The coffee trailer has been serving New Zealand’s award-winning coffee and hot chocolate for a little over a month and the public’s response according to barrister turned entrepreneur and barista, Joan Puloka has been ‘phenomenal’.
Joan shares her story with Loop Tonga.
My name is Joan Puloka, I am married to Peter Rigamoto and we live in Suva, Fiji together with our 3 beautiful children. I am a lawyer by profession and started my career as a civil servant in Tonga, working at the Attorney General’s Office for a number of years, before I migrated to Fiji to join my husband. In Fiji, I was working at the U.S Embassy, both at the Consular and Political sections.
After 4 years working at the U.S Embassy, I made the choice to resign from work following my eldest son Walter's diagnosis with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism is a lifelong neurological disorder which comes with unique challenges such as difficulty with communication, sensory processing, and social skills. Peter and I sat down after learning of our son’s diagnosis and we both decided that it was the best thing for our family that I be present for our children at home while Peter continued formal employment as the sole breadwinner of our family. I resigned from the U.S. Embassy in 2018 and I have been advocating for children with Autism in Fiji ever since, studying part time while managing our home.
You lived and worked in Fiji for a while. What made you decide to return home to start up a business esp. at a time when businesses are feeling the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Peter and I's decision to start up a business began a year ago when countries began closing their borders for the first time as a result of Covid-19. I come from a family business background. My father, Tevita Puloka, owns Puloka Construction Ltd and so I've grown up with a special interest in business and entrepreneurship. Whilst I was working for Government, I always understood how important it was to have more than one income stream and this just became more obvious during the pandemic, especially when people working in different sectors started losing their jobs.
The main factor that pushed me to return home to set up Weta Coffee - Tonga was because of my son Walter. Every family who has a child with Autism understands the struggle of trying to find a suitable school that is willing to make modifications to provide a child with special needs an appropriate education. Walter started early education at the Hilton Early Intervention Center in Suva, Fiji which is a special school for children with developmental disabilities. Our ultimate goal as parents was to transition Walter from this special school to mainstream education, to be able to go to school with neurotypical children his age. After much research into schools all over Suva, we finally found a mainstream school that we thought was best for Walter and so far they have been excellent in assisting him with his short and long-term goals.
It has been 3 years since I have resigned from my work as a lawyer to look after Walter and our younger two children. Since then, Walter has progressed so much and it has been an amazing journey watching him grow more and more independent. Last year, I realized that in the long run, if we were to continue with quality education and therapy for Walter, it would become extremely expensive because we do not have these resources and services readily affordable here in our Pacific Island countries. I figured I wanted to be able to spend a lot of time at home ensuring Walter was getting the best care possible and at the same time, be able to earn and save up for his education in the future. Peter and I decided that the best way to do this would be to set up a business where I was flexible with my time and able to be there for my children when they needed me. That is how I decided to set up Weta Coffee - Tonga, it's a business that we started from scratch and the intention behind the business is to help fund my Autistic son's long-term education.
Why a coffee trailer?
I've always LOVED great coffee. I have seen how the coffee culture in the Pacific has expanded. I also love mobility and being able to do business from anywhere. The idea of building a coffee trailer came from my childhood best friend. She was studying in Europe a couple of years ago and when I brought up the idea of running a coffee business in Tonga, she asked "why don't you ask your Dad to build you a trailer?". She had come across several coffee trailers during her time away from Tonga. I thought it was a brilliant idea and I ran with it. My father and my brother who manage the family construction business were fully supportive of my new venture. They knew how important it was that we prepared for Walter's long-term education. With their expertise and the help of my Uncle, they built my Weta Coffee Trailer from scratch and we've been extremely pleased with the results. I have received so many compliments about how great it looks, which is really nice. I have one sister who is in early childhood education, she too has also been an important player in the business and has been instrumental in its set up from the very beginning. I have my family to thank for Weta Coffee – Tonga.
Why did you select the Weta brand?
Weta Coffee is a boutique coffee roastery and cafe located in Auckland's One Tree Hill. We partnered with them because not only do we love their coffee, but we wanted to bring that NZ award-winning experience to Tonga. The Weta brand embodies our desire to tread lightly on the Earth, hence why all our products are environmentally sustainable.
What can customers expect to find besides great coffee?
You can expect genuine and friendly customer service from us. Our lovely staff look forward to meeting and engaging with our customers which I think makes our place pretty special.
We want to be able to cater for all people, whether you're an early runner and want your coffee as early as 6am, or if you're a busy Mum with a ride full of kids and just want to pull up for an easy grab'n go cup of coffee without the hassle of entering a fancy cafe. Since opening, we have had several drive-thrus, as well as cyclists, pull up at our window to order a coffee to go and we love how convenient that has been for our customers.
Also, all our food and Veihalo (Tongan warm beverage made using coconut juice) are outsourced from our local women from the comfort of their homes. As a former stay-at-home mother, it is important to me that I support other women entrepreneurs.
What has been the public’s response since you opened Weta Tonga for business?
Phenomenal! We are overwhelmed by the support from all our customers and vendors. People message me to tell me that they look forward to our coffee in the mornings, and I always respond to these messages saying that I look forward to making their coffees too. I always mean that, because I enjoy working quietly behind our espresso machine and watching people enjoy our coffee really does makes my day. I often laugh to myself at the thought that I was once a barrister, now working as a ‘barista’ in a tiny coffee trailer. I don’t regret my decision, I love what I do and it’s rather satisfying to engage with people every day and to be able to put a smile on their faces. Peter and I are really happy that I can spend as much time as I want with our children while running a small business at the same time.
Photo source Wētā Coffee – Tonga/Facebook Caption: For the entire month of April Wētā Coffee will Light Up Blue to join thousands of others in global awareness of Autism.