When Pak'n Save opened in Kaitaia more than 30 years ago, it was a New Zealand first and mutton and candles simply flew off the shelves of the Commerce St store.

Gaylene Voss and her husband Barry stood on Lookout Point in Kaitaia and scanned the sparse number of dwellings across the town.

"What have we done?" she turned and said to Barry.

In 1985, the concept of a large food barn had made its way to Kaitaia, where the first ever Pak'n Save opened. Photo / Supplied
In 1985, the concept of a large food barn had made its way to Kaitaia, where the first ever Pak'n Save opened. Photo / Supplied

Construction on the store started in January and the store opened in June.

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Paying 25 per cent interest on their loan to open the "bulk food barn", the couple had taken a huge gamble that this type of retail store would succeed in the Far North - it was thriving everywhere else in 1985.

"There was no fancy produce and families bought on a monthly basis", with communities organising buses from Rawene and elsewhere for the monthly shopping day, she said. Local dairies also used the store as a wholesalers.

The pair had moved to Kaitaia from Whangarei, where they were running a Four Square when they were approached by Foodstuffs to open a Pak'n Save in Kaitaia.

While there was a Mark 'N Pak in Rotorua and Whangarei, Pak'n Save had yet to open and the small, Far North town was to trial its success as Foodstuffs believed the larger families would come for the cheaper prices.

Mutton was a big seller, as were candles, thanks to the fact that many homes in the Far North were still without power in 1985.

"It was a nice town, it was buzzing but it needed a bigger food store," said Ms Voss.

The supermarket pioneers were blown away by the first day's takings of $38,000 and the first month's, an unprecedented figure between $100,000 and $110,000 each week.

Victims of their own success, the Voss team were forced to hire storage space in the town and use extra forklifts to transport stock.

"We grew too fast. It got tricky."

When the couple had to expand the store for the third time, to build a bakery, Gaylene realised she didn't know how to write "3 million dollars".

"I just didn't know how to even write it, or how many zeros were needed."

While Christmas might have been a time to relax for the many families who went north for the break, the Voss team called it a "nightmare".

"It just got too busy.

"Families soon figured out that they could buy cheap food in Kaitaia, instead of bring food with them."

The store kicked off trading on Saturdays, and eventually on Sundays, much to the dismay of other local retailers and churches in the area.

"Most of our customers were church-going people so, the town eventually got used of the idea," said Ms Voss.

There were no barcodes, scanners or rolling checkouts back then.

Prices were marked on the shelves. Customers were handed a black marker when they entered the store, and they wrote the price of the goods on the items and brought them back to the checkout.

"But the markers ran dry, customers drew on the walls or took the markers home with them. It wasn't a good system."

She said the staff had remained their best asset through the years.

"We had 17 staff when we started and 125 when we sold the store in 1997, when Foodstuffs moved to North Rd, where it is now."

The couple bought a house in Whatuwhiwhi in 1994, and after running the Kaitaia store for 11 years, they sold up and started marking papers for Foodstuffs' training papers.

The store celebrated its 30th birthday on June 12.