The quest to make Auckland's foodie scene world-class

By Nici Wickes

Meet the dynamic duo quietly making a big noise on Auckland's food scene, and discover the secrets to their success

Jackie Grant and Scott Brown of the Hip Group at home in the Matua Valley, Kumeu. Photo / Babiche Martens
Jackie Grant and Scott Brown of the Hip Group at home in the Matua Valley, Kumeu. Photo / Babiche Martens

Jackie Grant and Scott Brown. You could be forgiven for not being familiar with their names, regardless of how much of a foodie you are, because this hospitality power couple don't shout from the rooftops or have a TV show, nor are they even vaguely interested in garnering publicity. Yet, since establishing their first cafe in 2004, they have been quietly transforming Auckland's cafe scene in their quest to make this city a world-class eating destination.

The pair are the directors of the Hip Group and right now they are on a roll, opening a raft of new eateries and breaking new ground for themselves by entering the evening dining scene.

Brown remembers their first venture like it was yesterday.

"It was June 23, 2004 and what a day it was ... The sun was shining on Kohimarama Beach, the water was shimmering and I was scared s***less!"

2013 is going to be a big year for the Hip Group and we, the dining public, are in for a treat. Here's why: whatever they do, they do it with flair and innovation and so astonishingly well that they are in a league of their own. This is the couple responsible for building a cache of some of our city's cleverest, most stylish daytime eateries - five at last count including that first one, Cafe on Kohi, The Store at Kohi, Takapuna Beach Cafe and Store, Richmond Road Cafe and Rosehip Cafe - and now their latest ventures, a cafe and bistro in St Heliers and three eateries in the fashionable Britomart precinct, including a casual Italian bistro style all-day eatery, Ortolana, and a dessert restaurant-wine bar, Milse.

Despite how easy it might look from where the diner sits, talk to any cafe owner or restaurateur and they will tell you how you need nerves of steel, deep pockets, patience and plenty of industry smarts to survive.

Restaurant owners are faced with customers who increasingly demand outstanding design and quality food that's innovative and sustainably produced. So, from selecting the right location, to making a clear decision on the style and type of food to serve, to settling on a name, funding the fit-out and then building a team of staff who won't be wooed by the competition offering 50c more per hour, running a restaurant or cafe is an incredibly complex, high-risk occupation.

Yet Grant and Brown make it look easy. Over the years I've marvelled at how obvious their selection of prime neighbourhood locations is, how they avoid being too clever with eatery names, how they are often first to market with concepts such as offering full table service, to setting up gelateria in each cafe with gelato machines imported from Italy. And who can forget the cheeky hand-held devices, that light up and vibrate to notify beach walkers that their table is ready, implemented at Takapuna Beach Cafe and Store to cope with demand.

Before opening any new venture the pair run two to four full days of service, free of charge, in order to get their systems streamlined, staff up to speed and iron out any last-minute issues with the menus before officially opening. This way they avoid any "first day chaos".

What I've also observed is their extraordinary ability to achieve a work-life balance. In an industry better known for its high stress and relentless hours it has always mystified me how they manage to slip away for a spot of floundering or pipi collecting, often with a few of their staff, head overseas at least once a year (for "research", Brown tells me) and most recently, take care of the enormous gardens at their new property in West Auckland.

When I ask to talk to them about what's in store for this year, the message I get back from Grant is a casual, "Sure, come out to the house for a wine", in spite of the fact that they are in the final stages of completing the multimillion-dollar Britomart trio of eateries and mere days away from opening the venture in St Heliers - a seven-day cafe and bistro, open from dawn until late, exquisite in every way.

I'd have thought they would have been too immersed in the detail to take time out. But no, they seem unruffled as they greet me on the rosebush-lined driveway to their house in Matua Valley.

As Brown puts it "It's fun and we like doing it so where's the stress in that?"

If anything epitomises the Hip Group approach, it is to keep it simple but do it differently. Brown explains: "We don't see any point in doing what others are already doing. Our goal has always been to take an original approach and do it as well as we can.

"That's why we've always made our own gelato and last year we imported soda machines from Italy so our customers wouldn't have to dread the question 'Would you like still or sparkling water?' - we offer sparkling water for free and it puts a smile on people's faces and we like that."

What encouraged this driven team into the cafe scene in the first place?

"We'd been working in the larger hotel groups, five and six-star, around the world and we came back to New Zealand and discovered that sure, there were a lot of cafes, but the quality was really inconsistent and often pretty ordinary to be honest. The scale might be different but the experience you're able to give people needn't be any less in a cafe, than say a five-star resort" says Grant.

The experience of working in some of the world's best resorts and hotels had given them an expansive view of what was possible and they wanted to bring this back to New Zealand.

So what was their experience of Auckland's cafe scene when they started out, compared to those in Australia (Brown is from Sydney), Europe and Asia?

Brown answers with a comical mime to demonstrate that it was about lining up to order, parting with your money in return for being given a stick with a number on it, slinking away to your table apologetically and waiting until someone wandered past, doing their best to match the numbers on the sticks with food orders coming out from the kitchen.

"We thought it was diabolical, unwelcoming and we knew it could be done better. We could see that it was possible to have the same depth of experience, level of service and sense of occasion that you come to expect when dining out for an evening meal, during the day and that's what we focused on providing.

"We introduced mandatory table service in all of our cafes from day one. Lining up to order your food just seemed such a bad way to begin a meal to us."

As we talk we take a walk through the property they've recently purchased. It's a sprawling 4ha piece of land that has been lovingly planted by the previous owners in fruit trees, grape vines and vegetable gardens.

There's a large citrus grove with trees laden with oranges, lemons and limes, 45 mature pear trees set out in neat rows and a grove of sylph-like pecan trees.

Wandering underneath them, Brown - a self-confessed "numbers man" is able to quote the current market price and how much that adds up to, given he's expecting a crop of 3.4 tonnes of nuts.

"You can expect to see pecans on the menu in the cafes," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

He's equally passionate about wine and when we come to the grape vines (montepulciano) he's away telling me how crushed glass from the cafes is to be used to keep the weeds at bay between the vines and how he can't wait to make his own wine.

Expect also to see bottles of Hip Group wine in no time, I'd say.

It was the land and what was growing there that attracted the couple to it.

They are deeply committed to supplying as much of the fresh produce for their businesses as they can, not because it's "on-trend" or marketable but because it makes the most sense to them.

"We're in the food business, we love food and we want to be as close to the source of it as possible. It has always made sense to us.

"We did a stint at Gilmour's, a big wholesaler of food items for cafes, and we had a vision for them getting closer to their suppliers but in the end we couldn't change their thinking so we're doing it ourselves.

"We just see it as logical and it's a great opportunity for our staff to see where the ingredients they are handling all day, every day, come from. Kitchen and front of house staff can get excited about planting a seed, then seeing it grow, become incorporated into a dish on our menu and then serving it to the customers.

"There's something so 'right' about that to us."

As if to prove the point we arrive at a huge glasshouse where the executive chef of the Hip Group, Jo Pearson, is tending the garden that she has begun planting up with all manner of produce from the super grain quinoa to the nutritious herb, purslane, all destined for her kitchen at Ortolana (meaning market gardener in Italian), which is set to open any day.

Out of nowhere another of the head chefs, Brian Campbell of Milse, joins our walking tour and I can't help but ask why they'd want to hang out with the bosses on their precious day off?

They shrug with a "why wouldn't we, we're all passionate about the same things" attitude and sure enough, when we're sitting around the kitchen bench later enjoying fresh baked bread, home-made terrine and a glass of two of wine, iPhones are passed back and forth constantly to show off various photos of food that's been eaten, dishes trialled and cute restaurants and cafes visited on their respective travels.

The whole time I am there, the relaxed and exuberant bubble of conversation rarely deviates from food-related topics. I am in heaven and want them to adopt me.

Bucking another industry trend, the Hip Group has a reputation for keeping staff. How do they do it?

"We select well, usually based on attitude as much as skills or experience, and then train them and treat them well and it seems to work. We recognised early on how important it was to select the right people and by that we mean people with the right attitude. They need to have the drive and really want this life.

"Hospitality is all about the hard work of creating fun and enjoyment."

This year they will hit a total of 300 staff and yet it feels like "one big supportive family" says Grant. Last year they took the staff who had been adhering to Ramadan and their families out for dinner to celebrate the end of their fasting. They take the chefs and kitchen staff fishing and head chefs have been known to accompany them on their various overseas jaunts.

"We see no reason to be like everyone else. We don't differentiate work and personal life, it's not necessary when you're working in such a great area - what excites us is trying something new," Brown effuses.

Their Britomart ventures break new ground with a bakery that will run 16 hours per day, in full view of the public, with pastry being made in a temperature-controlled glassed-in room, and artisan bread will be turned out by hand to supply their cafes and stores.

"It was important for us to not hide the bakery away and have it be operational in only the wee small hours when no one is there to appreciate the beauty of the craft of artisan bread-making," Brown explains.

"A working bakery, where bread is made by human hands means we can really can claim the title 'artisan breads'. They won't all be the same shape and size. It might even freak people out."

Brown's laughter booms at the thought. The best thing about the Hip Group is that they like to have fun.

With so much on their plate, I suspect that part of their success also lies in their ability to master time management and do what matters, trusting and delegating the rest to their teams. They've recently procured a rooster and Grant jokes that they wake the rooster up and I don't doubt it. Emails from them come in any time from 5.30am, but never after 9pm. "We're early to bed that's for sure. We do our socialising during the day and that's enough for us."

Driving away I couldn't help thinking that they are two of the most inspiring and lovely people you'll meet, in love with our city's food scene, in love with each other, with their staff and most importantly, with experiences that keep them grounded and feeling well-nourished. And brilliantly hospitable.

- NZ Herald

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