The man behind Christchurch’s urban renewal

In New Zealand’s second-largest city, ingenuity and passionate locals are giving Christchurch an intriguing new edge.

In New Zealand’s second-largest city, ingenuity and passionate locals are giving Christchurch an intriguing new edge.

When a devastating earthquake struck Christchurch in 2011, creative and passionate locals were determined to use the opportunity to reimagine the city. Sam Crofskey, owner of C-1 Espresso Café, was one of the first to breathe new life into the central business district.

On any morning, Sam Crofskey and his baristas are hard at work operating the espresso machines. As the early-morning sun streams into Christchurch’s C-1 Espresso café, a mixed crowd are sipping cappuccinos or lattes, or biting into corn and coriander fritters and bacon and cream-cheese bagels.

You might spot young mothers, academics, architects, businesspeople, tourists and quite possibly Christchurch’s former mayor Garry Moore at the city café – a frequent visitor and fan. “There’s a really eclectic mix of people,” says Crofskey. “Some cafés will appeal to a particular kind, perhaps soccer mums, or corporates. C-1 is really diverse with its customer base. It’s people who like good things and we tend to be able to deliver on that stuff.”  

The story of how Crofskey built a new café after his old one was destroyed in the 2011 earthquake that devastated New Zealand’s second-largest city is one of perseverance and ingenuity. Like so many creative Christchurch locals, Crofskey, saw an opportunity not just to rebuild but to reimagine his business. And while the central business district that bore the brunt of the quake is still a work in progress, visitors to Christchurch who know where to look are certainly well-rewarded.

When the second of two strong quakes hit on February 22, 2011, directly underneath the city at lunchtime, 185 people were killed. The city’s older masonry buildings crumbled and hundreds of high-rise buildings have since been demolished. 

The old C-1 was destroyed. When Crofskey reopened the café in High Street in November 2012 in one of the few heritage buildings left standing, it was the first permanent café to re-open in the central city. C-1’s phoenix-like rise has won plaudits for Crofskey, but he dismisses the praise. “People said, ‘You are so brave’... Look, I’m not resilient, I just didn’t know what else to do.” 

But coffee – a strong shot of espresso – is clearly in Crofskey’s blood. He has an engineering degree but ended up working in hotels in Wellington, Christchurch and Melbourne. Then, in 1996, he decided to buy a café, C-1, in Christchurch, together with his wife, Fleur. “I was just going to work in a coffee shop and revaluate my life and get a real job. That was the idea.”

The café took off. The inner-city neighbourhood on High Street was gentrifying, its heritage buildings home to antique shops and boutique fashion outlets. “We had the goal of being the best café in Christchurch,” he says. “We tried to give good service and offer high quality and we started winning a bunch of awards.”

C-1 pioneered concepts that, for Christchurch, were new at the time. It employed a barista (a correspondent to the local paper complained that nobody knew how to spell “barrister”). It served chai, loose-leaf teas, flat whites, lattes and cappuccinos. It was the largest café in New Zealand, with 250 seats. It stayed open until late, seven days a week, when other cafés closed at 3pm.  

Then came the earthquake. There were about 100 diners in the café at the time, but Crofksey practised what he had learnt from earlier quakes and kept them inside until the first quake ended. This was just as well, as the café’s brick façade fell into the street. Other buildings on the street collapsed and the whole area was evacuated and declared a disaster zone. The café was damaged beyond repair.

The couple’s house, in the central city, was also “totalled”. Cracks opened up in the ground all over Christchurch; one ran right through the centre of their home and severed the cable supplying power to the city. Despite the fact that both their home and business were destroyed – and Fleur was heavily pregnant with their son Harrison – the couple moved in with Fleur’s parents and began the long and arduous journey towards relaunching the café.

Looking for a new site in the year following the earthquake proved daunting. The Army maintained a cordon around the inner city, allowing access only to residents. “I brought my BMX from home [to the central city], hard-hat on, hi-viz, and it was hairy, it was frightening,” says Crofskey.

He eventually settled on a steel-reinforced 83-year-old post office building, which had been built specifically to withstand earthquakes following the powerful 1931 earthquake that had destroyed the North Island city of Napier. 

The site proved perfect for the new C-1, which took over the front part of the building, with Alice in Videoland, a video store specialising in arthouse films, at the back. Crofskey oversaw extensive renovations, stripping the building back to reveal its sturdy concrete columns and making a lobby with two entrances. “People coming in can see that it’s strong,” he says.

He also installed solar panels and planted a small vineyard on the roof, and established a vegie garden out front. Last year, the vineyard netted 55 bottles of pinot noir, produced together with Black Estate in Waipara, North Canterbury. Crofskey has more plans to turn the rest of the building into a hotel. 

When the new café opened, Crofskey says he arrived to find people queuing outside after the local newspaper mistakenly said it was opening two days earlier. With no staff and rushed off his feet, he ended up giving away coffee for free to start with. People loved it.

The café décor is distinctly quirky, not least because of a network of pneumatic tubes that runs along the ceiling and snakes down into the dining area. You can even order a “Pneumatic Slider” meal and staff will whizz your burger to you at 100km/hr.

The artworks and menus are filled with cartoons and stories (many with a political take) and can prove controversial. 

Yet Crofskey’s approach to the food and coffee is entirely serious. “We grow coffee in Samoa: we have these families and we work with them and the idea is that we give them the expertise to set up a business to supply us.” Everything else is local: C-1 grows its own vegetables and has eight cows to supply its own milk. The milk is pasteurised and bottled in glass bottles that are recycled."

There are now more cafés in Christchurch than there were before the earthquake, says Crofskey. There are also plenty of innovative restaurants and bars. Near C-1 on High Street there’s a colourful and quirky bar and burger restaurant called Smash Palace named after a classic Kiwi film. And just across the river, the Victoria Street precinct is the city’s newest 'eat street' with bars and restaurants including Latino/Mexican influenced Mexicanos and moody South East Asian King of Snake.

“It’s the young people who are going to make this place interesting,” says Crofskey. “That’s what’s happening now. The city feels alive, it feels vibrant, it feels full of hope and opportunity, there’s no doubt about that. If you want to give something a go, you can.”

Sam’s five local favourites

Godley Heads: “Regardless of the weather this is a quick and easy reminder as to why Christchurch is home.” For expansive views of the city, from the Pacific Ocean to the Southern Alps, take a 40-minute drive from the city via Ferry Rd to Sumner, then follow the signs.

Riccarton Markets: “A sandwich from our friends at Bao Down is always the first call at these very social markets.”  Every Sunday 9am - 2pm at Riccarton Park (146 Racecourse Rd).

Pop up markets and events: “Christchurch is ever changing and the 'First Thursdays' eclectic, performance art market is a highlight of the calendar.” Monthly, on first Thursday 5 – 9pm, in various locations in Sydenham.  

Lyttelton: “The port town provides a great escape from the city, and is never complete without enjoying the coffee at the rebuilt Lyttelton Coffee Company. The views from their new deck are worth the short trip alone.” Lyttelton Coffee Company (29 London St, Lyttelton) is open 7am – 4pm (Mon – Fri), 8am – 4pm (Sat and Sun).

The post-quake hospitality scene:  “I’m certain there are not enough hours in the day (or night) to go to the new places that are springing up - food markets, food trucks, new restaurant, bars, cafés and precincts. We enjoy the regular haunts as much as checking out all the new places.” 

How to Get There
In New Zealand’s South Island, Christchurch is the country’s second-largest city. It has an international airport, and there are regular flights from other domestic centres.

Best Time to Visit
In autumn, the changing of the leaves makes the city’s historic districts especially beautiful. With ski areas such as Porters and Mt Hutt nearby, you can enjoy a winter wonderland. Known as “the Garden City”, Christchurch comes to life in spring, while summer is an opportunity to enjoy some of the city’s 40 safe swimming beaches. 

How to Book
C-1-Espresso is located at 185 High Street, Christchurch. The café is open from 7am to 10pm every day and no bookings are required. Because of road closures and changing access due to construction activity, it is advisable to park elsewhere and walk. Otherwise, take a bus to the nearby Bus Interchange in Colombo Street. 

What’s Nearby
Head to the Re:Start Mall in Cashel Street with its innovative shipping-container shops. At the end of this vibrant precinct, you come to the Avon River, where punting is still available for tourists. 

Stroll through Cathedral Square, with the ruined ChristChurch Cathedral in the centre. The Transitional Cathedral, also known as the 'cardboard cathedral', designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, is on nearby Madras Street.

Stop in New Regent Street, with its quirky 1930s Spanish Mission-style shops and cafés and the grand, newly restored Isaac Theatre Royal.

Board an historic tourist tram that runs on a loop through the central city, or take a walking tour that leaves from outside Canterbury Museum in the Botanic Gardens – the best way to fully understand the evolving Christchurch story.