Customs' Tim Norriss on the Culture of Coffee and Connection

Tim Norriss standing in the door way to his cafe Customs in Wellington.

Tim Norriss

As someone addicted to the rhythm of daily coffee, and an enthusiast of café culture and the social connection it provides, I was excited to chat with Customs co-owner Tim Norriss about the recipe for their success, the rituals that help keep it there and what the Wellington café scene could look like in the future. 

Interview by: Johnny Gibson 

Photo by: Anna Briggs

For those who have yet had the pleasure of experiencing Customs, it's a well-designed, good-vibes small café on Wellington's bustling Ghuznee Street. Since 2010, Customs has been the place to grab a delicious, simple snack to go with your coffee. There's an espresso menu, a range of single-origin batch filter coffees and iced drinks, sought-after baking and a classic toast menu that changes with the season. If you're lucky, you'll find a seat amongst the wood-panelled interior. If not, take your espresso and toast to the morning sun-soaked outdoor tables.

Tell us a little about your coffee journey. 

I've been lucky enough to wear a few different hats for Coffee Supreme, and I was in the right place at the right time to buy half of Customs (in the middle of the first lockdown). I knew the business well and was lucky to have such a good partner in Supreme, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity. With a lot of support and very, very many mistakes, here we are. 

Where do you find inspiration?

It's a big wide world out there, and I love to see what people are doing overseas. The lack of travel has made that hard, but Instagram helps, obviously. I'll see something that's interesting, and that will usually spiral into a mostly formed idea for an entirely new business, where I torment my partner until midnight with the details. In the shop, the space constraints are as inspiring as they are frustrating, but I think that's why the offer works - it's all we can do in the space that we have, so we do it as well as we can. 

What are your daily coffee habits? And any other daily rituals that are important to you? 

If I'm working, I'll taste everything before we open. At Customs, it's called a sidecar - a single espresso and single piccolo. We'll also taste the filter coffees we're serving that day and tweak the recipes accordingly. We make micro-adjustments continuously throughout the day - most of the coffee I drink during the week is made up of lots of tasting. In saying that, though, my favourite coffee is on a day off, preferably in bed. 

Milk or black?

There are no rules. There is definitely a place for milky, sweetened coffee, just as there is for a clean, fruity filter. If it's yum, in your tum, I always say (I don't say that). 

Best food and coffee match?

Coffee and snacks! I've kind of spent most of my adult life thinking about this, and it's part of what makes Customs successful, I think. I don't want a meal, I want something small and salty or sweet. Catherine's fruit loaf, salty butter and a cup of filter are probably my most consumed pairing. 

What do you want people to experience when visiting Customs? 

Authenticity and warmth - we want you to be comfortable. We want it to be fun! We genuinely like our customers and try to show that through our care for the product, the space and the small gestures. 

Customs has been an institution in Wellington since 2010. Why do you think it has resonated with locals so much?

 To be entirely honest, I’m not sure how well it did resonate in the first year or so. It was the first shop to really embrace speciality coffee, and a lot of customers found it quite challenging. There purposefully wasn’t a lot of food, and the espresso was light and bright and just quite different from what the general public was used to.

Recently, I'd like to think that consistent product and nice service has kept people coming back. The team working are just as important as what we’re selling. We've also become better at listening to our customers - if they want a cheese scone and we can source one we like, we’ll happily put it on the menu. 

Either way, the Customs we know now is very different to the version that opened in 2010, but is a complete reflection of what we’ve learnt over the past decade or so. 

What do you think the future of café culture looks like?

There will be fewer places to go as it gets harder to make it work financially, but those places will be popular and busy. As the public sector leans into flexible working conditions, I think the hospitality industry will, too - I don't see there being too many seven day a week operations any more. Otherwise, it's really exciting! I hope that there are some young people out there who want to show us what's good. That’s usually how things progress, right? 

What's your advice for anyone that's looking to open a café? 

Look after your customers. It’s not much fun without them. Get good at taking advice. Your gut will tell you what’s right for you. Most importantly, have fun!