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Cafe Flatwhite: A front post of New Zealand's café culture

Updated: Apr 29, 2021 Print
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They say that every Diplomatic Residence Compound (DRC) in Beijing is home to an outlet of Cafe Flatwhite (CFW).

That may be an exaggeration, but certainly outlets of the New Zealand-style cafeteria are tucked away in three of the six DRCs. Other stores have been opened at art zones, grand office buildings, and a science and technology park in Beijing, offering New Zealand snacks and various types of coffee. The signature drink – Flatwhite Coffee – is a coffee drink popular in New Zealand and Australia.

“In Beijing, the first cup of Flatwhite Coffee is sold here.” The coffeehouse proclaims on its WeChat account page. In 2006, Michael (Chinese name Hongfu) returned from New Zealand to his hometown Beijing and started a business. He opened the first CFW in the Silk Market, a landmark shopping mall near embassy compounds and the Central Business District haunted by foreigners and fashionable locals. He grew his business quickly, opening 23 stores before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, after a re-structuring, there are still 10 in operation and six more are planned.

A cup of Flatwhite Coffee served in Cafe Flatwhite. [Photo/WeChat account of Cafe Flatwhite]

What is Flatwhite Coffee? Although there is not full agreement about its origin, as New Zealand and Australia both claim its invention, a Flatwhite Coffee is served with a double espresso shot topped with silky smooth milk and finished with a thin microfoam layer of milk. It has a velvety steamed surface, not a foamy one like a latte; hence the word “flat”.

“Coffee drinks are no mystery,” smiled Michael, resolutely. With 31 years of studying and living in New Zealand, he has become customized to drinking coffee and deeply inspired by the café culture there. He still holds affection for Fidel’s Cafe, a coffee shop he frequented in Wellington, and reminisces about the relaxed ambience of cafés as places for spending social hours. That’s why he attaches importance to friendly service and insists on a living-room-like interior design for each of his stores.

A corner of the CFW Silk Market Store [Photo/WeChat account of Cafe Flatwhite]

Michael ascribes the establishment of his coffee empire to several people, from both China and New Zealand, who have been giving him strong support. Among them is Ji Ming, his "mentor". The former president of the Beijing Coffee Association, Ji is a veteran in the trading of coffee and a pivotal figure in helping Flatwhite Coffee Works source quality beans from around the world.

Michael (R) and Ji Ming at the CFW Jianguomengwai DRC Store [Photo by Yao Xu/]

In 2008, CFW set up its own coffee roastery, now known as Flatwhite Coffee Works, in Beijing, roasting beans with professional and standardized methods. The coffee not only supplies its stores, but also serves 30-plus embassies. Michael recruited two New Zealanders to take charge of the roasting process and quality control. For more than a decade, CFW has kept the price of its signature coffee and the carrot cake unchanged: “Indigenous flavor and affordable price are not contradictory.” He revealed that as the secret of his business success, adding that Cafe Flatwhite has always made high quality and choice ingredients its top priority.

CFW enjoys linking China with New Zealand, in a culinary way. During the New Zealand Weeks at the Jianguomenwai DRC Store, an event held every April, popular and distinct New Zealand cuisine is introduced and served. It includes scampi, oysters, fish and chips, traditional whitebait fritters, and grass fed lamb chops, with ingredients imported directly from New Zealand.

Oysters served at CFW during New Zealand Weeks are smooth textured, and taste slightly salty at first. [Photo/WeChat account of Cafe Flatwhite]

CFW has gained a good reputation among New Zealand diplomats in Beijing. Michael cherishes the memory that his café's trademark was bestowed by the wife of Tony Browne, the former New Zealand Ambassador to China. It is also a favorite haunt of the current ambassador, Clare Fearnley.

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