10 February, 2024
Caring cafe owner serves wider community
Narrow Neck Beach Cafe has become more than a spot to pick up a coffee and pie. Under the
ownership of Josie Shi Xu, a community hub has emerged. She spoke to Helen Vause.
Counter culture… Cafe owner Josie Shi Xu has painted “pawtraits” (below) of many of the dogs whose owners regularly visit her business, displaying her artwork mounted on timber cuts on the counter
A cafe owner who gives away meals sounds like a recipe for business disaster. But that is exactly what Josie Shi Xu has been doing for the past two years.
Shi Xu (pictured above) and partner Daniel bought Narrow Neck Beach Cafe in 2017 and amid the social impact of Covid lockdowns soon became aware of people in the community – some sleeping in their cars – who would appreciate free or cheap leftover food or drinks at the end of the business day.
More recently, with some funding support from Devonport Rotary, Shi Xu has been cooking up to 25 meals a week to be delivered free to grateful recipients.
“Knowing people love to get these meals is all the motivation I need,” she says.
“Believe me, there are people in need out there from all walks of life for all sorts of reasons.”
Feeling embraced by the local community reinforced the 33-year-old’s own desire to help those in need.
“This community reached out to me and I found myself wanting to reciprocate. And besides, why wouldn’t I help people out where the need arose if I could?”
Her personal background helps explain her entry into a hospitality business with a philosophy of making much more than coffee and food.
An only child, Shi Xu arrived in New Zealand with her parents in 1997, aged seven, immigrants from the city of Shenyang (population more than 8 million) in north-east China. They couldn’t speak English, but had contacts in Rotorua, where they’d chosen to start a new life.
Josie was the name chosen for her when she left China.
At Rotorua’s Glenholme Primary School, she thinks she was the only Chinese child. Though she may have been a bit lonely, she remembers being happy enough, in “my own space, doing my own thing” and having the support of a tightly-knit family.
“Looking back it must have been a blessing for my migrant parents at a time that can’t have been easy for them, that I was a good kid. They’d made this huge change for us and certainly for me and the future they wanted for me.
“Everything was just so very different from what we had come from and even at that age I understood some of the challenges for my parents. The reality was that in China we would have been regarded as being quite well off. Dad had worked in finance and Mum had worked in a health authority.”
Josie’s mother found work as a waitress and her father made himself indispensable in a local souvenir shop, where he could speak easily with Chinese tourists.
Their young daughter picked up English quickly, as children do, and started to mix more with her new local friends of other cultures, as she moved through primary school.
“It was our new world and we were making the best of it. Remember, there was no internet then, so Rotorua was our world, far away from what we’d left.”
Establishing themselves in a new country, the family had to always be looking out for bargains.
“I learned early that we could get cheap food from the bakeries around closing time. And we were always being given lots of hand-me-down stuff.”
Shi Xu wonders if she could have done what her parents did. “Could I just uproot my whole family and take the chance they took? And of course I wonder how our lives would be if we had never left China.”
Within a couple of years, the family moved to Auckland, gained New Zealand citizenship and settled in Mt Roskill.
Shi Xu discovered she was a good student, and at Mt Roskill Grammar became a handy interpreter and one-girl welcoming committee for those teens from China who found themselves lobbed into school just like she had been, without friends or much English.
“By then of course I’d turned into a real Kiwi kid, even if we did still eat Chinese food at home,” she chuckles.
“But someone had to help those kids turning up from China and that was me.”
Her impulse to help others had become firmly ingrained, partly through her early life experience, when need and the possibility of social isolation were familiar issues.
She dated Kiwi boys in her teens, but at the University of Auckland she met Daniel, fresh from China.
He needed lots of help finding his feet, she remembers, but stood out from the others she had helped. Before they were much older, she married him.
By then she was on the way to a career in bio-medical science, having specialised in genetics.
At 22, however, Shi Xu became pregnant with the couple’s son Clovis. She admits parenthood turned her world upside down, bringing chaos where there had been focus and order.
“I had a baby and I knew I didn’t want a life in biosciences.”
Instead, she took a job at Work and Income and with it a close-up view of how life was for people having a tough time.
“This community reached out to me and I found myself wanting to reciprocate.”
This experience also contributed to her community-minded attitude since the couple took over their cafe seven years ago.
Finding her feet in the business, she realised a few things about herself. She liked people, she liked giving and she felt an overwhelming urge to respond to need however she could, whenever she could.
No pie can ever be thrown away, no dog left to wander, no customer stranded in a downpour. If something needs to be done, or someone needs help, Shi Xu can keep the food and coffee coming, and also help at the keyboard to get balls rolling.
Social media is one of the ways she engages with the community and the cafe regulars who are like family in what has become a second home.
Her actual home is handier now, too. Having previously commuted across the Harbour Bridge, Josie and family moved to Hauraki in time for Clovis to start school at Belmont Intermediate.
Along with her support for needy members of the community, Shi Xu also has a soft spot for cats – rescuing and rehoming them, and arranging vet care, as a volunteer for a rescue group.
Dogs also get special attention at the cafe, being welcomed by name, and becoming the subjects of paintings by the proprietor. A line-up of her paintings of furry faces on discs hang on the cafe counter. There’s also a “hitching post” for tying them up outside.
Shi Xu has also fund-raised for various good causes and initiated beach clean-ups, at one stage giving ice creams to kids for collecting buckets of rubbish..
How did she become so well enmeshed in a community? She shrugs.
“The community embraced me, us. They reached out. It just sort of happened. And I invited people in who shared my values.”
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