Sports has always been a joy for Elijah Niko, but he is excited to share his other passion – food and wine! The former Auckand Warriors and Melbourne Storm representative is currently playing rugby for ASBH club in France where he resides with his French partner Pauline and their daughter Moana. After working at restaurants from a young age and being introduced to a variety of wines while playing in France, Niko has now opened up his own cafe and restaurant, the Cafe de Niko in Australia’s food and wine capital, Melbourne! Here at his cafe, SUGA’s can try some of the tastiest wines from France that will go down well with some delicious food!
Food, coffee and wine sure is a contrast to your stellar Rugby league career. So how did you get started in the coffee and wine business?’
I always loved coffee. Everyday I would always enjoy going to a local cafe and enjoy a cup of coffee with friends and family. The motivation for me to get into the cafe business started when I was about 14 or 15 when I worked in a cafe restaurant for a part time job to get a little extra money. Unfortunately it wasn’t to make coffee or food but it was washing dishes! However the love for the business and the motivation started from there and I always said to myself ‘if I can work hard, be disciplined then maybe one day it can become a reality to own one.’
On my last trip to Australia I saw there were a few cafes up for sale. I visited a lot trying to look for the best fit cafe that could cater not only to coffee and food but also to storing and serving my wines. I found a perfect cafe in Albert park, Melbourne with four big rooms upstairs. This was a perfect place to have a wine tasting function with a private function room and the cafe being downstairs. I quickly got hold of the seller and lucky enough he wanted to sell. I put an offer in and after a week I bought the place. I named the place Café de Niko.
I got started in the wine business by accident to be honest. When I first came to France I saw how much wine meant to the French people. They knew every type of wine there was. My rugby team were sponsored by a few wine companies and now and then we would go and watch how they make their wine which was interesting to me because I never knew the process of making wine. Every time I came back home from France, people will always ask me about French wine and food!
I had a good friend who had a few restaurants and he said to me, ‘I wish I had pure french wine and food but I can’t go to France’ and laughed. He said he had many friends in the restaurant and hotel business who loved french wine and food but obviously they were in Australia. This was a lightbulb moment for me! If they can’t go to France and get this stuff how about I bring it to them! This is how the idea of exporting French wine to Australia started and I haven’t looked back since! There was a winery business down the road from my house in France. Everyday, I would drive past it on my way to rugby training and one day I went there and tried their wines and it was absolutely awesome!
So tell us how the business idea came to fruition?
I talked to the manager of that winery business and asked them if they had thought about exporting to Australia. He said they would love to but they didn’t have a salesman who knew the Australian market and contacts. That’s when I said to him ‘you are looking at him.’ The rest is history and we made a deal that I would be their salesman for Australia. Sales have gone through the roof. My first order was 500 bottles of french wine and I was over the moon and couldn’t believe the opportunity that I had got myself into. After a week I had a call from a Chinese gentleman in Melbourne who owned 20 prestige restaurants telling me he heard from his friend that I was exporting French wine and that he would love to order 600 bottles. 1100 bottles sold in a week was some what of a record for me. As of now I am looking to have a full time person work with me as the orders will become more more difficult to work with with just me. This is just the start but if I continue the process and continue to grow, I am positive it will become a success. In the near future I will be looking for an interested investor that could be the person that can help make this business grow even further and double the sales and profits.
What motivates you?
I’ve always been a motivated person even from a young age. Growing up as a samoan boy we didn’t have many things that other kids had but I knew that if I wanted something you had to work hard. I remember as a young boy my parents used to take us to run upstairs early in the morning before school started for fitness training obviously we loved sports from rugby netball and volleyball. Every time we ran up 10 sets we would be so tired by the time we finished, but the best bit was that on the top of the stairs were all these beautiful new houses and some mansions as it was a rich area. I always loved looking at these houses and me and my brother always said to each other ‘that one’s my house’ haha. From then on I wanted to be motivated and one day have a house like that. I think it’s important to be motivated in life. I always say to people, do what your passionate about and what you love. Life is too short so always follow your passion and work hard to achieve your goal. Sometimes there will be obstacles and failures but it’s in those tough times where you become a stronger person so never give up. If you fall down get back up and move forward towards your dreams because every time you do you get closer. But if you don’t then you will never get there.
As a Samoan, would you take your business to the islands?
I would love to do this and export my French wines in the Pacific islands. I know that French wines are quite foreign in the Pacific but I feel that it is a good opportunity to do so. I have an important meeting in Singapore with a client who put me in touch with a distributor so if this goes well I will break into the Asian market. But the Pacific will definitely suit my wines 100 percent!
What’s your favourite Samoan food?
My favourite samoan food. Hmmm I really like Taro and corned beef any day! That is my go to Samoan dish! I love it! I wish I could eat it but unfortunately I have to stay fit for rugby haha.
What’s your favourite French food.
Of course for me it’s the classic croissant, I also adore their cheese and their bread! I’ve never tasted any kind of bread like how the French make it! It’s so amazing and it’s my favourite.
What’s your favourite French wine?
I love the white wine or sweet wine! It goes well with fish or perfect for just a drink after a big day.
What wines would you recommend for us SUGAs? Lol
It depends! Haha. In France, depending on the type of event, food plays a big part in what wine you drink. If you’re having dinner with steak beef then I would suggest a classic French 2007 merlot red wine which will go perfectly with it! If your having an occasional drink with friends and family then I’d suggest a classic Chardonnay wine. But again many types for different moods
What would you say to young Suga’s and Sole’s who are thinking of stepping into the big wide world of entrepreneurship?
I say take the leap. There are many Pacific Islanders making a mark in the world. Many years ago it was unheard of! I believe us islanders have many talents that need to be expressed. Wheather it’s in sports or business, get out there and create something, create an idea! Believe in yourself, be around people who will support you. Never listen to negativity. Work hard and also learn something everyday that will help you towards your goals. For me I had people laugh at me saying ‘why would you sell wine you are a Samoan! No Islander has done this?’ I happily replied, ‘then I will be the first Pacific island man to do this’. Be a person who stays true to your word. Never let anyone try and talk you out of your dreams. Sometimes it’s a lonely journey but as long as you can say to yourself that it’s possible and believe it in your heart then that’s the only person you need! Stay hungry, work hard and remember to always thank our beloved God, for our opportunities that he puts in front of us.
If you are in Melbourne Visit, enjoy some fabulous food and tasty French wine at Cafe De Niko, Albert Park! Support our Samoan Entrepreneurs!
-Written by Lagi Farani
Elijah and Tebow discussing wine business at Domain Desdieux located in Sauvian, France.