Last year, like a lot of other restaurant owners in Auckland, Creghan Molloy-Wright and Simon Wright at The French Cafe had to work hard just to tread water.
But in December, they had something new to talk about - the opening of a separate private party room they called The French Kitchen. And it's given the business a new surge of energy for 2013; something different for customers to try under the well-established French Cafe brand.
The couple, who have owned the restaurant for nearly 14 years, were careful to prepare customers for The French Kitchen in the space which was a warehouse behind Cheap-skates, now linked directly via a courtyard with The French Cafe. They had boards up behind The French Cafe with the teaser "The French Cafe is growing", and also informed their database of diners and corporate contacts.
The space has an Electrolux-equipped kitchen - Wright is Electrolux cooking ambassador - and the room accommodates parties from 10 to 30.
Architect Katie Lockhart has created a New York loft-style light-filled room.
"Everybody is incredibly relaxed in The French Kitchen - they have their own space and don't have to be conscious of other diners," says Molloy-Wright, who runs front of house.
As well as offering a new service to customers it is something for the staff to appreciate. Executive chef Wright and head chef Sebastian Hindrichs do lunches and dinners there.
"I always wanted to produce a space that was really interactive, like someone's home but still give it that restaurant feel," says Wright. "They can come up and chat while you are cooking or they can just sit back and watch.
"A lot of restaurants have a chef's table in the kitchen but here it's a whole different environment."
"It's making the restaurant better. People have canapes out in the courtyard. The whole place is abuzz," says Molloy-Wright. One evening The French Kitchen diners got up and fox-trotted.
In some ways the couple feel they've come full circle. In the early days, the husband and wife used to cook at people's homes. "It was very hard work but it was a lovely way to do it," says the British chef who had his training in London working in top restaurants including Marco Pierre White's Michelin 2 star Harvey's.
Things haven't always flowed at The French Cafe. In fact, the Wrights started on the wrong foot in 1999. "Our concept in the beginning was not what the people wanted. We thought it would be a smart bistro but people wanted it to be fine dining," says Wright.
Then they made the wine list more sophisticated and created a degustation menu. "That's when we started to fly," he says.
The restaurant now has more than 20 staff and turnover of about $4 million. The French Cafe has won a number of awards over the years, recently given the 2013 Metro Emirates Best Restaurant Supreme Award. Wright also won best chef and The French Cafe won best fine dining and best service.
The couple say they have enough to keep them busy for the next five years. "We are going to concentrate on what we are doing instead of wanting more."
They have a young son who thinks people who work during the day are odd.
The couple have thought of moving from the top of Mt Eden Rd but it never felt right. "When you put so much love and blood and sweat into this place it is so much better. This completes our vision."
Always test changes and remain customer-focused. Take baby steps.
Best business achievement
"Getting through the first year or the first five years. We were doing our own cleaning, doing the dishes ourselves."