Written by Mary Rean
In the early days of this now-exclusive suburb, modest little houses rubbed shoulders with abattoirs, gasworks, brickworks, foundries and shipyards and, in the first years of the 20th century, Freemans Bay had a reputation for being the centre of crime, prostitution and union activity.
After the Great Depression Maori families, moving from the country and looking for work and later, Pacific Islanders, also seeking jobs, made their homes here. Then, from the 1950s, both the Auckland City Council and central government decided the time had come to demolish large areas of the suburb for redevelopment, and by the 80s and 90s Freemans Bay and nearby suburbs began the move to become among Auckland’s most fashionable and desirable real estate.
Dilip Rupa, the owner and barista of Rupa’s Deli-Café in Freemans Bay, is highly qualified to voice an opinion on the area, and takes plenty of opportunities. He was born and brought up in the flat above the shop on the corner of Hepburn and Wellington Streets, which he still runs, although now he lives nearby rather than on the premises.
Dilip is well known around the suburb, and his café – nestling under an equally well-known, large and colourful billboard in Freemans Bay – is popular with locals, people working in the area, and visitors. The Rupa family has owned the building since Dilip’s parents bought it in 1953, complete with the Bushell’s Tea advertising sign across the front of the upper storey. The family lived above the shop and ran the grocery store, Dilip and his brothers and sisters were born and brought up here, and the Rupa family became members of the local community.
In the almost 120 years since the two-storey wooden shop on the left of the present site was built by Josiah and Hannah Worsnop, the iconic building has been through various incarnations. Josiah and Hannah ran it as a grocery store for a few years before selling it, and after that the shop passed through a variety of hands. In 1926, a builder who bought it probably added the brick shop on the right of the original wooden building, completing the double-fronted look we see today. Although no one is quite sure of the detail, it’s thought that Bushell’s Tea first came to New Zealand in the 1930s, and the Bushell’s Tea billboard went up before the Second World War.
“It was a real community and everyone knew each other and we were an intricate part of the neighbourhood.”
“The area was totally different then,” says Dilip. “It was a working class area with lots of union people and Pacific Islanders living here. We are talking about big families and a mix of races.
Dilip says the area is wealthier and more transient now, with more single people, less children and less community involvement, though this hasn’t really affected him. “I still know the people round here and it’s just different; nowdays a customer might invite me to their beachhouse for the weekend.”
In the 1960s the then Auckland City Council decided the time had come to clean up the area and clear out the old houses and the people who had lived there all their lives. “My parents saw that things were changing and that the school behind the shop was growing, so they bought properties across the road in case they had to move.
The council had other ideas, however, Dilip says, and it went about acquiring these and other properties in the area, then changed the zone from residential to commercial and built the Freemans Bay Shopping Centre across the road from the Rupa family’s grocery store, “which stopped my parents from being part of the commercial block across the road. And they ended up looking across at a block of shops that were in competition with their grocery business,” says Dilip.
The council then tried to acquire his parents’ property for the school, he says. “My mother stood in front of the bulldozer – it was about business, but it’s also about your rights as a citizen and ratepayer,” says Dilip.
Dilip feels strongly about the issues his family has had with the council over the years. He says he is proud that their business is still here, but it’s only because he stood up and resisted. “Most people don’t have the ability to take the fight on, but something like this can happen to anyone.”
More confrontations were on the horizon, however, when he applied for a permit to build a new shop on the site. The design had the outline of an elephant on the side wall, with the body depicted through the curvature of the roof. A window was to represent the eye and a staircase was the trunk.
But, it wasn’t to be, as the council rejected the plans on the basis that a grocery store wasn’t needed in the area. “Then they developed the New World round the corner. Hypocrisy and discrimination!” says Dilip. “But just because the council wouldn’t allow us to rebuild, that didn’t have to be the end of our plans. The unions, who had been our neighbours over the years, placed a two-year ban on working on the site. According to Metro, it was like an NZ version of the Aussie movie, The Castle,” says Dilip.
Because of the changes in the area – developments like the new shopping centre and supermarket – by the time Dilip’s father died in 1984, Rupa’s had reinvented itself and the grocery store became a dairy. “We have always been well ahead of the times – in those days we had space invaders and other gaming machines for local kids to play on.”
So, to get round the council’s rejection of their plans, Dilip and his family set about gradually doing up the building, one wall at a time, retaining the historic elements of the old store, including the old sign, and a chimney and wall that are now on a permanent lean from when the bulldozers dug up the land alongside the shop.
Even the restoration of the sign in 2001 was controversial; Dilip took the original sign down, restored it, then replaced it with a replica, resulting in the council serving an abatement notice and threatening to prosecute the Rupas under the Resource Management Act. The old one is now safely inside the café, cunningly mounted on rollers to conceal storage space.
These days, Dilip can be found behind the coffee machine from Monday to Friday, pumping out the house speciality, Supa Rupa (long black through the grind) topped with flat whites, lattes and “all blacks” to a steady stream of customers. “I’ve been the barista here since 2001. I have learned to make a good cup of coffee and the best Rupa Chai, which is as close as it can be to a properly made one,” he says.
Sister Pam works in the café, too, and Dilip’s wife, Kokila, is also part of this family business. She makes and freezes a selection of curries in the kitchen, which are available to take away. “Our family originally come from the part of India just below Pakistan, so our curries include lots of vegetarian and vegan dishes, and sharper flavours. Our Butter Chicken is authentically spiced, without sweetness, and it’s quite different to most Butter Chicken dishes,” he says.
Kokila also makes her own cakes, loaves and biscuits, and the café has an inviting range of cabinet food – from paninis to samosas – as well as a blackboard menu.
“I could never move from here,” says Dilip." “It would be immoral to sell, because of our history in the area. I like it here – this is my home, my neighbourhood, my family’s neighbourhood. We are anchored here. And it’s a really cool area.”