Wellington residents love to dine out. Just look at how busy the city's cafes and cocktail bars get at peak times. It's common on a Sunday morning for customers keen for a flat white to be told they will need to wait half an hour to get a caffeine hit prepared by one of the city's best baristas.
Passionate patrons keep the capital's dining scene thriving, even when market factors are against its success.
Earthquake concerns mean insurance has quadrupled for most eateries and government-sector staff cuts will mean fewer customers in the city.
Supplies are becoming more expensive - butter being one extreme example, rising from $75 for a commercial 25-kilogram block a few years ago to about $140 today, something most operators seem to swallow because the price of croissants and hollandaise-heavy brunch dishes have not increased at the same rate.
Spending on eating out slumped a couple of years ago but the tough economic times are improving. Wellington sales fell 2.3 per cent last year, according to the Restaurant Association, better than the 9 per cent drop the year before.
According to Statistics New Zealand, eating out is a luxury that 93 per cent of Kiwis refuse to give up - especially in Wellington, home to 10 per cent of the population but 12 per cent of nationwide restaurant spending.
Support for the industry that fills our bellies was shown earlier in August at the annual industry event, Capital Awards. The prizegiving, where the best hospitality joints and workers are recognised, sold out of tickets to the public for the first time.
Foodie festival Wellington On A Plate, in its fourth year, continues to grow. This month, the 17-day event combines special deals at 109 restaurants and 119 culinary events, many of which sold out.
Last year 25,400 people took part in eating from special Wellington On A Plate menus and more than three-quarters were locals.
The most telling way to see how the restaurant industry is doing is to go out.
On Saturday, Cuba St was buzzing with eating activity. There was a 45-minute wait to be seated at new Buenos Aires-style El Matador, opened by the owner of much-loved cafe Ernesto's that shut last year after a property dispute. Pizzeria Scopa appeared packed and Mexican restaurant Flying Burrito Brothers had a wait of at least 20 minutes for a table.
The next morning was drizzly and grey but faithful foodies turned out in droves to attend the City Market and Harbourside Markets.
Weekday lunchtimes, trading is tough for most sit-down restaurants because people are time-poor but the central city's cafes seem busy. Wellington-owned salad chain Kapai just opened its fourth inner-city outlet.
Duke Carvell's Swan Lane Emporium, Scopa and Crazy Horse steak house co-owner Lorenzo Bresolin has been in the industry all his life because his dad, Remiro, ran Welly institution Il Casino. Bresolin says a small population of enthusiastic diners supports the bulk of the restaurant industry in Wellington.
“There are some ‘foodistas', if you will, that eat out for most lunches and three or four dinners a week. These guys probably keep most of the restaurants afloat alone. The larger population only dines out for a special occasion like a graduation or anniversary.”
Restaurant Association national president Mike Egan reckons Wellingtonians are more interested in food generally than are people elsewhere in New Zealand.
He was at Auckland's Restaurant Show earlier this week and relayed how he had been chatting to a cheese maker who could not believe the difference in customers there compared with those in Wellington, where she had recently done a demonstration at gourmet supermarket Moore Wilson's.
“Everyone had questions and was really engaging in Wellington, they seemed to know a lot about the food themselves. Whereas in Auckland, they'll just taste the cheese and move along. In Wellington, customers are really passionate,” Egan said.
Ask any local where they would recommend the best coffee, classiest cocktail or finest steak and debate is likely to be unleashed. Does Midnight Espresso, Deluxe or Sweet Mother's Kitchen make the best espresso milkshake?
When it comes to Saturday morning hash browns, how do the grated potato cakes in Olive's eggs benedict stack up against Cafe Polo in Miramar's deep fried hash browns with feta, rocket and balsamic or the “homely hash browns” in Maranui Cafe's Big Bay Breakfast dish?
Egan, who owns two of Wellington's long-running success stories, Boulcott Street Bistro and Monsoon Poon, said having an engaged and interested audience was really encouraging to restaurateurs.
“Dining out is unique as opposed to any other retail which is quite passive. You come inside and we manufacture highly perishable goods on the premises and then ask our customers to stay for two or three hours to consume them.
"You have to really engage in the whole experience."
GETTING PUNTERS THROUGH THE DOOR
As is the case in other cities, many Wellington cafes and bars offer discount deals through the Entertainment Book.
These offers are not marketed as a cry for help to attract custom because some of the best and busiest establishments participate, including Shed 5, Dockside, Cafe Polo, Logan Brown and Mike Egan's own Boulcott Street Bistro.
It's common to see two-for-one meals in Wellington on quiet Monday nights, at Asian eatery Chow, Hotel Bristol, Cafe Istanbul and Crazy Horse.
Of the more creative deals to get customers in the door, two mornings a week Abel Tasman St bar and restaurant Southern Cross offers parents with infants a free 10-minute massage while a staff member babysits their children.
According to Egan, online daily discount deals can sometimes devalue the experience of eating out. He said they appealed to bargain hunters who dine out on deal after deal rather than the more selective diner.
“I know restaurants that have done them who talked to the customers who said they would never come back to that restaurant unless they did a similar deal. There are people who are bargain hunters,” Egan said.
“You're basically giving such a huge discount there is no money in it for the restaurateur.”
SPOILT FOR CHOICE
Restaurants in Wellington: There are 1619 takeaways, cafes and restaurants in the city.
Wellington has the highest number of employees per eatery, at 7.9, compared with 6.5 in Auckland.
Cafes, restaurants and bars employ 2.9 per cent of the city's population.
12 per cent of restaurant spending in New Zealand is in Wellington.
Wellington has 3.6 eateries for every 1000 people, compared with 2.2 in New York.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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