. Already it appears that for some people cafes are simply places orientated towards food and coffee rather than alternative activities. This raises an interesting point in regards to the different activities two objects (that share the same purpose) encourage, for example a table and a bar. Both are used for eating, drinking, reading, etc. A bar can be labeled a communal space that encourages interaction and communication with strangers that share one thing in common, location. A table on the other hand is isolated somewhat from others. Waitress’s can be heard showing customers to ‘their table’. It appears that in this setting a table possesses a far more private and personal function.

Inside nikau there is a constant buzz of communication; people laughing, chatting, explaining and ordering. It would appear communication is an integral part of this space. The very presence of customers suggests that they know or rather recognize this space and the service it provides. New customers are greeted by the same smiles and assorted greetings such as “hey, how ya doing? You after some coffee or some food?” Communication in the form of a question is used to decipher which. Terms such as ‘flat white’ and ‘dolly’ are used to express preference in regards to coffee. To an individual not familiar with such terms, they would appear alien, which suggests that participating in this particular space requires a certain amount of commonsense and local knowledge. New forms of participation are constantly being reconstituted and reproduced. Everyday people create alternative uses for spaces and discover new ways of fleshing out their everyday lives.

It is almost 11am and I am surprised at the unusual amount of customers. From the end of the bar, next to the door, I can count about twenty people. Of those twenty people I can see men in suits, mothers with children and also pairs of diners. 11am is not traditionally associated with breakfast or lunch and it appears that the majority of customers simply sits and chats over coffee. However this is not the case for all. I recognize two familiar faces from the city gallery next to me at the bar and one alternatively dressed unfamiliar face (who I assume to be an artist). All three huddle over a piece of a4 paper that looks like an email and discuss its content. They do not order coffee and do not order food. They are not berated by an overly eager waitress and almost seem non-existent. It would appear that in this situation this space labeled as a café, acts as an alternate location for work. In contemporary society the boundaries between work and pleasure have been blurred. Everyday individuals create new ways of navigating their daily lives that make them appear more bearable.

This raises an interesting question, that in order to participate in this space, does one have to actively participate in purchasing? If we refer to the gallery staff previously mentioned who bought nothing, it would appear not. However, I understand that in society it is considered somewhat of a ‘faux pas’ to sit inside a café and not buy anything. What’s interesting is that nowhere does it state (that I can see) you must buy something. In order to avoid disruption or confrontation it appears people conform to unspoken rules regarding purchases. Therefore we can make the conclusion that the vast majority of individuals need money to participate in this space.

The torrential rain and persistent wind show no sign of letting up and batter the glass wall to which I have my back. There is a constant flow of customers who on entering discard heavy jackets and scarfs often with a grunt or slight ‘whoa’. I over hear our Maître D mutter to one customer “pretty horrible out there huh.” It appears that on cold, wet, miserable days nikau acts as a place of refuge rather than a specific destination. Individuals identify nikau as familiar space where one can escape the elements. Nikau can be viewed as an escape route, even if it is only a temporary one.

At almost 12 30 the atmosphere inside nikau has changed dramatically. Changes are reflected in the shear amount of diners, bustling atmosphere, and intensity of production. People inside the kitchen wearing checkered pants, we recognize as chefs, shout numbers that front of house appear to understand as tables. Front of house can be seen rushing off and returning relaying information regarding diner’s progress. There is an unspoken sense of urgency in everything the staff do. Customers who mill around the bar waiting to be seated shuffle out of the way, helping to form a clear path for waitress’s laden with plates to travel. It appears that this influx of customers conform to generic hours associated with ‘lunch’. This conformity may be directly related to other integrated aspects of everyday life, such as work constraints. For example the majority of organizations and companies in New Zealand structure their working day around the hours of 9am to 5pm. These hours are often associated with companies and businesses rather than trades who may start and finish earlier. Considering nikau’s location (101 Wakefield street) and judging by the amount of men in suits and woman in office attire one can make the connection that the vast majority of customers work nearby. Limited time constraints in regards to work, in conjunction with everyday life externalities such as eating create a situation where nikau acts, as a venue for the integration of activities deemed enjoyable and necessary.

It been almost three hours and four free flat whites since I arrived. It appears most of the lunch crowd have been seated and are enjoying there lunch. Front of house staff pace around the till and scour the seated customers, almost specifically looking for someone or something lost. In this setting it appears that eye contact acts as a form of silent communication, a way of asking for assistance without actually asking for assistance. Through socialization and repeated exposure to such settings customers understand or rather learn how cafés work and the role a waiter or waitress plays. In this case, customers actively participate in this space by using their bodies to relay the idea of assistance. However if this glance lasts anything more than briefly the meaning can be interpreted entirely different. A look that lasts longer than a second (in this setting) can be interpreted as annoyance or displeasure, a silent signpost signifying or rather suggesting incompetence and annoyance. This can be compared with passing a stranger on the street. A brief glance signifies acknowledgement while a longer stare my signify aggression or confrontation.
In order to successfully participate in the setting, without causing confusion or disruption, individuals must be able to distinguish appropriate times for employing unspoken and unconscious forms of communication. It appears that in spaces like nikau where noise is a constant factor, individuals use their bodies in alternative ways to communicate more proficiently.

After watching what seems like half of Wellington consume their lunch, I realize that I am also reasonably hungry. I ask my neighbor at the bar if I could possibly borrow his redundant menu and browse the two-sided slip of paper. One side titled ‘lunch menu served between 11 30am and 3pm’ lists meals and accompanying prices. I see interesting words like radicchio, chestnuts and ricotta gnocchi that sound appetizing. I flip the paper over to reveal a page titled ‘wine list’. My eyes wander over assorted chardonnays and pinot noirs available by the glass or by the bottle and settle on one Emerson’s pilsner. I look around and notice a large number of diners sit at tables accompanied by bottles of wine and handles of beer, which is bit surprising given its two o’clock on a wet Wednesday afternoon. Does this space and those similar, encourage the idea of extravagance and indulgence? And if so, is this the appeal for individuals? Does this space, and the everyday activities that encompass it justify other acts that in other situations may be seen as inappropriate? For example a tradesman opening a bottle of wine over lunch in between fixing your roof may be frowned upon. Where in this setting a businessman can share a bottle of wine over lunch and return to work without anybody batting an eyelid. It appears that nikau and other similar settings justify activities not traditionally acceptable in New Zealand, like drinking during the day. I mentioned New Zealand specifically because in other nations, such as France, drinking during the day is a far more common and traditionally acceptable act.

I decide against ordering lunch and begin to assemble my hastily and messily written notes. The last three hours have been an interesting experience and have raised some thought provoking questions. I am surprised at the large extent communication plays in this space. I have witnessed unspoken forms of communication incorporating bodies that rely on commonsense understandings to provide meaning. It appears that individuals understand this space and actively participate in the activities associated with socializing that it encourages and promotes. Individuals also realize that these activities are not specific and not set in stone, rather they are open for negotiation. Individuals previously mentioned, such as the gallery staff are beginning to push the boundaries. Other aspects of socializing generally associated with different times of the day, such as drinking are being incorporated and justified in this setting. Nikau acts as a venue where individuals can participate and manipulate the integrated aspects of their daily lives, in order to make them seem more bearable.


  1. A lovely piece of writing. Makes you think about how complicated everyday life is... how much we all know without consciously being aware of having learned.

    It would be interesting to see if the author were to choose another place with less "history" than Nikau to do an alternate observation, if things were markedly different.

    The sense of Nikau's place geographically (adjacent to several public spaces) and historically (a decade of building a staunchly loyal clientele) combine to make it a place where many feel a sense of custody over.

    I know I feel far more "at home" at Nikau than any other establishment.
    I'd love to see the author reprise his observations elsewhere.

  2. I liked it so much and very interesting, too! Thanks for sharing the experience.
    Wonderful post, really great tips and advice:)
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