Obituary: Sanjay Ponnapa, pioneer of coffee culture in Wellington
Sanjay Ponnapa: businessman; b January 10, 1964; d November 26, 2021
Sanjay Ponnapa, who died at the age of 56 in Hong Kong, was one of the founders of Wellington’s coffee industry, continuing to build a very successful coffee empire in Wellington and in Asia.
He was born in Tamil Nadu, near his family’s homeland, Kodagu. Kodagu (formerly known as Coorg) is a small, sparsely populated region nestled in the rich coffee-growing hills of the Western Ghats, about halfway up the west coast of India.
His family were coffee farmers and soldiers; his uncles included Marshal Kodendera Madappa Cariappa, the first Indian Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, and General Kodendera Subayya Thimayya.
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Sanjay’s father, KA (Ponu) Ponnapa and mother Leela took a different path; both became doctors. In 1966, they answered a call from New Zealand for psychiatrists. After training in Scotland, they held medical posts at Porirua Hospital, taking their young daughter Mythi and son Sanjay with them.
Coming from India to gloomy foodie New Zealand in the 1960s must have come as a shock, but Ponu’s brother sent bags of Coorg coffee, which Leela roasted in the home kitchen.
Sanjay went to school at Viard College in Porirua and then at St Patrick’s College (Silverstream). He grew up to be a tall, solidly built and strikingly handsome man, with a love of fine clothing, whiskey and late 1950s jazz. He attended Victoria University and Canterbury University , but left without a diploma.
He worked in the fashion industry, then traveled to New York City, supporting himself as a bartender. Those playboy years were not wasted, for seeds were planted that were to bear fruit later; attention to detail, love of quality and customer service. One seed in particular was to become a plant that would build an empire.
Around 1995 he returned to Wellington and took a job at a start-up company called Coffee Supreme. It was the early years of what would become the city’s coffee shop boom. Supreme founder Chris Dillon remembers Ponnapa as “very entrepreneurial”.
“He always chose your brain. We had a lot of conversations about what he wanted to do next and the potential he could see for takeout carts, as he had seen in the United States.
Ponnapa wanted to do something different. He still didn’t know how. Then, in 1996, things happened. He designed and built his first coffee cart.
Anyone who was in Wellington will remember it: Inspired by 1950s design icon, the Airstream Caravan, in silver, black and red, with the sounds of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins floating through the aromas of the best. Arabica coffee served in branded mugs. It was an instant hit with Wellingtonians. Fuel Espresso Ltd was born.
“He wanted to elevate take-out,” says Dillon. “Many thought it was the second best. He wanted to show that it could be beautiful. He paid a lot of attention to the branding, to the way the staff shifted, to make sure it would be a very cohesive presentation. I’m pretty sure the staff couldn’t play the music playlist quickly and freely.
That year, Ponnapa also met his first wife, Alexandra Tylee. They got married the same year. For the first five years, they worked side by side in the development of Fuel.
The first cart, on the terrace, showed them that the concept worked; the next challenge was to get more sites. Ponnapa persuaded skeptical bureaucrats to allow coffee carts at the hospital and at the airport.
“It had not been done. We had to convince them it was the right thing to do, ”says Tylee. “Back then, a lot of people didn’t drink the right espresso coffee. He was really charming, determined and tenacious, and didn’t give up.
The fuel quickly spread to seven wagons and sites around Wellington. Unhappy with the wholesale imported beans that most coffee shops were using, they traveled to Trieste, Italy, and created their own blend with coffee maestro Vincenzo Sandalji. They then created their own roast in Holland St.
“We roasted for about a year before he was satisfied with it. He wanted to do it right. He was a perfectionist, ”says Tylee.
Ponnapa took great pride in his blend, a well-kept blend of Italian beans and specialty Arabica beans from his family plantations in Coorg. He passionately believed that good coffee, like good wine, required special attention to blending and even aging. He decided to age his coffee, contrary to what he called “the global industry’s obsession with ‘fresh is best’ dogma”.
Tylee says his leadership skills have helped the business grow. “Everyone at Fuel was really like family. He liked being able to integrate his passion for his music, and his family. He had a vision and brought it to fruition.
Unfortunately, family life was not that smooth. The couple’s son, Zeus, was born in late 1999. He died a few months later of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and his parents eventually separated.
By 2005, Fuel Espresso was well established in Wellington’s coffee scene, and Ponnapa was looking for the next step. He saw it in Hong Kong. He had a vision for an upscale coffeehouse chain tucked away among the Gucci, Versace and other luxury boutiques of Hong Kong squares.
Over the next decade he built it. Fuel now has seven sites in Hong Kong and two in Shanghai, in addition to three in Wellington. It was a stunning success; a tribute to the boy from Porirua who exported the taste and aroma of his secret blend to Asia.
Hong Kong has become his home; he met his second wife, Yeonhee Kim, who worked in the financial industry. They married in 2012. Their daughter, Leela, was born the following year.
On Friday, November 26, Ponnapa mentioned to his wife that he was not feeling well. He attended a staff dinner that evening, but left early. Upon entering an escalator, he allegedly suffered a medical event that caused him to fall. He died at the scene.
Dillon says Ponnapa has made a significant contribution to the development of Wellington’s café culture. “Fuel was New Zealand’s first premium take-out coffee chain. He would say the only one. No one had made good quality take-out coffee with this level of attention to detail, quality and presentation.
Tylee says it’s hard to believe he’s gone. “He was so full of life, he had so many interests and so many things he wanted to do.
“He was really warm and a caring person.”
Chris Brown of Sputnik PR worked closely with Ponnapa to grow his brand, but says his business accomplishments didn’t give him the most satisfaction in the end.
“He was very excited to celebrate their [his and Yeonhee’s] 10th anniversary. After everything he had been through, he thought his little family was his greatest achievement.
Sources: Mythi Ponnapa, Chris Brown, Chris Dillon, Alexandra Tylee