New Zealand Breweries had introduced in the early 1970s their first family-friendly restaurant called Cobb & Co – named after the stagecoach firm of the 19th century.
Cobb & Co came about when New Zealand Breweries executives attended the National Restaurant Association's annual conference in America and got talking to its president, Mike Hurst – a successful restaurateur from Fort Lauderdale.
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As a result, Mike would come to New Zealand to work with New Zealand Breweries as the "ideas man" to develop the concepts behind the ambience, decor, style and service of food of what was to become Cobb & Co.
The most common menu in New Zealand in the early 1970s was table d'hôte, which was a fixed price menu for a starter, entrée, main and dessert. Cobb & Co would offer an á la carte menu – allowing patrons to choose separate menu items, such as an entrée and dessert only. These would be family-oriented restaurants, offering a "Mum, Dad and kids" experience. They were fully licensed.
Initially three Cobb & Co restaurants were trialled throughout New Zealand: in a CBD, Auckland; a tourist town, Taupo; and a large regional city, Hamilton.
Cobb & Co was an instant success and was rolled out nationwide in hotels of New Zealand Breweries and its successor Lion Breweries.
Napier's turn would come in September 1980 with the opening of the country's 16th Cobb & Co, at the "Masonic Establishment" (now Art Deco Masonic Hotel). New Zealand Breweries around the late 1960s had begun calling its second-tier hotels "establishments" as opposed to their flagship hotels, such as the South Pacific Hotel in Auckland and others around the country.
Before the arrival of Cobb & Co, the Masonic Hotel had the Mediterranean (Med) Bar (on the Tennyson St side), a house bar, the Gold Room (next to Emerson St) and the public bar on Hastings St.
In 1979, an extensive $925,000 (2020: $4.95 million) upgrade of the hotel to renovate the first-floor accommodation and install the new 150-seat Cobb & Co restaurant and bar (Cobb Bar, which replaced the hotel's house bar). The hotel's grand piano was also restored at a cost of $1200 ($6400).
A New Zealand Breweries/Lion Breweries/Lion Nathan manager from 1970 to 2000, Michael Friend, reflected that he thought the only organisation with more architects working for them was the Government's Ministry of Works. Offices for the brewery's architects were in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
In what would send shivers down the spines of Art Deco building fans, there appeared to be an intention to alter the Masonic Hotel's facade during the renovations.
However, project architect Bruce McGregor said, "Outside alteration to the building was dismissed because the hotel's rebuilding after the 1931 earthquake had left a very solid building that was built at least three times as strong as it ever needed to be, and which would be expensive to alter."
Therefore Lion Breweries would leave the outside "1930s austere look" of the building but change the inside to reflect the Cobb & Co stagecoach era of the 1890s.
On Saturday, March 21, 1980, to mark the end of the Gold Room, lounge and house bar, hotel staff dressed in 1920s-style clothes, which was close to the era of the current hotel's opening in 1933. This would prove to be a very prophetic event, and years ahead of the Art Deco renaissance in Napier during the late 1980s.
Silver service platters and other historical chattels of the Masonic Hotel were auctioned off on March 28 and 29, 1980 to make way for the new fitout, leaving only the Med Bar and public bar untouched.
The alterations started around April 1.
Four large cartwheels – 1.5m in diameter – originally from a Napier stagecoach company - were purchased from a local collector for the restaurant.
Cobb & Co was opened on September 15, 1980 by Napier mayor Clyde Jeffery, who gave a brief history of the Masonic Hotel, including that his wife's parents, Stan and Lucy Nicol, had been managers for 20 years.
Lion Breweries' general manager of hotels, Bernard Lagan, said at the opening, "We expect not only to receive good value for our money but to also give our diners and guests good value for their money." He also stated that Cobb & Co was designed to retain the atmosphere of the historic Masonic.
He would be right – the public of Hawke's Bay could not get enough of the restaurant.
Once on a Tuesday night, 723 covers (diners) were served from 5pm-10pm, which was done with only three cooks in the kitchen.
Some of the staff had various names for the Cobb & Co restaurant, reflecting its fast service, such as "gobble and go", and a former waitress recalls it was all about "getting them in quick and out quick". She remembers one Christmas Day of four meal sittings, with 600 people served.
In Easter 1981, a queue formed down Marine Pde of those waiting for a table at Cobb & Co. After the Whakatu freezing works closed in 1986, the numbers started to drop off somewhat.
By the late 1980s there were 28 Cobb & Co restaurants throughout New Zealand.
Public interest in Cobb & Co began to wane with more competition from the American fast-food giants such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).
Lion Nathan thought a better approach would be to retain the Cobb & Co brand but franchise out the restaurants.
However, by 1997 family dining expectations had changed, the franchisees weren't making the money they had expected and the Cobb & Co chain "slowly but surely began to disintegrate", Michael Friend recalled.
Lion Nathan would soon take back the master franchise agreement and sell that together with the brand.
The Cobb & Co was moved to Station St from the Masonic Hotel in 1997 but has since closed down.
A Cobb & Co did open on Marine Pde for a period in the 2010s but has also since closed.
The brand and business have since re-emerged and new owners Ben and Sue Gower of Tauranga have about eight restaurants operating.
From 2010 to 2014, the current owners of the Art Deco Masonic Hotel, Neil Barber and Craig Hay undertook an extensive interior restoration of the hotel back to its former Art Deco glory from past alterations, including those made for Cobb & Co. Some of the interior decorative features were remade based on the originals. The Gatsby Room in the hotel is a particular showpiece of its past splendour.
• Michael Fowler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contract researcher, commercial business writer of Hawke's Bay history.