Our sister company AvroKO Hospitality Group has been hard at work bringing the flavors of New York City to Auckland since March. In partnership with local operating group Public Assembly, the team first opened seafood and rosé-focused restaurant Poni Room in June, with mezcaleria Ghost Donkey and a bodega-style bar Liquorette quickly to follow. Finally, beloved Bowery fixture Saxon + Parole opened its doors in September to much acclaim. In celebration of this fourth and final opening—for now, at least—we chatted with our very own Marion Emmanuelle, who’s been boots-on-the-ground, to get a full download.
Over the last seven months, you’ve picked up and moved halfway across the planet, successfully opened four new hospitality outposts, and planted the seeds for AvroKO Hospitality Group’s global expansion—all in the middle of a global pandemic. No biggie. What’s it been like?
A whirlwind to be honest! It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to open restaurants in New Zealand, but having to do so under these circumstances is something we never could have planned for. Mostly, I just feel lucky. New Zealand has been able to handle the pandemic very differently than most other countries in the world, and the fact that these openings were even possible is thanks to that. When I think about the particulars of how I got here, I feel even more lucky. On March 14th, I was in SF for a Brand Bureau project as the COVID situation started escalating. As I got to SFO, I turned around and boarded a plane to New Zealand rather than flying back to NYC and I have been in Auckland since, with two days worth of clothes in my suitcase! That was very lucky as the NZ border shut to foreigners the day I got in, and I would have missed these openings I’ve been working on for over 4 years if I hadn’t boarded that very plane. The moral of the story is follow your gut!
How have the brands been received by Kiwi diners and imbibers? Have you had to tweak any of the concepts to respond to a different market?
They’ve been incredibly well received, overall. It’s the first time New York-based restaurants and bars like these have come to Auckland, so there is a general sense of pride and excitement from New Zealanders. Particularly as they are currently unable to travel with the borders being mostly shut, they’re enjoying being able to get a bit of NYC on their own turf! But we’ve had to make small adjustments to each of the concepts to optimize them for this particular location. Ghost Donkey however is the one that most looks and feels like the OG. It’s universally relevant and lovable – Who doesn’t like a fiesta and mezcal?
Saxon has been different. I think, in part, because it’s the most New York-centric brand of the bunch. We’ve had to think a bit about that relationship and how to stay true to its identity. In some ways, we’ve had to amplify the New York narrative a bit, and think about what it means to be an NYC restaurant and capture that je-ne-sais-quoi—through the vibe and space and experience. On the culinary front, the locavore movement is baseline here—more out of necessity than choice, to be honest (it’s very expensive to import produce to an island country of just over 4 million people). We’ve had to learn the intricacies of that ultra seasonal market. But the produce here is incredible, the ocean bountiful, and there is no shortage of wonderful meats. It’s been a treat to incorporate all of those into our culinary programs. If you came in today, having dined at Saxon in New York before, the essence of the food would taste the same, the vibe would be the same, but the ingredients would be uniquely New Zealand.
Tell us a bit more about the Commercial Bay project. What’s it all about?
Commercial Bay opened this year as the largest inner city development in New Zealand. It’s a mixed-use development with four towers that spans across an entire city block. As far as location, it doesn’t get more prime than this; many have called it the missing tooth in the smile that is the magnificent Auckland harbour. The project has been a massive endeavor—it took seven or eight years to complete—and the local impact is tremendous. At peak, there will be about 10,000 workers occupying the towers.
Sounds like an amazing project to be a part of! How did we get involved?
We have been working on a few components of the project. AvroKO is designing an InterContinental Hotel on the site, and Brand Bureau developed the branding and concept strategy for the food hall there, Harbour Eats—which has, in many ways, become the heartbeat of the development. Right now it houses about 40 vendors, including our very own Liquorette—and functions as a bit of a crossroads for the development itself. The towers are all interconnected, so you don’t have to go outside to move around, and Harbour Eats sits at the very center. Besides its centricity, the concept has really resonated. It’s activated all day, with morning tea in the AM and a good lunch buzz through the afternoon. In the evenings people come by to grab dinner and drinks. In New Zealand there’s a tradition for food courts like these but they’re typically mostly active during peak lunch period with local workers. We’ve managed to create a sense of place that invites people to come from morning to night.
In its first 8 weeks, more than one million people visited Harbour Eats. An extraordinary number in a country of 4.5 million people and no tourists currently able to come in! It’s a testament to how well the concept has been received across a diverse range of audiences—from workers in the towers, to foodies around town (and the country!)—keen to check out this new hospitality hub.
You’ve opened up many restaurants before, know the ins and outs of the U.S. culinary landscape—has anything been different this time around?
Well this is a unique undertaking as it is opening four venues pretty much all at once, which we’ve never done before as a group. That involves over 150 hospitality employees! Luckily, we have partnered up with a fantastic local operating group, called Public Assembly. It’s a new group that was formed to operate our venues specifically—and luckily, it’s comprised of kiwi friends of ours who used to live in NYC and frequent our restaurants there. Because of that, they’re very familiar with our group, brands, and our approach to things, while also having the being intrinsically weaved into the fabric of NZ’s hospitality industry. We’d normally have a full team down from NYC for openings of this type (partners, designers, chefs, bartenders), but no one was able to come into the country. So that presented another set of challenges we could have never imagined. Turns out, we can do a lot via Zoom! Tastings in particular were incredibly challenging—we had to become experts in flavor description and dissection for our team stuck in NYC!
We know that New Zealand has been a unique case in that it was able to take control of the virus early on and open back up almost completely. However, about three months into the initial opening of the three venues, there was an uptick in Covid cases and the country was forced to go back into lockdown temporarily. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?
It was very unusual to hit a full pause two months after an opening—normally that would be peak opening madness! Needless to say, it was an unexpected break for the team, but a unique opportunity to stop and reflect on the openings; to make tweaks as needed, provide more training etc. It was unfortunate to lose momentum with our guests, as we were just beginning to hit our stride and it can take a little while to ramp back up that energy. It’s interesting how these lockdowns impact behaviors—as much as people say they can’t wait to get back out to restaurants and bars, once the restrictions get lifted things change; people get used to cooking and staying at home more. It’s taking a bit to ramp back up but we are getting there!
What have been some of the greatest learnings for operating in a post-Covid world? Any tips or warnings you would give to those looking to re-open or launch a new restaurant today?
Well, in New Zealand we’re in somewhat of a unique situation. We’ve been very lucky in that the impact of the outbreak has been somewhat less severe than it has been in many other places, and so we’ve been able to proceed “as normal” to some extent. At a macro level, what we are seeing is that the economy is staying strong—revenge spending is happening, and in the case of New Zealand, the economy has become almost entirely domestic. This means that people are traveling locally and spending more at home. The early reports are showing that the typical spending that might happen outside of the country is now happening locally, and that is somewhat making up for the lack of tourism revenue. It’s quite extraordinary, really, with tourism being NZ’s second largest industry. But at a micro level, there are industries and businesses that have been whipped entirely, so it’s deeply affecting many people. It’s impossible to predict what the future holds, but it’s interesting to think about how different to the majority of the world New Zealand will be if they continue to stay in a pre-COVID world: one where very few people experienced the severest impacts of the virus; where city centers are still full of office workers and no masks are required and large gatherings can happen freely.
What’s next for the Saxon + Parole, Ghost Donkey, Liquorette, and Poni Room brands? What’s next for AvroKO Hospitality Group?
We’re on track to open a Ghost Donkey in Denver in Q1 of 2021. Other locations are on the horizon as well. There are a few NEW concepts we’re starting to think about— We’re also looking at other hospitality innovation ideas that respond to what’s happening in the world. We’re looking to pilot new products and experiences in New Zealand while we can, and then take it from there.