One tight-knit business trio has opened three popular Auckland eateries – Café Hanoi, Xuxu Dumpling Bar and Saan – within five years.
" People often don’t treat hospitality like [a business]. You need to enable other people to do your job."
Michelle Duff, Contributing editor, BlueNotes
We sat down with executive chef Jason Van Dorsten, Krishna Botica who oversees front of house and Tony McGeorge who looks after business development and asked them about their recipe for success.
Duff: How did you meet and end up going into business together?
Boticia: I met Jason while working at Prego when he started as the larder chef in 2002. I worked there for 24 years, where I got front of house experience and had a major focus on the human resources side of things.
Tony and I were flatmates; we met over a bottle of tequila. I knew he’d be great to work with as he comes from a marketing background and had great financial skills.
McGeorge: Then a few years later Krishna and I caught up with Jason in London. He was working over there and we were on holiday. He hit us up with the idea of opening a restaurant together over a glass of wine – and the rest is history.
Duff: What was the idea behind Cafe Hanoi, the first restaurant you opened in 2010?
Jason: The inspiration came from my travels to Vietnam. I came from a classic Italian and French background but I fell in love with the different ingredients, flavours and textures used in Vietnamese food.
Boticia: You don’t often get a Western chef who is interested in learning a whole new cuisine but Jason set himself that task.
Tony and I hadn’t even been to Vietnam, so he convinced us to go over with him. But once we figured out what he was going on about, we just had to make it work with wonderful New Zealand produce.
Duff: How were those first few months?
McGeorge: Café Hanoi was both extremely exciting and a massive challenge. Customers are not particularly forgiving even for a newly-opened restaurant.
It’s a race to get staff trained as quickly as possible. Plus there are the cash-flow challenges of opening a new business.
Boticia: But we thought the Auckland market was ready for it. We felt our respect for Vietnamese cuisine and culture could best be represented by support from New Zealand wines and cocktails that would appeal to the urban set.
Duff: You also run Xuxu and Saan. How do these restaurants differ from Cafe Hanoi and what was the thought process behind opening them?
McGeorge: Yes, we opened Xuxu Dumpling Bar next, directly opposite Café Hanoi. It made sense for us to have a smaller bar business close to Café Hanoi, because it meant we could control the customer experience throughout the night.
Saan is our most recent opening. It’s on Ponsonby Road - a part of the city we all know and love. We opened the restaurant based on the food of one of our chefs Lek Trirattanavatin. He’s originally from Thailand and has an extraordinary knowledge and passion for Thai cuisine.
Duff: You've opened three restaurants in five years, which is an impressive feat by anyone's standards. What’s been the secret to your success?
Boticia: The thing we have in common is an understanding and respect for training within hospitality and treating it like a business.
People often don’t treat hospitality like that – you need to enable other people to do your job. We’ve got around 90 staff altogether, and we invest a lot of time in keeping them happy.
We’re always asking our staff, our customers and our suppliers how we’re doing and how we can improve.
McGeorge: We also have a long-term perspective - this means not chopping and changing every time something isn’t working quite right. We don’t aim to be the biggest and the fastest-growing, we aim to be the best.
Duff: What do you think customers expect from a good restaurant?
McGeorge: I think customers want to spend time in a restaurant that shares the same values as them.
Key values for us are using ethically sourced produce and showing real respect for the cuisines and cultures we represent.
We also aim to be fair in every way we conduct business whether it is relationships with staff, customers or suppliers.
Michelle Duff is a contributing editor at BlueNotes