If you've been out and about this summer, you may have spotted a food truck with a big smile on the side. Catering for events big and small, The Happy Puku brings opportunities for people who have experienced homelessness and unemployment.

The next journey for this social enterprise, launched by Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust a year ago, is to open a restaurant.

"It won't be a tablecloth, maître D and degustation type of thing. That's not our cup of tea," says Te Tuinga Whanau's executive director Tommy Wilson. "It will be good, generous Kiwi and French kai served in a welcoming space, and safe anchorage in the heartland of Tauranga Moana."

The Happy Puku is managed by Tommy's brother, French-Māori chef Stephen Wilson. He has been facilitating cooking classes for whānau for three years, teaching them how to make affordable, healthy kai. They work alongside the Tutarawananga Māori Women's Welfare League Tauranga on promoting healthy lifestyles.

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Te Tuinga Whanau's accountant Chipo Hamudulu has also played a key part in helping develop the concept into a food truck and a restaurant. Originally from Zambia in Southern Africa, the 23-year-old who lives in Ohauiti manages the financial side of the business and sets up systems for the operational team.

"When I trained in accountancy I never thought I'd be doing anything like this, but I love it because I am not just doing the numbers, I am seeing people transformed. It is something different every day."

Chef Stephen Wilson says it will be good, generous Kiwi and French kai served in a welcoming space, and safe anchorage in the heartland of Tauranga Moana. Photo / Andrew Warner
Chef Stephen Wilson says it will be good, generous Kiwi and French kai served in a welcoming space, and safe anchorage in the heartland of Tauranga Moana. Photo / Andrew Warner

She is passionate about the philosophy behind The Happy Puku, people learning to help themselves, help others, and to learn a business.

When launched, The Happy Puku hired people that were engaged in Te Tuinga Whanau's emergency housing programme Whare 4 Whānau and taught them the basics of cooking during a 10-week programme. Bev Paratene-Boswell, counsellor at the progamme says the team now delivers lunches to workplaces and provides professional catering services.

The Happy Puku food truck has a growing profile across Tauranga, recently catering at the Bay of Plenty Garden and Arts Festival, at Bethlehem's A night before Christmas, and during the Te Puna Tens rugby tournament.

"The Happy Puku kitchen is currently being housed in a building adjacent to our first Whare for Tauranga. In three short years, we have grown from one whare for the homeless on The Strand to a stable of 35 properties across Tauranga Moana," Tommy says.

"We are currently servicing 45 families. Logistically, it takes a small army to manage their day-to-day needs, given most have come from traumatic backgrounds.

"Everything we earn goes back into the Happy Puku, to fund the kaupapa that we have at Te Tuinga."

Tommy explains that while The Happy Puku is still growing and not yet turning a profit, it is their way of giving back. A restaurant is the next step and, once funding has been secured, the trust is seeking venues for The Happy Puku Restaurant. The menu will be seasonal, with locally sourced ingredients.

"With the freshest fish, we'll do our own version of sashimi, ceviche, and raw fish seasoned by the cultures of the Islands. It will be the place to taste and see Tauranga Moana on a plate," says head chef Stephen.

"Maybe with the experience from the fishing and hunting activities we currently do with our youth, we'll have Happy Puku's wild rabbit or goat rillettes and wild boar sausages, salami and croquettes with our own Happy Puku relishes from our Te Puna gardens called The Puku Patch.

The restaurant will use locally grown food from the Happy Puku gardens in Te Puna. Photo / Supplied
The restaurant will use locally grown food from the Happy Puku gardens in Te Puna. Photo / Supplied

"We'll do Kitty's mullet and hapuka sliders with aunty Nicky's pickled lemon mayo and Te Puna watercress, Aotearoa steamed snapper, sumac and cumin battered warehou and rewana fry bread with Happy Puku slaw, tomato relish and lemon mayo. Plus Kiwi classics such as roast lamb, home-made pies, pikelets, cheese scones, feijoa and tamarillo desserts. The list goes on."

Tommy says, "My brother has learnt from the masters of cuisine in Paris for 25 years, and I've also done a decade at an international 5 star level. We'll both be involved in setting up and operating The Happy Puku Restaurant. It will have its very own sense of identity and vibe, and we'll work as whānau. Very Kiwi, friendly, laid-back, yet totally with a professional approach and willing to do the hard yards.

"We're all about connection. With each other and to the land, sea and our environment. It will be a beautiful marriage of French and Māori flair which means flavour in the kai and generosity and smiles in the service."

The Happy Puku is also in the process of creating a range of preserves with rongoā Māori-inspired relishes.

"Back in the day before we had freezers, our Granny, who had a big garden, could always reach into the pantry and pull out a jar of home-made sauce, jam or chutney that she had prepared many months before, knowing that the contents would be nutritious and fresh-tasting," Tommy says.

"That's how the idea came along of making it a commercial venture, selling wonderful products inspired by what our aunties and grandmothers used to do."

The team is taking on these flavour ideas and aim to keep it simple with tomato relish, corn salsa, courgette and kamokamo pickle, and aunty Nicky's lemon sauce.

"All our produce is grown in our māra kai (food garden) in Te Puna. What we grow there is solely for the purpose of our business and for feeding our Te Tuinga Whanau," Tommy says. "The women and men from our emergency housing and Whare 4 Freedom will process all the raw produce such as chopping the fruits, squeezing aunty Nicky's lemons, plus harvesting the kamokamo, corn, tomatoes, and the kumara."