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Member Spotlight: Emma Smart, Counter Culture Board Game Cafe & Bar

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In 2002, Emma and Ahmed met and moved from Wellington to Abu Dhabi and started a family. On a trip back to Ahmed’s hometown Toronto one year, they stumbled across the fabulous Snakes & Lattes. A board game cafe! Coffee and beer and food and board games.

The germ of an idea started to form, and desert life was beginning to get hot and monotonous, so… they moved back to Wellington. They started looking and looking for a place to open a board game cafe and share their love of board games and coffee and beer and food. One day, they saw a TO LEASE sign underneath their old super cool inner city apartment. In a mad chaos of sleepless nights and ‘What ARE we doing?’ moments, they opened the doors of Counter Culture Board Game Cafe and Bar on 1 June 2017.

Here’s 10 questions with Emma Smart, Co-owner of Counter Culture, for this Member Spotlight.


What made you decide to go into the industry / what gave you your first start in hospitality?

In 2012, we were visiting Ahmed’s family in Toronto. We’d gone over from Abu Dhabi, which is where we were living at the time. We read about a new board game cafe that had opened there, Snakes and Lattes, so we went to have a look. It was great fun, and we loved the idea that you could pick a board game off the shelf and play it, while eating great food and having a beer or a coffee.

We returned to Abu Dhabi and over the next four years, started thinking of doing something similar back in New Zealand. We started hosting monthly board game evenings with a bunch of our friends, to practice teaching games, see what kinds of games people enjoyed, and also to see what kind of food and drink would work well, ones that could easily share the table space. The games evenings were so popular that we ramped it up to fortnightly.

When we returned to New Zealand, we opened Counter Culture, so we really came at hospitality from a board gaming angle, trying to ensure our food and drink would complement the games we had on offer. Beer was a no brainer -match made in heaven! Ahmed added the wine and cocktails as well as non-alcoholic and hot drinks for the gamers that want to keep their head clear for complex strategic thinking!

What inspires you?

All the amazing people who walk (or roll) through the door and have fun, day after day. We are thrilled that people comment on how welcoming the space is. You can really celebrate any occasion here and we’ve welcomed people for a broad variety of occasions from kids and adult birthday parties through to stag and hen nights and date nights. The people are really what makes this place and what gets us out of bed each day.

What do you love about the hospitality industry?

Knowing that we are doing our bit to support other small businesses in the area, who work SO HARD, and building personal connections with them. All of our amazing suppliers from local brewers through to our great board game designers and publishers that just make what we do so much fun. It’s the good people in the industry working hard to help and support each other that really makes it.

What are your key challenges?

It’s probably the same issue as any café or restaurant owner: not enough hours in the day to do the thousand things that need doing. We are a couple with two young kids, so one of us always needs to be at home in the evenings. We are like four ships that pass in the night some weeks. We are finally starting to achieve a bit more school / work / home / life balance, though, after only two years. We also jumped into this industry with almost no experience, and a scary amount of naivete. I mean, how hard could it be, right?

Another challenge is that it’s sometimes hard to convince customers to go home. They’re just having too much fun!

What is the secret to your success?

We saw a growing trend in North America, Europe and Asia, and noticed that there was a gap in the market here. We did years of market research and business planning on the back of napkins which really helped us to understand what people were looking for from the experience.

We try to focus on not only having a range of games for all levels of “gamer”, but also to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment as well as a great selection of food and beverages. Excellent customer service is essential, right down to the last detail. We strive to be kind to the environment as well, and to treat all our customers and staff with respect.

What is the best piece of advice you have received to date in your hospitality career?

I once heard Raechal Ferguson from Field & Green quote Danny Meyer’s salt shaker theory and that struck a chord. “Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That’s their job. It is the job of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset.”

What one piece of advice would you give to people starting out in the industry?

Be unique, be genuine, be kind. And try to have fun!

What do you think makes NZ Hospitality unique?

Fabulous fresh food and flavours, and passionate people. A giant pool of talent and ideas for such a small nation.

Which restaurants are on your dining bucket list?

Hiakai, Field & Green, Rita, Larder, Juno, El Culo Del Mundo, Bambuchi and Shepherd. Working in the industry and having two small kids, it’s tough to find the time to eat out, sadly. When our kids grow up, perhaps.

What do you do to relax?

I like to run and read and Ahmed plays games and builds Lego!


Counter Culture recently featured on 7 Sharp! CLICK HERE to check out the video.


Check out Counter Culture’s website





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