Marty Robinson - Kiwi battler and all-round nice guy - had a vision of reconnecting his community through a cafe called The Daily Cafe. What happened next changed an entire town.

By the time he picked up the phone and dialled, he was desperate.

The sobs came hard and fast, but he managed to get out the words: "I've just had it. I don't know what to do."

A distraught Robinson was on the phone to friend, David Reid, and life was spiralling out of control.

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Reid was at work on a Te Puke kiwifruit orchard, but downed tools. "Right, I'm coming to see you."

He jumped on his bike and cycled from Te Matai Rd to his car in town (7km), and then drove to Papamoa to pick up Robinson, who was sick, and depressed.

They had an emergency heart-to-heart, over coffee.

It was an instinctive act of kindness, and the slow-motion wave of dark breaking over Robinson retreated.

"It was that social, relational connection that saved me," Robinson says.

He's unashamedly weathered some tough times in life. "The black dog" follows him, still.

Marty Robinson's battle with depression was part of his motivation to help his community. Photo / George Novak.
Marty Robinson's battle with depression was part of his motivation to help his community. Photo / George Novak.

He's a survivor of double heart-valve replacement surgery, and he's struggled on an invalid's benefit.

Eight years ago he asked himself what he could do to help others like himself.

He had no hospitality experience, but he had a vision and set about making it work.

The Daily Cafe in Te Puke, which he opened 15 months ago with wife Chrissi and friends Richard Crawford and Andrew Reid - under the guise of The Search Party Charitable Trust - was earlier this month named 2018 Meadow Fresh New Zealand Cafe of the Year supreme winner.

They call it Search Party Trust because it is about searching out people who aren't connected and thriving, and supporting them where the trust sees gaps.

 Aidin King hard at work at the The Daily Cafe in Te Puke. Photo/George Novak
Aidin King hard at work at the The Daily Cafe in Te Puke. Photo/George Novak

After paying core cafe staff, all profits go back into the trust, which uses them to administer projects to help the community.

The trust, supported by volunteers, hosts a monthly pizza night, gathers volunteers to cook cottage pies to give away to struggling families, and tackles social issues by drawing together Te Puke's social provider network.

"I think in today's society, we've gone past the point of looking at the council and the Government and going: 'Oh, they can fix everything'," Robinson, the philanthropist, says.

"It just doesn't work. It's not local, not sustainable, and it's not grassroots."

"I think in today's society, we've gone past the point of looking at council and the Government and going: 'Oh, they can fix everything. It just doesn't work. It's not local, not sustainable, and it's not grass roots."

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He can see other towns replicating the trust's model, although notes, there is something special about Kiwifruit capital Te Puke (population 8000) that's made it work.

Marty Robinson knows the value of relationships and connecting people together. Photo / George Novak
Marty Robinson knows the value of relationships and connecting people together. Photo / George Novak

Interviewing him at The Daily is like talking to the host of a pumping party. There's regular breaks in conversation so he can greet guests. Even a "friendly" bee won't leave us alone.

In the cafe courtyard, sipping on tea, he spots a local identity entering the front gate. "Oh, here comes Len, our good friend. Hi, Len!," Robinson chimes.

"I bought you some breakfast," Len says, holding out a cardboard box in front of him. "Oh, figs," Robinson says approvingly.

"I have a very fruitful tree," Len says, with a thick accent I can't pick. The 85-year-old shuffles off towards the kitchen, which operates a European concept, and serves three to five fresh meals a day.

Len returns soon after, to inform Robinson he made it to the top of Mount Maunganui yesterday. "I made it … Made history!" he laughs. "I'm still alive."

Robinson flashes him a congratulatory grin, as Len, in his retro aviators and ear-flap cap, continues on his way.

"Conversations all day, every day. I love it," Robinson, 43, says. He knows the value of being connected.

His darkest days were spent on a sickness benefit, living in Lyn Grove, Papamoa, in his 20s, waiting for a double heart-valve replacement.

The trust, supported by volunteers, hosts a monthly pizza night, gathers volunteers to cook cottage pies to give away to struggling families, Photo/ George Novak.
The trust, supported by volunteers, hosts a monthly pizza night, gathers volunteers to cook cottage pies to give away to struggling families, Photo/ George Novak.

His life was a "mess". All he could do was shuffle to the letterbox and back and rise from bed once every two-to-three hours.

Life inside was all greys and stagnant air.

One day, he found himself frightened and defeated, lying on his cold, hard kitchen floor calling 111. He was suffering from atrial fibrillation of the heart.

While he waited for the assuring wail of the ambulance, he called his wife, Chrissi, working hard to pay the mortgage. It was a desperate situation and "changed me a lot".

He went on to have two valves replaced in his heart, and he now sports a silver medical bracelet.

For the past five to 10 years, he's also struggled with depression.

"I've gone through some serious, serious bouts of it, and it's given me more compassion to understand people. If you are sick and you are depressed, it's not a very fun place to be, and it's incredibly lonely."

"I've gone through some serious, serious bouts of it, and it's given me more compassion to understand people. If you are sick and you are depressed, it's not a very fun place to be and it's incredibly lonely."

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His honesty is endearing, and he likes to think residents can come to The Daily and be helped.

"We've structured to encourage our staff to spend five, 10, 20 minutes a day, stepping outside what they're doing, and have the time to work into people's lives," he says.

"So we run quite a different staffing regime from normal cafes."

Example: Wife, Chrissi, noticed a man looking lonely in the cafe two days ago. Cautiously, she approached him, and he confided that he was going through a divorce.

She sent him home with some pre-made cottage pie for dinner, and with the information that Baywide Community Law provides legal help at The Daily Cafe twice a month if he wanted to book a free appointment.

After paying core cafe staff, all profits go back into the trust, which uses them to administer projects to help the community.Photo/George Novak
After paying core cafe staff, all profits go back into the trust, which uses them to administer projects to help the community.Photo/George Novak

The Daily is situated in Te Puke's Commerce Lane, a block north of Te Puke's main drag. It was once a branch of Mosaic Church, now known as Curate Church. It was basically a room with a coffee machine.

Robinson, a man of "faith", was thinking about how it could be expanded, when in late-2010 the Grim Reaper came to town, in the form of Psa.

Within three months, Robinson lost his job in kiwifruit management, smashed his ankle and was awaiting surgery, and Chrissi was heavily pregnant.

He walked into the New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers (NZKGI) office and suggested someone get the unemployed kiwifruit workers in Te Puke, employed.

They agreed, and then told him to do it.

He created his own job within NZKGI, shifting 300 people from one job to another over a period of 18 months. By the end of 2013, the industry was back on its feet, and it was time to take advantage of the town's boost in morale.

Robinson didn't have much money, but he had a big heart, and that was enough to get going.

He and Chrissi decided they'd run Friday pizza nights, from their house. They made the dough, and an average of 40 strangers and friends would turn up with toppings.

At the same time, the lease on the little church in Commerce Lane became available.

The Daily Cafe in Te Puke has won the title of New Zealand Cafe of the Year. Photo/George Novak
The Daily Cafe in Te Puke has won the title of New Zealand Cafe of the Year. Photo/George Novak

Robinson rounded up Chrissi, builder and firefighter Richard Crawford, and electrician Andrew Reid, and they brainstormed Robinson's idea of a cafe.

Robinson and Chrissi had both worked in camps and knew how to make a big pot of mashed potatoes, and mince, but that was about it.

"It scared us a whole lot, but we just knew if we found the right people around us we'd be all right," Robinson explains.

"It scared us a whole lot, but we just knew if we found the right people around us we'd be all right," Robinson explains.l

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They found an experienced manager (Rebecka Billington) and hit up funders for cash. Funding was declined, so trustees dug "deep" into their own wallets, while the cafe simultaneously became "like a spider's web of a community".

Almost everything at The Daily has been donated or recycled.

The yellow shabby chic table we sit at for our interview is one of the original doors from the church building.

The fringed umbrella poking through the centre of the table is vintage, complete with brown spots and green masking tape on its pole.

"It's the only one that's lasted," Robinson quips.

The gates at the front of the cafe came from an old stockyard on Maniatutu Rd.
The Daily took two years to open, as opposed to the trust's six-month plan.

Tauranga coffee distributor Excelso produces an organic and Fair Trade coffee blend called good.coffee through the Good Trust, which helps build wells and provides fresh water for communities in Cambodia.

The Daily stocks it, but the cafe itself exists for Te Puke - it's very much around eliminating the poverty cycle.

"We've structured to encourage our staff to spend five, 10, 20 minutes a day, stepping outside what they're doing" - Marty Robinson. Photo/George Novak

Robinson, an ex-builder turned orchard manager, lives on a 75-hectare drystock farm in Paengaroa, which has farmstay accommodation.

He says the social agencies in Te Puke are all there, but sometimes lack cohesion.

The trust is working with Socialink, and are in the process of working with 40 social groups to explore what they can do for the town, which Robinson believes could be a New Zealand-first.

Initial projects have included getting a St John shuttle to start in Te Puke later this year, and working with Environment Bay of Plenty to get more connector buses to the Bayfair hub.

There's a scheme to focus on youth through the high school, and they're working with Empowerment NZ, helping develop the community food bank and gardens, and looking to teach people how to grow their own food and how to cook it, so they become self-sustainable.

They're supporting a Good Neighbour-type project called The Daily Help, co-ordinating volunteers who go to a local's house and mow the lawns or bang up a fence.

And they're working to ensure it's easy for every child to get to school.

There's a room in the cafe for community groups to run workshops and fundraisers, but the real value is connecting the community.

Robinson, who moved to Te Puke in 1994 from Auckland, doesn't want the trust to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff - he wants to bulldoze the cliff to smithereens.

He dreams that one day, the trust will no longer be needed.

Te Puke weathered some tough times during the PSA bacteria outbreak. Marty Robinson says re-connecting the community through The Daily Cafe, continues to improve the town's morale. Photo / George Novak
Te Puke weathered some tough times during the PSA bacteria outbreak. Marty Robinson says re-connecting the community through The Daily Cafe, continues to improve the town's morale. Photo / George Novak

Winning cafe of the year was unexpected, he says. As visionary as Robinson is, he's humble.

"It's just been a real pleasure, and a real walk of faith," he says.

"It's just been a real pleasure, and a real walk of faith," he says.

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"We're absolutely blown away by how it's gone and we can just see it getting bigger and bigger.

"It's the community that's created it, we've just been at the front of the wave going: 'Wahoo, this is great'."