The Fruit Guy
Roger Young grew up on a Tauranga orchard, became a star of the Wellington’s hospo scene, and now he’s set his sights on cold-pressed juices.
Roger Young grew up on a Tauranga orchard, became a star of the Wellington’s hospo scene (launching establishments such as Fidel’s Cafe and Havana Bar), and now he’s set his sights on cold-pressed juices.
While for some Roger Young is known as the Fidel’s Cafe guy, or the Havana Bar cocktail guy, or if you’ve been around a while maybe even the pizza guy — he’s even known by many as the unofficial mayor of Wellington’s Cuba Street — but having grown up on an orchard just outside of Tauranga, it appears that all along it’s fruit that really has his heart.
“I’ve owned Fidel’s here in Wellington for 25 years,” he tells me from his office late one Friday afternoon, where he’s sipping a Hulk, an aptly-named green juice packed with locally grown spinach, celery, kale, lettuce, parsley, wheatgrass and lemon juice — his personal favourite of the celebrated concoctions from his latest venture (more on that shortly).
“Before Fidel’s, when I first moved down from Tauranga in 1991, I opened a pizzeria called Little Gringo’s and a few years after that I opened a bar and restaurant called Havana, which we’ve had for 18 years now; it’s a beautiful little establishment.
“All of them are Cuban-themed, because I absolutely fell in love with Cuba when I was at Otumoetai College — I was at Tauranga Boys’ College but I got ah, evicted, for being a naughty boy — and in social studies I did a project on Cuba. So that’s how the Cuban thing sort of started — and we’re on Cuba Street of course.
“And then we’ve had The Brother’s Coldpress coming up five years. It’s quite a bit different. Me and my partner were also rum runners — we were importing rum from Cuba for quite a few years, so it was a nice change from alcohol to fresh juice,” he laughs.
The latest venture kicked off from initial attempts at home juicing, which led to the discovery of cold-press juice (“basically you’re keeping all your healthy enzymes and goodness intact as you juice it”), and a new revolution was born.
“I bought a small cold-press machine for Fidel’s and we just couldn’t keep up,” explains Roger. “We had one person who, all they were doing was juicing, and making milkshakes and smoothies, which we’re really well known for, so it was really high in labour. I thought gosh, I need to look for a bigger machine…”
These days The Brother’s Coldpress juices are stocked in many of Wellington’s top cafes, eateries, grocery stores and supermarkets, while the online store does a roaring trade with health-conscious punters up and down the country. And as the size of the juicing machines have grown, so too have the quantities of fruit and vegetables.
“We use a lot of sources — places in Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, we get organic tangelos from a really lovely guy in Whakatāne, there’s an organic farm just out on the West Coast north of Otaki that we’re currently in negotiations with to grow a lot more stuff just for us. So we’re sourcing it from all over the country,” he says. And if anyone knows how to source fruit and veg, it’s Roger.
“I grew up on an orchard just out of Tauranga, in Tauriko,” he says. “It was an amazing place to grow up — being able to go surfing each day and being brought up in the country.
“My parents bought what was to start with a chicken farm and it had a bit of citrus fruit, and then they got rid of the chooks and got into feijoas, kiwifruit, tamarillos, we had a bit of passionfruit as well. My parents were really big gardeners, they absolutely loved it.”
It was from there that Roger’s dad, with whom he clearly shares entrepreneurial genes, came up with the idea of taking their fruit to the South Island, selling directly to communities without easy access to the diverse plethora of fruit being grown up north — which back in the ’80s was almost everyone.
“My parents would pick it all fresh and drive it down; my dad bought an 18-wheeler truck and we’d drive to the South Island and deliver to schools, Plunket societies... places where these communities would come. It would be dropped off and from there dispersed to the community. My dad was like Father Christmas — fresh watermelon from Te Teko, from Tauranga, from Pukehina. We used to do a watermelon juice with lemon over the summer, called the Pink Panther,” says Roger. It was just so much fun as a kid going on these big road trips to the South Island — we’d go right down as far as Bluff.”
Seeing no point returning home with an empty truck, the Young’s refilled their trailers with local goodies to transport back north. “We’d offload the fruit and veg all the way through the South Island, then at Bluff oyster time we’d go and pick up hundreds of sacks of oysters and drive them all the way through the night, across on the ferry and back to Tauranga. My mum would already have an ad in the Bay of Plenty Times: oysters and mutton birds for sale. We’d set up all these trestle tables with shucking knives, and family and friends would just start shucking oysters…
“In summertime we’d bring back apricots and cherries; we’d always bring back a load of something even schist from the Haast and this pebble off the beach just out by Riverton for a huge development in Waipu Cove.”
And the spirit of revolution was strong in the Young family even then. “I remember back in the day when they had the Apple and Pear Board, my dad was so dead against that every transaction had to go through them, so we used to sneak down to the Hawke’s Bay in the night, onto the back of someone’s farm, load up all the apple and pears, then drive through the night. It was awesome fun!”
It was his first adult job, selling Bay of Plenty watermelons around the country, that led to his first business Little Gringo’s pizzeria. That opened the way to Fidel’s, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I was doing a load of watermelons to the South Island with my girlfriend at the time and her uncle had a pizzeria in Dunedin, right opposite the university, called Poppa’s Pizzas. We parked up on an empty section next to it, and were selling the watermelons off the back of the truck at Orientation Week. Just watching, I realised how successful his business was. I just went, wow, let’s open a pizzeria!”
The pizzeria was Little Gringo’s, located at the then notoriously dodgy end of Cuba Street. “Black Power had their headquarters just off Cuba street, at night time no one would actually walk around there. But it was just hilarious — on the first day we had to close the doors after an hour, we couldn’t keep up, we were inundated! It was long hours, we were doing 100-hour weeks there for a long time.
“It was so fun, you know, I think we were paying $120 for the building and the back half was where we lived, so we basically walked through the door, straight into the cafe.
But when Roger and his girlfriend went separate ways four years later, it was time for something new. “I was stuck with the lease,” says Roger. “I went travelling for a bit in South America and came back with quite a few different ideas and yeah, that’s how Fidel’s and Havana were born.”
Which brings us to today, where Roger has gone full circle, back to his roots. “I guess I got back into what I was doing growing up on a farm, selling fruit and veg, but now I’m putting it into bottle form and selling it!”
By Josie Steenhart