As things start to look up for Hamilton's hospitality sector, business owner Dylan Bhantoa is on a mission to introduce new flavours to the city with his French-Creole fusion restaurant Le Petit Créole which is set to open soon.
It is one of six new hospitality businesses in the pipeline as Hamilton Central Business Association general manager Vanessa Williams sees people slowly returning to the CBD.
Williams says with the restrictions for outdoor gatherings lifted, the CBD has seen a shift in terms of foot traffic as more people find the confidence to go out.
"We expect to see more when the traffic light settings and indoor restrictions change."
Bhantoa took over Hazel Hayes cafe in 2019 and its recent move to Wintec House freed up the premises he has in Victoria St. Originally, he was going to use it as storage and as the main kitchen for the catering arm of his business but one evening in February he had a different idea.
"My wife and I wanted to order takeaways one night, but - no offence to the Hamilton market - we found we were quite limited in choices."
Instead of ordering food, he decided to make a home-cooked meal.
"It was a dish we hadn't made in ages, a family recipe from our home country Mauritius [an island next to Madagascar, southeast Africa]: My dad's roast beef stew. As a kid growing up we used to have it every Saturday. And I thought 'Why not do something different in Hamilton?'
"I mean you have your French restaurants here and there, but I haven't really seen a fusion of French and Creole in the region."
Creole is a culture and language that originated from the colonial era when French and Spanish settlers made their way to the Caribbean and Africa.
"It's a fusion of cultures ... [and] this fusion brings a unique aspect to the culinary world ... It's not your classic entre, main and dessert. It's comfort food that you want to keep eating even when you are full," Bhantoa says.
However, he says he adapted the menu of his restaurant to the market. "Creole food can be quite spicy ... Some ingredients are not sold here in New Zealand so we need to substitute.
"Playing with foreign flavours in New Zealand can be risky, but if you do it right, it's a risk worth taking."
Le Petit Créole will offer brunch, dinner and takeaways. "We will have generous portions and sharing platters with unique flavours. We want people to get a taste of the culture."
Owning a hospitality business in the middle of the pandemic was challenging, Bhantoa says. He bought Hazel Hayes which has been in Hamilton since 2010, in 2019, just before Covid-19 broke out.
"Me and my business partner bought it to learn how to do business. And with the pandemic, we had to learn quickly. Hazel Hayes is an existing business and when we started, we had a plan.
"With Le Petit Créole we have to start a new system, make something out of nothing."
"Yes, Covid has been destroying businesses. But I am thinking ahead, what is in two years, five years. If you start worrying it takes you down a spiral of fear and doubt and I try to put this aside."
Le Petit Créole is not the only new eatery to open. Other new hospitality places in Hamilton include The Mercury Room on Hood St, Magic Tea on Alexandra St, waffle and hotdog place Shake Shack on Barton St, Bubble Tea Factory in Garden Place and Bonbon Chocolat on Ward St.
Williams says: "Hospitality is a go-to social element ...The more new places the merrier! Having a range of different offerings adds vibrancy and a level of diversity to the CBD. I think the new places are going to do well."