Gilmour girls spread their wings

23:56, Sep 17 2014
Mimi, Sophie and Emerald Gilmour

Many a person has been swept away by online auction fever, but few have greater claim to succumbing to TradeMe delirium than Sophie Gilmour.

After a glass of wine one night in November 2011, the former lawyer bought an Auckland fish and chip shop, Nina's Takeaways, as a "bit of a laugh" with two friends Ben Grant and Richard Old and her fiancé David Holmes.

Three months later they transformed the humble chippie into Bird on a Wire, a gourmet free range rotisserie chicken takeaway store, and in July last year, she left her job in commercial litigation to work in the business full time.

Mimi, Sophie and Emerald Gilmour

"I think my mum nearly died when I left the law for chicken," Gilmour says."We didn't have a clear five-year plan or an exit strategy, any of it.

"You know how people say there's never a good time to have a baby, I think it's the same for this.

 "If we had sat there and drawn up a business plan and had done financial forecasts then we would probably never have done it."


Sophie Gilmour's Bird on a Wire takeaway is taking flight.

Sophie's acquisition did ruffle a few feathers in the Gilmour roost, because her mum Emerald Gilmour and sister Mimi are no strangers to the rollercoaster that is the hospitality business.

Widely credited for putting Auckland's restaurant scene on the map in the 1970s with her bistro Clichy, the theatrical and eternally enchanting Emerald had a reputation as the best hostess in town.

Diners can still see Emerald sparkle at Parnell's La Cigale where she works as maître d', but hospitality is a hard life, she warned her daughters.

The warning clearly fell on deaf ears. Mimi is co-owner of new Ponsonby eaterie Burger Burger and is a former co-owner of the wildly successful Mexico group.

Now Sophie completes a trio of Gilmour girls in the restaurant trade.

Despite Clichy being booked out every night for a decade, Emerald's second venture, Tatler, launched with Tony Astle, went belly up in 1992 with the market still in shock from the 1987 crash.

"The disposable dollar just dried up. We hung in there for a couple of years, and then on-sold," Emerald says.

"That was very wounding. A friend of mine said to me, 'you lost your braveness there for a while,' because I was horrified how I couldn't change the economic environment, no matter how hard I worked.

"Despite her passion for hospitality she tried to talk Sophie, the "level-headed" Gilmour, out of the chicken venture.

"I tried in the way that mothers do, to point out the many advantages to having a secure professional career, and that she shouldn't underestimate [hospitality]," Emerald says.

"There are some fantastic restaurants in Auckland, but there are too many of them, the competition now is so tough, it's terrifying.

"I think it was more forgiving [in my day]. The cash flow that came with those bookings at Clichy allowed us to make some mistakes and not be devastated by them, and allowed us to learn on the job."

Bird on a Wire is soaring now, but not before a rocky start. Sophie and her business partners were under-capitalised, and had to make three capital injections in the first year to keep the business going.

 "There were some awkward breakfast meetings, and we had to call our suppliers saying 'yes we are struggling but don't worry you will get paid, we're not walking away from this'," Sophie says.

She and Grant and Holmes - Old has since sold his shares - persevered, aware of the popularity of chicken shops in Australia.

Targeting busy and health-conscious professionals, free range chicken is one of the pillars of Bird on a Wire. It's also its biggest expense, accounting for 25 per cent of costs.

The hospitality standard is around 25 per cent for the entire food costs, Sophie says.

Thus price point is an issue. A free range chicken at Bird on a Wire costs $25, and a two person meal of one chicken, one large salad and fresh baguette is $44.

"If we were to apply industry standard margins to what we pay, we would be charging around $40 per whole chook, which we totally accept is pushing the boundaries of the average New Zealander's expectations," she says.

"That food cost is the real Achilles heel of my business model, and to compensate for that we need volume."

Bird on a Wire's solution is to have one flagship store supplying two satellite Box of Bird canteen branches.

No food is prepared in the Box of Bird shops, and chickens are delivered from the Ponsonby flagship outlet under special temperature-monitored conditions.

"Box of Bird is about generating volume out of the one store using the same resources and pushing the Ponsonby store almost to its capacity," she says.

Currently there is one satellite Box of Bird store on Commerce Street, and the company is selling a total 600kg of chicken a week. The second Box of Bird is due to open in Elliott Street in July and the flagship store has had a kitchen refit, to maximise production.

 A new flagship store is planned for either Parnell or Takapuna later this year.

"We're in growth mode. The average monthly revenue has gone from about $40,000 to about $100,000 and both stores are cash positive," Sophie says.

Get all three Gilmours in the room at the same time and a sort of foodie mania is created.

Heated discussions arise about the pros and cons of pressure cookers, who is cooking what at their weekly family dinners, and whether Mimi did bake 600 cakes that one time.

Family legend has it that Mimi, aged 16, took on a contract to cook 600 (or perhaps 400) Christmas cakes, transforming the Gilmour kitchen into a yuletide construction site.

"It was a nightmare, and I'm still living it," Emerald says.

"I don't think Mimi had ever made a Christmas cake up until this point, but clearly fortune favours the brave," she laughs.

"The whole family had to pitch in, Sophie and me particularly, and she had these massive plastic bins where she was mixing gallons of fruit cake mixture."

The great cake job became the first of Mimi's foodie ventures, which include Chur Burger restaurant in Sydney, downtown Auckland bistro District Dining, and the uber successful Mexico group - which she has pulled away from to focus on her new venture, Burger Burger (see side bar).

Like Bird on a Wire, Burger Burger is a sophisticated fast casual diner. It opened in April and has so far been packed every night.

It appears the Gilmours have a knack for knowing just what the hospitality industry needs at the right time. Hospitality might be in their genes, but Mimi and Sophie agree they learned about business from both Emerald and their father Robert, an orthopaedic surgeon turned orthotics entrepreneur.

"Growing up our lives were social, and were quite centred around hospitality," Mimi says.

Adds Sophie: "We always were encouraged to work hard from a young age."With hospitality, you get up on the floor and the show must go on. It's a mind thing."

Hasta la vista, Mexico

After a spectacular growth trajectory which has seen Mexico expand to six outlets in two years, Mimi Gilmour has sold her shares in the restaurant chain.

The venture got too big, she says. She acquired more business partners, “and I think there were too many chefs in a way”.

There are now 10 people working full time in the head office and it became very systemised, she says.

“The creative bit had kind of been done. And I’m not necessarily a great marketing manager which is what I kind of ended up being.

“Because I had been a big part of everything and then being told to step back, it wasn’t quite right for me… It was a hard decision to make.”

She sought advice from Ernst and Young partner Jo Doolan, who told her she was good at the first parts of setting up a business – the idea, and making it work.

“She said to me… ‘let’s just face it, [then] you get bored. The smartest thing you can do is walk away and hire someone that’s good at it’.”

It’s not the first time Mimi has faced challenges in the restaurant game.

She came to New Zealand during the 2011 Rugby World Cup to do three or four months, and ended up staying. Her downtown Auckland bistro District Dining did well during that time, but once all the hoopla died down its price point was too high to attract regular custom.

Meanwhile she had walked away from Chur Burger, the business she had in Sydney with her now ex-husband. The eaterie closed last year.

“I ignored things I shouldn’t have ignored… and I paid a lot of money to resolve that.

“It was really, really stressful. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, and that’s what scares me about restaurants because so many people go into it and go, ‘oh, it’s going to be so much fun, I will be able to retire’, but you have to know what you’re doing and you have to understand the business financially.”

Still, she has dived back into it with Burger Burger, and so far so good.

She says there was nowhere in Auckland to sit down for a good burger and have a proper hospitality experience. She did a lot of research into New Zealand diners in the 1950s and 60s, and Burger Burger’s menu includes milkshakes, homemade sodas, and a gluten-free burger, the “bunnuce”, which is a pattie wrapped in lettuce.

“I love it (hospitality) more than anything in the world. I think you can make money out of it – I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way.”