Gate to plate in New Zealand

The story of how two ex-sheep and beef farmers from the Waikato are taking New Zealand’s Northland restaurant scene by storm seems as unlikely as it is true.

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Pic: Mike Fraser Source: Provided

“We were farming for 10 years and we fell into the restaurant game, it was a big change in our lifestyle,” Mike Fraser explains.

"There is symmetry between what we grow and what ends up on people’s plates.” - Rooney

After returning from London with British born partner Lloyd Rooney to work on the family farm the couple were looking for a change. 

“I went from being an interior designer to shearing sheep, literally,” Rooney laughs.

So when a mutual friend offered to sell their restaurant in Waipu Cove to them, Rooney says they jumped at the opportunity. 

“We bought The Cove, transformed it and it ended up transforming our lives because one restaurant led to four and now possibly five.” 

The pair bought The Cove in 2014 and by 2017 had opened two restaurants in Whangarei; the Quay and Number 8, and another, The Dune, in Maungawhai.  

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Pic: Lloyd Rooney (left) and Mike Fraser Source: Provided

Having previously owned an eatery in London, Rooney oversees the restaurants while Fraser runs a side business, The Vege Shack, which supplies all four restaurants with freshly picked, spray-free produce. 

“We are really trying to create a ‘gate to plate’ dining experience for people in Northland,” Rooney explains.

“We grow all the vegetables and herbs for our restaurants, Mike picks them and they are on the plate that night. You can’t beat that, it is hard work, but we ensure the best experience we can.”

“There is symmetry between what we grow and what ends up on people’s plates. We know how it has been grown we know that it is all spray free and we know that we are contributing to peoples healthy lifestyles.”

The pair takes the health of their community seriously. Alongside a fresh produce home delivery service; Fraser runs a stall at the Whangarei Market where he sells their organic produce.

Tapping into demand from heath conscious consumers who want to know how their food is grown is increasingly important for the hospitality sector which is being driven by strong international and local tourism markets.

In the latest ANZ Market Update, transactional data shows consumer spending across restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs grew by 15 per cent over the past two years.

The seasonal impact of tourism peaks in the summer months with international spending at around 24 per cent of total credit card expenditure, before dropping to around 9 per cent during the winter months.

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Tourism booming

Tourism in New Zealand continues to boom, visitor arrivals in the January 2018 year numbered 3.73 million, up 194,000 (5 per cent) on the previous year.

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While the size of the revenue pool has increased, so too has competition.

The number of food and beverage providers across New Zealand grew by more than 7 per cent over the same two year period according to Statistics New Zealand figures.

Growing up

New Zealand’s main tourism destinations all recorded growth in this time:

Christchurch led the way with 11.6 per cent growth, likely due to progression of the earthquake rebuild, followed by Auckland with 10 per cent, Waikato with 8.6 per cent, Otago with 4.6 per cent and Wellington with 3.3 per cent.

ANZ NZ Commercial & Agri General Manager, Penny Ford, said it was great to see the benefit increased tourism numbers and a strong local market were bringing to the sector.

“Businesses are really responding to the demand for a different dining experience, whether that is through a sustainably grown paddock to plate story, catering to the increasing number of people moving out of major cities into the regions, or growth in centres like Christchurch and Auckland.”  Ford explains.

Local focus

For Fraser and Rooney, supporting the economic health of Northland matters too and hiring locals is an absolute priority.

Over the summer months, they employ up to 160 locals which drops to around 80 in winter. “Good staff is everything,” Lloyd explains.

Managing staff through seasonality is one of the biggest challenges for the business. Fraser and Rooney are not alone. 

A recent ANZ commissioned TRA survey into challenges facing small to medium businesses identified cash-flow management due to seasonal fluctuations as one of the biggest obstacles they face. 

Fraser and Rooney’s relationship manager at ANZ, Nikita Tomlinson, says “while they are ambitious and they’ve leapt onto all of these opportunities it has come really quickly” – and that can be an issue.

She explains Rooney is conservative and understands his cash flow. “He understands how much he needs to pay in wages and what the produce bill is going to be.” 

Overall Tomlinson credits their investment in staffing as the business’ greatest strength.

 “They care about the people that they employ, which means they’ve got people who will work for them whenever they need. Their staff are happy and excited to be part of their growth”.

That’s no coincidence, each of Lloyd and Fraser’s restaurants have a simple goal - to provide great food and service at all times and to leave customers with a feeling of warmth and connection.

“We couldn’t do what we do if we didn’t have great staff and to have great staff they’ve got to feel valued,” explains Lloyd.

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Pic: Fraser's fresh produce Source: Provided

Future of food

Ford says while the hospitality sector is in good shape, there are challenges ahead.

“Increased competition and the proposed rise in the minimum wage to $NZ20 per hour by 2021 means businesses need to be proactive about managing their cost structures,” she says.

“Finding a point of difference, structuring service offering and looking at different ways to manage supply chain costs are ways businesses can look managing their cost structures outside of just passing on costs to customers through price increases. 

“This will be key to maintaining a strong hospitality sector.”

Rooney and Fraser show no signs of slowing down with plans for another restaurant in Bay of Plenty later this year.

“I think Lloyd just opens them because he likes doing the architecture and the design. Once it’s done and everything is running smoothly he get a little bit restless and so it’s time to open another one.”  Fraser laughs.

“But hopefully in five years’ time it will just be the five and then that’s it!”

Briar McCormack is New Zealand editor at bluenotes

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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