The sisters behind K’ Rd smash-hit Coco’s Cantina

by Julie Hill / 21 December, 2016
Photography: Meek Zuiderwyk

The sisters behind Auckland’s K’ Rd eatery Coco’s Cantina turn their business philosophy into an ambitious website – and stop calling each other the c-word in the process

While I love my sisters very much, the idea of working with them every night in a hot kitchen sounds like a recipe for sororicide. Apparently, it’s often no different for Renee and Damaris Coulter of Coco’s Cantina, their perennially pumping Italian restaurant on Karangahape Road. Renee: “We’ve said it to each other heaps of times: ‘You can have this restaurant. I don’t want to work with you anymore. You’re crazy!’”

The problem seems to be that Renee, older by two years, is, in Damaris’ words, “straighty-180”, while Renee says Damaris “does not give a fuck what she says and who she says it to. She would sit down with the Governor-General, or the Queen, and swear.” (Early in our interview, a staff member delicately places a note on the table that reads, “Keep it clean!” but alas, it was already too late.) The sisters’ different styles manifest when they encounter a difficult customer. “Renee’s like, ‘thank you for your feedback’, and I’m like, ‘fuck off!’,” says Damaris.

About seven months ago, they decided to seek professional help. Damaris: “We go for couple counselling, but it’s sister counselling.” (Renee: “You don’t need to point out that we’re not a couple!”) The first sessions were grim. They arrived and left in separate cars. The only way was up. “This shrink has been amazing,” says Damaris, “because she’s outlined our characteristics independently and how they work together. She said, ‘you’ve got a responsibility to your restaurant and your community to sort this out.’” My neighbour, Coco’s employee Sam Te Kani, confirms the therapy has been effective: “They don’t call each other the c-word in the restaurant anymore.”

They may bicker, but the pair shares what Damaris calls “painfully liberal” politics and a sense of fairness. They’ve described Coco’s, which they started seven years ago after both working as maître d’s elsewhere, as a socialist restaurant, because they value the people who work for them over profit, and source their food locally. It’s called Coco’s because, Renee says, “We wanted the restaurant to have a feminine identity, but calling it Renee’s or Damaris’s – that’s just not cool.”

Now they’ve launched a website named The Realness, a project that aims for a Marxist levelling of the culinary playing field by shining a light on small restaurants that are owner-operated (with no silent partners or subsidies from bigger businesses), have just a single site, and use ethically sourced protein.

Damaris says The Realness was spawned at a time when about 20 restaurants opened in Auckland in the space of six months. “We all went super-quiet – us, Ponsonby Road Bistro, Meredith’s. It was like a state of emergency for the little guy. There was a group of us who would meet here every Monday, and it was supposed to be like a morale Monday but everyone would just drink. Everyone was quite afraid, like how are we going to pay our bills when we’re up against restaurants that can afford billboards and ads on the telly, and when all the tourists at the airport get told to go to Federal Street and Wynyard Quarter and Britomart? How are they going to find us? So The Realness is a brainchild of desperation.”

I mention that after becoming horribly addicted to the reality TV show The Real Housewives of Auckland, I will always associate “realness” with fashionista Angela Stone, who launched her meisterwerk, a book entitled How To Be Real, on the show to much hilarity. But Damaris says Kanye West had already tainted the term two years after she purchased the domain name when he uttered the legendary phrase “I’m sorry for the realness,” after an epic rant on Ellen. As for Angela, it’s best to say Damaris isn’t a fan, but “I don’t mind Gilda,” she says. “She just says it how it is. And she’s loaded, but I feel like she would still do the vacuuming if she had to.”

The Realness currently includes 14 Auckland restaurants, ranging in price from Ralph’s on Dominion Road to The French Café. It’s free for users, who will be able to use the site to find restaurants who subscribe to The Realness’s principles. In time they hope to add other industries and services such as bars, cafes and fashion boutiques, and spread throughout New Zealand, Australia and eventually the globe. The sisters have big dreams. “I’ve had discussions where people look at me as if I’m some sort of lunatic, but I’m like, ‘this is going to redistribute wealth’,” says Damaris.

They also aim to allow customers easier access to what Renee calls “authentic experiences”. Adds Damaris: “There’s this layer in the city that is just the main street, and then there’s a layer below which is the veins of the city, the artisans, the people who are doing the interesting things. Everyone’s looking for authenticity, whether it’s the wine they’re drinking or the shoes they want to buy. So you can go to some multinational coffee shop, which is probably owned by some fat cat sitting on his yacht counting his coin, and he’s probably got 12 [of them] all over the country, or you can go to Eighthirty coffee and Glenn [Bell], who pays a liveable wage, is in his business roasting. So it’s just trying to take the minority to the mainstream in a really easy way.”

In short, the sisters eventually hope the website will help Coco’s Cantina lovers find a Coco’s wherever they are in the world. Damaris recounts a recent trip to Croatia with her parents. “I’d want to go over the hill and find the Coco’s of Split or Dubrovnik, but Mum’s like, oooh, what if we can’t find our way back? So we stay on the high street and have the worst meal of our lives. It’s some overweight American with his fanny pack complaining about the octopus, and you’re like, what the fuck? Did I just travel halfway round the world to have this terrible meal?”

They also hope The Realness will counter a scourge of uninformed personal opinion on websites like Trip-Advisor, Zomato and Yelp. Damaris: “If you trust a stranger from Ireland who’s never been to New Zealand, who probably feels like sashimi but he’s ended up at an Italian restaurant, to tell you whether or not you’re going to enjoy this restaurant, the world’s in trouble.”

Other independent operators are coming out of the woodwork to join the network. “My [business] mentor rang from Porirua last week,” says Damaris, “and she said, ‘I just had a conversation with the lady who owns a local Italian restaurant there. She’s an owner-operator, no big brand partnerships, she’s only got one restaurant – but her chicken’s not free range. So she’s going to change her chicken so she can get on The Realness’. And I said, ‘that’s what I’m fucking talking about!’.”

Meanwhile, the Coulter sisters’ interpersonal relations are still a work in progress, as they discuss the chilling prospect that not everyone wants to be real.

Renee: “When people come to Auckland, or any city, they want to have an authentic experience. We’re at that tipping point where that is what we want, and that’s what our guests and customers and family and friends want. [But] there are always going to be the people who go to TripAdvisor and follow the Irish octopus man.”

Damaris: “That fucking guy.”


Ima Cuisine

These Auckland members of The Realness community are owner-operated, source their protein ethically and are proudly independent.
Coco’s Cantina
The French Café
Orphans Kitchen
Ponsonby Road Bistro
Gemmayze Street
Ima Cuisine
Madame George
The Engine Room


This article was first published in Paperboy magazine.
Follow Paperboy on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the weekly e-mail

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


When Sir Bob Jones met Muhammad Ali
81845 2017-10-23 00:00:00Z Books

When Sir Bob Jones met Muhammad Ali

by Bob Jones

A new biography finds fault with the legendary fighter, but praise wins by a mile.

Read more
Announcing the finalists of the NZ Craft Awards 2017
81876 2017-10-23 00:00:00Z Culture

Announcing the finalists of the NZ Craft Awards 20…

by NZTV Craft Awards

The finalists of the New Zealand Craft Awards have been announced and here is the complete list.

Read more
Hand, foot and mouth disease is not nearly as scary it seems
81868 2017-10-23 00:00:00Z Health

Hand, foot and mouth disease is not nearly as scar…

by Ruth Nichol

It sounds alarmingly like foot and mouth disease, but all they have in common is they are viral.

Read more
What to do in Auckland if you're a local who wants the tourist experience
81902 2017-10-23 00:00:00Z Travel

What to do in Auckland if you're a local who wants…

by Pamela Wade

After living in Auckland for almost 25 years, Pamela Wade decides to reacquaint herself with the city where she still feels like a stranger.

Read more
The Lesley Calvert cold case: 40 years of torment
80160 2017-10-22 00:00:00Z Crime

The Lesley Calvert cold case: 40 years of torment

by Chris Birt

The mum-of-three was found on a hillside in sight of her farmhouse where she'd disappeared 7 months earlier. Suspicions swirled, but no answers found.

Read more
When I went to Rimutaka Prison for a three-course meal
81858 2017-10-22 00:00:00Z Food

When I went to Rimutaka Prison for a three-course …

by Lauraine Jacobs

A three-course meal inside prison walls proves a rewarding experience for food columnist Lauraine Jacobs.

Read more
The Lundy murders: Inside the case that gripped the nation for 17 years
81945 2017-10-21 07:23:00Z Crime

The Lundy murders: Inside the case that gripped th…

by Anne Marie May

A court reporter who's covered both of Mark Lundy's High Court trials looks at how the case has evolved, as the Court of Appeal deliberates his fate.

Read more
The Weinstein scandal is no surprise to this prominent NZ employment lawyer
81809 2017-10-21 00:00:00Z Social issues

The Weinstein scandal is no surprise to this promi…

by Mai Chen

In 25 years of law practice, Mai Chen has helped many women – very often senior employees – who have suffered from sexual harassment.

Read more