January 10, 1964 – November 26, 2021
Sanjay Ponnapa, who died aged 56 in Hong Kong, was one of the founders of Wellington’s coffee industry, going on to build a highly successful coffee empire in Wellington and Asia.
He was born in Tamil Nadu, near his family’s homeland of Kodagu. The Kodagu (formerly known as Coorg) is a small, sparsely populated region nestled in the rich coffee-growing hills of the Western Ghats, about halfway down India’s western side.
His family were coffee farmers and soldiers; his uncles included Field Marshal Kodendera Madappa Cariappa, the first Indian commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, and General Kodendera Subayya Thimayya.
Sanjay’s father, K.A. (Ponu) Ponnapa, and mother Leela took a different path; both became doctors. In 1966, they answered a call from New Zealand for psychiatrists. After training in Scotland, they took up medical positions at Porirua Hospital, bringing their young daughter Mythi and son Sanjay with them.
Coming from India to the gastronomically bleak New Zealand of the 1960s must have been a shock, but Ponu’s brother sent over bags of Coorg coffee, which Leela would roast in the family kitchen.
Sanjay went to school at Viard College in Porirua and then St Patrick’s College (Silverstream). He grew up into a tall, strongly built, strikingly good-looking man, with a love of fine clothes, whiskey, and late 50s jazz. He attended Victoria University and the University of Canterbury but left without a degree.
He worked in the fashion industry, then traveled to New York, supporting himself by cocktail bartending. Those playboy years were not wasted, as seeds were being planted that were to bear fruit later; attention to detail, a love of quality, and customer service. One seed, in particular, was to grow into a plant that would build an empire.
Around 1995 he returned to Wellington and took a job with a young business called Coffee Supreme. It was the first year of what was to become the city’s cafe boom, Supreme founder Chris Dillon remembers Ponnapa as “very entrepreneurial”.
“He was always picking your brains. We had a lot of conversations about what he wanted to do next, and the potential he could see for takeaway carts, like he had seen in the US.”
Ponnapa wanted to do something different. He still wasn’t sure how. Then, in 1996, things came together. He designed and built his first coffee cart.
Anyone who was in Wellington then will remember it: based on the 1950s design icon, the Airstream Caravan, in silver, black, and red, with the sounds of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins wafting through aromas of the finest arabica coffee served in branded cups. It was an instant hit with Wellingtonians. Fuel Espresso Ltd was born.
“He wanted to elevate takeaway,” says Dillon. “Many thought it was second-best. He wanted to show it could be beautiful. He paid a lot of attention to branding, to how staff deported themselves, to make sure it would be a very coherent presentation. I’m pretty sure staff didn’t get to play fast and loose with the music playlist.”
That year Ponnapa also met his first wife, Alexandra Tylee. They were married the same year. For the first five years, they worked side by side developing Fuel.
The first cart, on The Terrace, showed them that the concept worked; the next challenge was getting more sites. Ponnapa persuaded skeptical bureaucrats to allow coffee carts at the hospital and airport.
“It hadn’t been done. We had to convince them it was a good thing to do,” Tylee says. “Back then lots of people hadn’t had proper espresso coffee. He was really charming, determined, and tenacious, and didn’t give up.”
Fuel soon expanded to seven carts and sites around Wellington. Unhappy with the wholesale imported beans most cafes used, they traveled to Trieste, Italy, and created their own blend with coffee maestro Vincenzo Sandalji. They then set up their own roastery in Holland St.
“We practiced the roasting for about a year before he was happy with it. He wanted to get it right. He was a perfectionist,” says Tylee.
Ponnapa was very proud of his blend, a closely guarded mix of Italian and specialty arabica beans from his family plantations in Coorg. He believed passionately that good coffee, like good wine, needed close attention to blending and even aging. He decided to age his coffee, contrary to what he called the “global industry’s obsession with the ‘fresh is best’ dogma”.
Tylee says his talent as a leader helped the business grow. “Everyone at Fuel was really like a family. He loved being able to integrate his passion for his music, and his family. He had a vision and saw it through.”
Unfortunately, family life was not so smooth. The couple’s son Zeus was born in late 1999. He died only a few months later, from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and his parents eventually parted ways.
By 2005, Fuel Espresso was well-established in the Wellington coffee scene, and Ponnapa was looking for the next step. He saw it in Hong Kong. He had a vision for a chain of high-end cafes nestled amongst the Guccis, the Versaces, and other luxury shops of Hong Kong’s plazas.
Over the next decade, he built it. Fuel now has seven sites in Hong Kong and two in Shanghai, in addition to three in Wellington. It has been stunningly successful; a tribute to the boy from Porirua who exported the taste and aroma of his secret blend to Asia.
Hong Kong became his home; he met his second wife, Yeonhee Kim, who worked in the financial sector. They married in 2012. Their daughter, Leela, was born the next year.
On Friday, November 26, Ponnapa mentioned to his wife that he was feeling unwell. He attended a staff dinner that evening but left early. While entering an escalator, he is believed to have suffered a medical event that caused him to fall. He died at the scene.
Dillon says Ponnapa made a significant contribution to the development of Wellington’s cafe culture. “Fuel was the first high-end New Zealand takeaway coffee chain. He would say the only one. No one had made good-quality takeaway coffee with that level of attention to detail and quality and presentation.”
Tylee says it’s hard to believe he’s gone. “He was so full of life, he had so many interests and so much he wanted to do.
“He was really warm, and a caring person.”
Chris Brown, of Sputnik PR, worked closely with Ponnapa to build his brand but says his business achievements were ultimately not what gave him the most satisfaction.
“He was very excited about celebrating their [his and Yeonhee’s] 10th anniversary. After all he’d been through, he thought his little family was his greatest success.”
Sources: Mythi Ponnapa, Chris Brown, Chris Dillon, Alexandra Tylee
This obituary appears in Stuff.