Hospitality, by its very purpose of feeding, entertaining and welcoming guests, is the best-placed industry to help transition society to a life that more closely resembles normality. Something we saw in spades as restrictions eased into Level 2 and beyond (twice), where hungry patrons were seen flocking by the dozens to their favourite eateries. This positioning, however, also made it one of the most visible economic victims of the pandemic, something Nourish Group Executive Head Chef Gareth Stewart and Director & Founder Richard Sigley know better than most.
There’s no arguing that something has shifted in the restaurant realm and wider industry players. They now, more than ever, know their value and worth in the community, having fought hard to ensure the survival of their businesses and the people they employ. The industry that's been forced to its knees is getting back on its feet, and fortified with a resolve that's a hallmark of the sector.
And for operators, the battle, as tough as it was, is worth it. We sat down with Stewart and Sigley to discuss what has been, where to now, and an insightful perspective on what’s to come.
What did lockdown look like for you? What was your favourite aspect of the time spent at home?
Gareth: I didn’t really have a lockdown, I had one week off doing not very much with the kids at home which was nice. But I was back into work pretty soon with My Nourish Kitchen which was great to actually be doing something and keep the business moving with a small engine running.
Richard: Albeit that was difficult at times, I’ve got two young kids. I just think we’ve got so much materialism in our world and that sense of keeping up with other people – I just liked the simplicity.
Many hours spent in the kitchen no-doubt... What’s your signature homemade meal?
Gareth: I got into soups. I think soups are an amazing way of using up everything in the fridge and it’s cosy.
Richard: Richard: We started baking bread. We baked fresh bread every day. The smell of freshly baked bread is just fantastic.
In a matter of a few weeks your company changed models from restaurants to take-home meal kits with My Nourish Kitchen, then high-end takeaways, what did you find most rewarding about having to be so agile to the unavoidable evolution of your business?
Gareth: We all put our heads together and came up with My Nourish Kitchen. We just wanted to offer something that was a little bit different and really showcased our iconic restaurants. If people couldn’t come out to us, we’d come to them and do the hard work for them. It was really rewarding seeing those first boxes go out and getting great feedback from them. It just showed that when s*** happens you have to think quickly and get it done.
Richard: We were the first cab off the rank and we moved - for a largeish hospitality organisation - really quickly. I was proud of the team.. I really take my hat off to these guys and how quickly we were able to turn it around. We knew we didn’t want to compete with similar brands – it was a restaurant-quality offering and it had to be good because it reflected all of our brands.
You occupy a significant chunk of the Viaduct, with a move away from tourist-charged menus, how do you see the hospitality offerings changing on the waterfront?
Gareth: The offering has certainly reduced. The menus have gotten a lot smaller throughout Auckland - the waterfront included. That’s to ensure there’s less wastage because with fewer people coming into the restaurant you don’t want to have a massive menu. It also lets you service a restaurant with a smaller team. I think gradually things will start to get larger again as we get back into the new normal.
Richard: If a good thing can come out of a horrendous issue, maybe it’s that – but to do it we have to do it collectively as an industry and not fight each other. Act like a community within our own precincts.
Every country has its staple dishes, but a rise in food culture has made Kiwi’s more open to foods that they weren’t in the past. Do you think you still have menu innovations left in you? Has there been a downside to that rise in your opinion?
Richard: I think you have to innovate or you evaporate. Gareth, he’s pretty good at it. We’re lucky – we’ve got beautiful local produce and we can learn internationally as well. It’s creating that competitive edge. If you’re not in a precinct and you’re a little island like we are with Euro (even though we’re only 150m from a precinct), you do have to be different and discoverable and have a reason for people to come to you.
What do you think is the most positive thing to come out of lockdown in relation to the hospitality sector?
Richard: My Nourish Kitchen of course!
Any advice to a budding chef or restauranteur?
Gareth: Turn back! No, for chefs, always work in good places. Don’t waste your time in places that don’t have passion or drive. Do your research and read. Read about cooking styles and get overseas – but come back!
Richard: It’s funny, isn’t it? You go to a dinner party with doctors and lawyers with massive cases but people want to talk about restaurants and bars. People love restaurants and bars – it’s pretty cool. But remember, just because you think something is going to work doesn’t mean it will. Do your homework.