Elisabeth Easther talks to Alannah Pfaff, co-founder of Waiheke's Ahipao, about setting up a business in the midst of a pandemic.
What is Ahipao?
Ahipao is a Waiheke cafe and garden bar that serves delicious wholesome food. The original idea was to concentrate on knitwear - having an open manufacturing workshop where visitors could watch us work - with a small coffee shop bolted on. My parents, Esme and Nick, founded the Cashmere Company in 2013.
We went to Japan and AUT to learn the knitting, because we're passionate about knitwear but, when Covid hit, they closed the Queen St store. That meant we could focus on Ahipao but, as we started planning and building, we saw the potential for a bigger, family-friendly cafe, and here we are.
What was it like, setting up a destination store on Waiheke, in the midst of a global pandemic?
Harder than we expected. We renovated for eight months before opening in October 2020, but because tourists weren't coming, we decided to cater to the local market, temporarily closing the knitwear space to make room for more cafe.
There's been a lot of pivoting, but we've managed to remain open throughout. We even had some Australians in the garden the other day, which everyone took as a good sign.
Are things more manageable because you're a tight-knit family business?
To a degree. My mum is also my boss, and co-founder of Ahipao but she was diagnosed with leukaemia in February. She's doing as well as we could hope and about to have her last round of chemotherapy. But with mum being sick, something had to give.
We'll give some cafe space back to the shop when international tourists return, and when Mum's health improves. We're feeling super-positive though.
What does Ahipao mean?
We originally wanted to call the business "Harbourmasters" to honour the building's heritage. Built in 1850 on North Head in Devonport to house Auckland's harbourmasters, it was relocated by barge to Matiatia in 1915.
However, after consultation with Ngāti Pāoa, it felt more appropriate to acknowledge tāngata whenua, and the name was gifted to us by their former cultural advisor, the late George Tearoha Kahi. Ahipao is the land's te reo Māori name and means "low burning fire", from the days a fire would be lit in the bay to guide waka home at night.
How long have your family been on Waiheke?
I was born in the UK and we moved to New Zealand in 2007. We'd visited two years prior, seven of us then, and travelled around in a campervan, trying to decide between here or Australia. Two years later we moved, when I was 13.
What was it like, travelling with so many of you in a campervan?
My second-youngest sister Angel learnt to walk in New Zealand, and my older brother got sick of us halfway and bought a tent. But we looked around each country for six months. Mum and Dad were supposedly educating us, but they just read us Lord of the Rings and taught us how to draw.
But it didn't impact our education. My older brother runs a barber shop with my little brother in the HSBC building and one of my sisters has just graduated as a doctor, so we're doing okay.
How have you pulled together as a family during these challenging times?
I have five siblings - none of them hospitality trained. My little brother lives with us so I can waltz into his room and rope him in when we have a last-minute staffing need. My partner is a full-time builder and he did the renovation. He's been an absolute champ, working some weekend shifts in the cafe when needed. Two of my three little sisters work here too, so it's a real family affair.
What are your core values as a business?
Sustainability is at the heart of what we do. We compost and recycle and only stock drinks in glass to avoid plastic waste. We've even discovered an edible takeaway cup from Twiice.
What does the future look like?
We're optimistic. Mum and I are passionate about crafting gorgeous cashmere clothing and we want to return to creating a knitwear brand we're proud of. We also want to be known for creating wholesome food that's fairly priced and served in a gentle environment.
The number one thing I say when interviewing kitchen staff, "If you're a shouty chef, you won't fit in here". It's taken us a while to get to this point, but we're so lucky to have a kind, happy, fun team. Because you can tell at any hospitality venue, if the staff are unhappy, it doesn't feel good.
But Ahipao is the kind of place where the hours just run away, because you feel so relaxed.
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