After A Tumultuous Two Years, What's Next For Hospitality?

By Leisha Jones
Amisfield’s kumara tarte tatin. Photo / Sam Stewart

When a global pandemic sees the dining room of your restaurant become a darkened void for months on end, unwavering passion is the only thing that will stop you from trading it all in for a desk job.

It’s a trait that characterises the industry, with restaurants swiftly adapting and diversifying in response to lockdowns and restrictions.

But it hasn’t been easy, and many owners have been left clinging to a cliff, making personal sacrifices and putting their life savings back into the business to try and hang on all for the love of what they do.

Sadly, we saw many closures last year Woodpecker Hill; Antonie's; Euro; Saxon + Parole and those are just the restaurants that made the news; there will be countless others that forlornly flipped over the closed sign for good.

The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated existing issues in the industry, such as staffing shortages, and this year there will be new challenges on the menu as we learn to live with Covid in the community.

Sophie Gilmour, hospitality consultant at Delicious Business, says restaurants often survive month to month and that profit is hard to come by.

“We are surrounded by super passionate creatives who are not in the game for money, but it’s times like this, we see that with profit comes sanity, money to do other projects, survival through lockdowns and peace of mind. With rising wages, rising rents and rising food costs, it’s really likely people will be serving the same fantastic food with a slightly higher price tag and I hope the public will support them to do so.”

Gemmayze Street’s owner/chef Samir Allen. Photo / Babiche Martens
Gemmayze Street’s owner/chef Samir Allen. Photo / Babiche Martens

Overall, restaurants have responded with tenacity, emerging from a tough two years with refreshed concepts and loads of innovation. We’ve seen bottled cocktails, jarred sauces and meal kits. Sophie says it’s been exciting to see the new offerings that have emerged, but restaurant takeaways will never replace the experience of dining out.

“I love the buzz of the room, the conversation with the waiter and the unpredictability of what will happen around me. I would sorely miss the interactions with the hospitality community whether I know them or not if communal dining wasn’t in the future.”

As we adjust to a new world of scanning in, ordering through apps, and smiles concealed by masks, there’s no denying that some things have changed, maybe forever, with restaurants reassessing how they do business now and into the future in order to survive.

Marisa Bidois, chief executive of The Restaurant Association, says lockdowns have given many the opportunity to make positive changes that will see them through, setting up online booking and takeaway systems, refining their menus and scaling back their opening hours.

Samir Allen, head chef and owner of Gemmayze Street on Auckland's Karangahape Road, says during lockdown he was able to reflect on the future of the restaurant and follow his long-time dream of offering a four- or nine-course set menu that takes ordering out of the customer's hands and sees vibrant plates popping with colour and texture cover the table in true Lebanese style.

He says a pre-booked set menu means they can really plan ahead, prep accordingly and end up with little-to-no wastage.

The restaurant also started taking credit card pre-authorisation for bookings something that is increasingly common as capacity is restricted under some settings. He says while it doesn’t feel very hospitable, diners have been accepting of both of these changes.

Dishes from Gemmayze Sreet’s jeeb menu. Photo / Babiche Martens
Dishes from Gemmayze Sreet’s jeeb menu. Photo / Babiche Martens

“People realised how important restaurants were to them when they couldn’t go out. There’s a big turn in the public’s perception of restaurants. Treating your server with respect, and understanding that a no show can affect a business, that is quite understood now.”

Just around the corner on K Road, co-owner of the Iberian-inspired Candela restaurant Leola King says she has noticed a similar shift, saying the past two years have proven how resilient the industry is, and they are only coming back stronger.

“We feel more engaged than ever in the community and with the industry. Everybody is being very supportive, interested and appreciative of what we are doing.”

Candela didn’t offer takeaways and instead focused their time, energy and funds into looking at how their business functions.

They invested in staff training so the team can work across different areas of the business, and took a good look at how their space could become more pandemic-proof, building a new multi-purpose venue within a venue.

Barcita is a private dining room and afternoon sun-splashed terrace out the back of Candela. With its own dedicated bar, the space will also provide extra seating for the restaurant when tables need to be spaced, and for pre-dinner drinks and late-night dining.

And though you may wonder: who would be crazy enough to open a restaurant in these times? The new openings just keep coming.

Candela restaurant director Leola King. Photo / Babiche Martens
Candela restaurant director Leola King. Photo / Babiche Martens

This summer, The Heke joined Waiheke Island, a sprawling Paul Izzard-designed space serving woodfired food and local drinks; Burmese restaurant Mabel's serves the cuisine of Myanmar in Wellington; Christchurch's Mumbai Wala brought its Indian street food to Ponsonby Road; and Nic Watt opened Inca further down the street in early March.

There's no shortage of places to eat in Auckland, but where does one go for an after-dinner boogie? Renowned for throwing a good party, Vinci Gin-Nen says he and a group of like-minded friends got together during lockdown, dreaming up a space they hope will rejuvenate Auckland's Victoria Park Market precinct with a club, restaurant and late-night diner, respectively named Shy Guy, Milenta and Peep.

Among the founders are many of general manager Vinci’s long-time colleagues, including Andres Andrade, director, who he met back when Britomart had 1885; and Krishna Marinas, brand manager, who has worked alongside him curating some of the city’s most memorable pop-ups and events. He says they’ve heavily invested in service and staff, and hopes people notice that when they arrive.

“Our main focus has been invigorating staff again. That two years of stopping and starting was detrimental to everyone’s vision of hospo as a career,” he says. “I think a lot of the industry panicked and thought, I’ve got to go and get a proper job. To hear of chefs going back to office or construction jobs, it kills me.”

With Angus Muir lighting, glass bricks and booths in regal green and red, Shy Guy is all class, but it won’t be flaunted online. The club will have no social media or website, and will initially be open to an invite-only membership base that will grow organically over time.

The model is not intended to be exclusionary, but is designed to survive the ongoing pressures of restrictions and level changing they will know exactly who is in the club at all times and can easily control pre-booked numbers to provide seated table service should dancing not be allowed.

Just outside, open to the public and under a canopy of drooping trees is Milenta  a Columbian kitchen where the food is inspired by Andres's hometown of the same name and cooked over fire by chef Elie Assaf.

Vinci Gin-Nen (far left) has assembled a dream hospitality team to work on new ventures Shy Guy, Milenta and Peep, including (L-R) HR manager Ashleigh Kirkwood, Shy Guy membership manager Taylor Wood, sous chef Al Brayne, Shy Guy manager Victoria Magee, Milenta manager Lauren Coleman, Milenta executive chef Elie Assaf and director Andres Andrade. Photo / Babiche Martens
Vinci Gin-Nen (far left) has assembled a dream hospitality team to work on new ventures Shy Guy, Milenta and Peep, including (L-R) HR manager Ashleigh Kirkwood, Shy Guy membership manager Taylor Wood, sous chef Al Brayne, Shy Guy manager Victoria Magee, Milenta manager Lauren Coleman, Milenta executive chef Elie Assaf and director Andres Andrade. Photo / Babiche Martens

There will also be a wine bar and small snacks from the kitchen served inside; and on weekends Elie will cook late into the night at Peep, where lavish hand-held food will be served in paper bags from 10pm.

Vinci says curating an experience and building a community is key to keeping the industry alive. “You need to offer something that is always different. The amount of talent that has come home, everyone has been offshore. So, it’s about giving those people a platform, whether they are guest chefs, dancers, DJs, entertainers. And adding those elements of surprise.”

Although the South Island has not endured lengthy lockdowns like Auckland, the lack of tourists to destinations such as Queenstown has taken a toll on business.

At Amisfield, the dearth of overseas customers has given local diners the chance to visit more regularly and the restaurant now offers two distinctly different dining experiences.

Evenings are still for their world-renowned tasting menu; and lunch is now a la carte to mirror the more casual daytime vibe and give the team a creative boost.

Much of the new menu is cooked over flames in an outdoor coal pit, allowing customers to be a part of the cooking process, says food and beverage director Tony Stewart (ex-Clooney). “Days in our courtyard are long and social and we wanted a food style that allowed us to represent that.”

Executive chef Vaughan Mabee says cooking in this style is intense and raw. The fire is currently used to enhance the flavour of duck, asparagus, butterfish and crayfish that is cooked whole in its shell to capture the flavour-packed juice. It’s covered in red coals, blackened and rested before being carved tableside and blanketed with wild flowers and Champagne cray sauce. ?

 Giulio Sturla at work in his six-seater Lyttelton restaurant, Mapu. Photo / Supplied
Giulio Sturla at work in his six-seater Lyttelton restaurant, Mapu. Photo / Supplied

In Lyttelton, chef Giulio Sturla, formerly of now-shuttered Roots, opened his six-seater restaurant Mapu in June 2020. Although the ticketed dinners are ideally suited to these times, he says it is a more sustainable business model that he was conceptualising long before the pandemic began.

The small size means he has been able to offer “bubble dining”, so Mapu has been largely unaffected by lockdowns and dining restrictions.

In the year from November 2020 to 2021, he says his business has doubled. Giulio greets guests at the door, butchers fish or meat that will be cooked and served moments later, and tours them around the garden where he grows much of the produce.

He can also pack up the wine glasses and crockery to set the table at private homes, so diners can enjoy the same food they would get at the restaurant such as porcini ice cream with a dark and saline caramel made with bull kelp foraged from the Tora Coast without having to put their shoes on.

He says the best parties are always in the kitchen and people are happier in their home. “You can have more fun. You can dance on top of the table. There are no other people and that private environment is beautiful.”

Intimate dining experiences such as this will suit those who may not be comfortable in a bustling bistro, and can also be found in Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges where husband and wife Mikassa and Mahi Mains host private dinners at their home.

Toa Matauranga was a previously unadvertised side-business that naturally evolved due to the limitations and restrictions of Covid.

“Before the 2021 lockdown I think we were pretty vast in our idea scope, we just got overwhelmed,” says Mikassa. “When you pull away a few options and put those restrictions in, it’s easy to have clear decision making and land on exactly what you’re going to be.”

Mikassa Mains hosts vegetarian degustation dinners for small groups at her Waitakere Ranges home. Photo / Supplied
Mikassa Mains hosts vegetarian degustation dinners for small groups at her Waitakere Ranges home. Photo / Supplied

The result is a relaxed and personal seven-course vegetarian degustation that can be booked for up to 15 people. Guests are asked to assemble at the bottom of the driveway and are welcomed with a powhiri, followed by a cocktail and a karakia on the balcony looking out to sea.

They’re served plates built around native plants and ingredients, such as the ika tapu (sacred fish), a vegan dish that celebrates the tastes and textures of the sea, with foraged seaweed and glasswort in a pickled cucumber noodle salad; a crisp tempura “fish fillet” of tofu and nori; and a scorched watermelon sushi, mimicking a smoky slab of salmon.

Despite what restaurants have been hit with, Marisa Bidois says there is still an air of optimism. “Hospitality is very important to people.

Having places where we can come together with friends and loved ones, places where we can eat delicious food and be in the company of others these are values we haven’t lost, as has been proven by how quickly people have returned.”

Whatever the future holds, nothing can replace the intangible magic of a perfect night out at a restaurant when time gets lost amid the thrum of music and chatting, food and drink flow to the table, and by the end of the night you wish your server was your best friend.

It’s what good hospitality is all about, and in times like these we need it more than ever.

This article was originally published in volume seven of Viva Magazine.

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