A special kind of alchemy

The Perc is one of Dunedin’s iconic city cafés. Perc’s owner Sarah Hussey bought the business in partnership with her sister in 2007, back when the café was called the Percolator. 12 years, one business restructure and a couple of additional premises later, Perc is a vibrant and thriving local enterprise, with big dreams and an even bigger heart.

Sarah Hussey runs Perc Central –the first iteration of the Perc cafés in Dunedin, located at 142 Lower Stewart Street. It is right near the Octagon, where locals and visitors converge for coffee in the ever-changing landscape of inner-city eateries, and where the difference between failure and success can come down to subtleties.

As far as experience running a café goes, Sarah had a handful of years working in hospitality in Christchurch and Nelson, before getting into advertising sales at the Nelson Mail. When she moved back to Dunedin, she got a job immediately with the ODT.

Perc wasn’t her first foray into business; Sarah was already in partnership with her sister as co-owners of boutique clothing store Slick Willy’s, which they bought when Sarah was 21, as well as working full time. However, with their first child on the way, Sarah was looking for a change. “I wanted to not work,” remembers Sarah. “I figured a café would provide the income and the flexibility to spend more time with Lucas when he was born – plus I wasn’t cool enough to work at Slick Willy’s,” she jokes.

Whilst looking for a suitable business, Sarah came across the Percolator.

 “I’ve drunk coffee in cafes since I was a teenager – I remembered the Percolator and how I liked it back then, but I also could see how I would make it better.”

The café wasn’t on the market, but Sarah approached the owners to see if they wanted to sell – and they did.

For a first-time café owner, the choice of location was well and truly like jumping in at the deep end. Great coffee and tasty, reasonably priced food got them through the rocky years of the global financial crisis, when Perc’s friendly atmosphere and upbeat vibe became a haven of sorts for the inner-city business owners and workers that became the café’s regulars.

When asked what sort of planning or ideas went into building the brand, Sarah has no ground-breaking insights to reveal in how they have achieved their success. “There was no conscious decision. I just like to keep everything fresh. Perc is always evolving – not just the menu but everything, right down to the paint colours and light fittings.

What remains constant is the atmosphere – people come in every day because they love us and we love them – relationships are so important.”

Perc’s menu continues to entice people in, even after more than a decade. Creating the delicious food and good coffee that Perc is now famous for was the main component of what has made Perc a success. The real alchemy comes from the authentic welcoming atmosphere and right blend of bustling efficiency and personal connection with customers. 

 “How to manage your money would honestly have been the steepest learning curve – what I spend it on. I continue to make bad decisions from time to time, but I have the support and advice of a good accountant behind us now to keep me from getting in too much trouble.”

This wasn’t always the case. Like many businesses starting out, Sarah went with a small business accountant in the beginning. “They were also just starting out on their own so from an economic point of view it seemed like a win-win.”

A few years in and Sarah found herself tackling a difficult tax situation. “It came about partly through our own doing but also our accountant had failed to educate us about things properly, and our ignorance got us in trouble.

It so happened that Sarah ended up at a business luncheon sitting next to Jono Bredin from PKF Bredin McCormack Rewcastle.

They got talking and their personalities just clicked. “The timing was perfect too,” recalls Sarah, who not only needed good advice on their immediate tax issue but was also trying to figure out how to grow the business.

“Within weeks we were with the firm and have never looked back.”

Other things have gotten easier for running the business since the early days too.

“Xero has been an amazing change – before that I don’t even know how we did it,” says Sarah with a shake of her head.

“When you think of a busy day in 2012 compared to a busy day now – it doesn’t feel that much busier, because we have saved so much time in the tasks and little processes that we used to do by hand. I mean, hand-written dockets going to the kitchen that needed to be sorted through and manually entered at the end of a day. So many things are automated now, or they take two minutes to do.”

Right from the get-go, the Perc has been a family enterprise. Sarah’s family has expanded, with the addition of two little sisters for Lucas; Poppy and Charlotte.

The kids have grown with the business and the café’s many regular patrons are greeted like family every day.  The café too, is no longer an only child.

In 2015 The Perc Exchange was born – a little sister to the thriving Stuart Street premises. Opening a  second café a few blocks away at 205 Princess Street seemed like the logical next step for the business. It turned out to be exactly that, with the Exchange carving out its own niche and offering its own unique twist on the urban café vibe of Perc.

Managing two premises turned out to be easier than expected. Like most little sisters, the Exchange has its own personality and has proved capable enough to stand on its own two feet; with the right team in place to keep things ticking over, Sarah was soon back to spending most of her time at Perc Central.

In 2017 an opportunity came up to open a third café, this time at the Hot Salt Water Pool premises at St Clair. The location at the historic DCC owned swimming baths on Dunedin’s esplanade was its best and only asset. By contrast, to the bustling open-air swimming pool complex, the café was tired and hardly anyone went there. When the contract for the couple who ran it ended, the Council decided it was time to look for someone new to turn it around, and they put it up for tender.

“We submitted a proposal and won,” says Sarah. “We put in the hard yards to bring the place up to a standard we could be proud to work in. We felt sure we could really make something of it. Unfortunately, we were right.”

Unlike the Exchange, which requires very little input, The Perc St Clair was the rebel child that needed all the extra love and attention Sarah could give it. “The Exchange practically runs itself, but St Clair was a completely different animal.”

By the end of 2018 the St Clair premises was taking almost all of Sarah’s time.  “Within a short timeframe we were so busy, it was insane.”

 But things have a way of working themselves out sometimes. In early 2019 a couple from Perth approached Sarah and offered to buy the business and she jumped at it.

The St Clair experience has left an ambiguous legacy. Despite its success, the short time it spent as part of the Perc group gave rise to speculation among some locals. “I was surprised to discover that there are some people who believe we must have failed somehow,” Sarah laughs. “In reality it was more like we were too successful.”

This year’s business restructure was the biggest change for Perc in its 12 years in business, but the process itself turned out to be relatively smooth. “It was far from a simple matter,” says Sarah, “but we got the lawyers and accountants to do it for us. We were confident that we could trust the advice of the professionals we have on our team to handle it, so we left them to it. It’s a good feeling knowing this.”

So what is on the horizon for Sarah and Perc?

“I do want to open something else and have already got my eye on a space,” says Sarah, “but I don’t want to jump too soon.

“We have also just built an amazing property out at Tunnel Beach,” she adds, her eyes focusing on some distant object only she can see.

Whatever Sarah’s vision of the future includes, Dunedin remains the setting and Perc will continue to serve its unique blend of coffee food and family values to those who call this big little city of ours home.


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