Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Charge of latte brigade as RSA menu gets kick in the pantry

Andrew Buenter admits the fare at the Mt Maunganui Returned and Services Association used to be a standing joke - maybe a frozen pizza or a greasy plate of deep-fried scallops.

Over its many years in Maunganui Rd, fuss-free patrons have never minded that. Nor have they cared about the beer range not extending too far outside the usual Waikato Draughts and Lion Reds.

Eventually, however, his RSA was faced with a tough reality: offer something fresh and new, or risk approaching the fate of the half-dozen branches recently lost to the century-old institution.

Its answer was the Foxhole Cafe, which has just become the smart face of the RSA's nationwide re-invention.

Gone are the oily bar snacks - you'll now find a stylish restaurant menu and a cabinet stocked with pastrami baguettes, pain au chocolat pastries and salmon croissants.

Rather than just another cold handle of tap draught beer, there's a bottle of Tuatara craft ale, a glass of pinot noir or an espresso latte.

When the Weekend Herald visited yesterday, kitchen staff were busy preparing gourmet baking for the lunchtime crowd.

Mr Buenter said revenues had been trending downward before he started his job as branch manager just over a year ago, and the committee were keen on a "new direction" that didn't just rely on alcohol sales and gaming machines.

"We've done really well in the past, but things have changed; we've got to open to a greater market, and to the wider community, to be financially viable," Mr Buenter said.

"Good, healthy food and top- quality barista-made coffee is an easy sell - and it makes it much easier to get liquor licensing. And there are no rules preventing excessive promotion, as with alcohol and gaming."

Was it a case of adapt or die?

"Yeah, adapt or die, to some degree. If you look at our history, you can see we are coming to the end of our life, and we have to look at evolving, and to the next 100 years. Through our research, food is a very viable option to do that."

Being New Zealand's largest RSA - it has about 5000 members on its books - the Mt Maunganui branch was the perfect place to pioneer the new look.

Elsewhere, the national RSA's Foxhole Cafe franchise has opened at Sumner RSA in Canterbury, where live music has been bringing in about 150 people for the past two weekends.

"After five years of struggling with insurance claims, looking for options and ways to do things differently, and searching for the right place, we've made it back," its committee president, Stu Russell, said.

National RSA chief executive David Moger expects to see as many 40 new Foxhole cafes over the next couple of years.

"Overall, the hospitality sector is enjoying a boom time right now and the RSA needs to show a modern and progressive approach to the changes in the sector," he said. "The Foxhole concept is one of the key ways in which we are doing this."

On the menu

What you used to get: Pies, frozen pizza, burgers, battered scallops.

What you get now: Croissant with salmon, cream cheese and capers; warm ciabatta bread with a trio of dips; pain au raisin pastry.

- NZ Herald

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