Who says you can’t find a good coffee and a pie in the US? Rebecca Barry meets the Kiwi who has taken Downunder cuisine to the Big Apple.
Snow is falling in Brooklyn, New York, and Prospect Park is crunchy underfoot. It's times like these a Kiwi away from home hankers for a hot flat white but being the United States you're more likely to get black filter coffee with a nasty pottle of creamer.
Unless you head to the Dub Pie Shop on the corner of Prospect Park West and 16th Street. This cosy corner store is an Antipodean oasis, where lattes come second on the menu to flat whites, good old Kiwi meat pies fill the pie warmer and door-stopper-sized lamingtons and jars of Vegemite are for sale in the cabinet.
On the blackboard menu there's an altruistic option to buy a coffee for a friend to pick up on their next visit, under which the names Taika (as in Waititi) and Raj (as in That Indian Guy) are scrawled. Dub music gently thrums through the walls. But the weirdest thing about this scene is that over the next two hours this shop will continue to fill up with locals, rather than Kiwis, looking for their fix of New Zealand fare.
It's a strange scene: New Yorkers wrapped in long coats and scarves lining up to warm themselves with the kinds of things we enjoy in our jandals. Most are regulars, says Kiwi owner Gareth Hughes, who opened this shop three years ago. He had an inkling it would work in New York but was still surprised when the concept took off. It might sound unpatriotic but Hughes has branded the pie shop as a place where you can find New Zealand and Australian-style fare. It was his insurance policy against peeving off Aussies when he first opened the shop, the first of its kind in New York.
"I didn't want them to say, 'oh it's a New Zealand place, f*** that, I'm not going'," says the entrepreneur. "And I think New Zealanders would say the same thing if we said it was only an Australian place. So we pitched it as South Pacific, Downunder. We don't want to go kitsch with it, we don't want to go overboard with kiwis and kangaroos. That's not what we're about. It's about the feel more than anything else."
Hughes came up with the name Dub before realising that could stand for Down Under Bakery, and before it dawned that Irish folk, particularly those from the capital, might find something comforting in the name too. As for New Yorkers cottoning on to the concept, there's another convenient tie-in: dub music comes from Jamaica and in New York the closest thing to a meat pie is a Jamaican patty.
"Every day we get asked, 'what's a flat white?' A flat white is very Antipodean. They come in and it's the first thing on the menu ... Or people come in and they go, 'where's the apple pie?' or 'where's the cherry pie?' It happens every day. That's the biggest step we've had to go through in getting this far, educating people."
Hughes also sells Dub Pies to pubs and occasionally caters events. The shop sells 5000 items a week, including those delectable-looking lamingtons.
Foodwise, you can find just about anything in New York but it takes a certain amount of gumption to convince Manhattan-ites to eat like Antipodeans. Hughes doesn't even have a background in food. From 1988-1994 he bartended and eventually managed the Gluepot cafe, the now-extinct icon of Ponsonby's music-foodie strip. His ticket to the US came via a job with a multinational recruitment company, which sent him to work in California for a year and Oregon for three. He arrived in New York in 2000, keen on becoming a writer. When he was made redundant, he went back to bartending "just so I could say I did it in New York". He also took a gig as a yellow cab driver, with a view to coming home with gritty tales from the streets each night.
Then 9/11 happened and Hughes jumped back into the bartending game, knowing he could make more money. Next came an incongruous leap from serving drinks and driving Manhattan locals home to helping in the wake of tragedy - taking a job managing the disaster assistance centre for 9/11.
He returned home to recharge, and to look for a business idea that would transplant well from New Zealand to New York. During that period he ate a lot of comfort food and midway through eating a pie, he had his lightbulb moment.
Hughes researched how to make pies and returned to the US, where he roped in a chef mate to work on recipes together. With the basic skills in place, he launched his quintessential Kiwi business in 2003, with no idea of the hurdles that were about to come his way.
Progress was fast. Having lodged the necessary papers with all the city's authorities, Hughes was in business. Except one vital component got lost in translation. Hughes wasn't out to make pies familiar to Americans - apple, cherry, pumpkin. Somehow, he says, they didn't hear him say "meat".
Selling meat products requires Federal approval and Hughes should have undergone a strict, two-year monitoring process he says he didn't know to pursue following their conversation.
Two years after the wholesale operation was launched, the Feds showed up with their gold badges and shut down the entire operation. Fortunately he'd just taken over a bakery in Red Hook, a trendy neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Hughes ran the cafe and went about adhering to the proper regulations to sell his meat pies.
Two years later he opened the Prospect Park cafe. The pies sold well but it soon became clear that Red Hook, gripped by the recession, wasn't the up-and-coming neighbourhood he'd hoped it might be. Hughes was also wary he may have stepped on his own toes, opening a second cafe so close to the first. So in 2009 he shut the Red Hook store to concentrate on Prospect Park.
It's been a sound move that has also allowed Hughes, with his finger in just about every pie, to look at ways around the wholesale problem. And he reckons he's rectified it by installing pie warmers with the Dub Pie logo into pubs around New York, rather than selling them anonymously.
Hughes is slowly getting the brand out there. It helps, too, that New York is experiencing a boom in coffee culture. The Big Apple has always been home to countless coffee shops, a scene immortalised in TV shows like Friends, but the quality hasn't always matched the quantity. In the past year, however, several new coffee shops have opened, boasting baristas who roast their own beans.
Far from making it harder on Hughes' business, he says it's a good thing because there's now a growing awareness, an expectation, that coffee is of a high standard. It's where he makes his biggest profit but the pies are now so popular he says they make as much, dollar for dollar.
"People come in and say, 'ooh you do meat pies? A quarter of the people who come in go 'eww' and they leave. The others say 'oh, I'll try it'. And they like it. They come back, they tell everybody. It's word of mouth."
Occasionally Kiwis and Aussies look flabbergasted at being charged US$5 ($6.80) for a pie. To which Hughes promptly suggests they hop on a plane and buy one at home.
He'd also prefer to source the meat locally - at the moment he buys it from a meat wholesaler, so it could come from anywhere in the US or Canada.
"Our biggest-selling pie is the curry vegetarian. It outsells all the meat pies. But that's largely because we have more meat pie options and we need to offer more vege options. It tells you a little bit about the neighbourhood. It could work well with a grass-fed organic option."
Screw that. It's now 10am but this Kiwi wants a proper meat pie. And I can tell you that the potato top is just as good as anything you'd find at home.