Pair give just a Taste of what's to come

TAMLYN STEWART
Last updated 05:00 15/12/2012

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Jamie Bennett and Sam Marchant hope for good weather weekends even more fervently than the rest of us.

The two are directors of Taste Events Company - the business behind the Saturday morning Christchurch Farmers' Market, and the Sunday morning Christchurch Artisan Market and Riccarton Bistro.

The pair established Taste in 2004 when they secured the licence for the catering operations at Riccarton House.

They went to the same school, are both chefs by trade and were next-door neighbours for a while.

Having worked for other companies they had decided it was time to strike out on their own when they saw the tender come up for catering at Riccarton House.

"[The trust] was pretty open, just looking for new blood, and me and Jamie had a bit of youth back then and some good ideas," Marchant said.

Bennett and Marchant started the Christchurch Farmers' Market in the grounds of Riccarton House, with just six or seven stalls in 2005.

The first two years were hard going, trying to attract stallholders. Now the tables have turned and producers are clamouring to be included in the market.

The Sunday Artisan Market, which Taste launched after the February quake, is still in the start-up stage, trying to attract stallholders and shoppers.

The farmers' market now hosts more than 50 stalls, and attracts between 1000 and 1200 shoppers.

But a bad weather weekend costs a couple of thousand dollars each week in lost coffee sales and fewer stalls.

"It's really hard . . . some weeks are just not as busy but you do feel you're looking after 70 small businesses here," Bennett said.

It's a testing ground for start-ups and also a major part of Taste's revenue stream since the February quake damaged Riccarton House and forced the closure of Riccarton Bistro there, halving the company's revenue.

Taste has invested $100,000 - including a grant from Recover Canterbury - in a marquee on the lawns of Riccarton House so it can host functions.

It has been the company's hardest year in terms of cashflow.

Bennett said he has had to "go to the bank a couple of times" since the earthquake and even had to get his first family loan - $40,000 from his mother - which has been almost completely repaid, he adds. Fortunately, the company has never really carried much debt.

"We don't make any money. My wife says to me ‘why do you do this?' But for me it's about trying to grow this region as a real good food region."

That needs teamwork from producers, suppliers and restaurants.

"We are competition in a way but it's about raising the bar . . . we're still quite far behind Auckland and Wellington and their food scene."

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Bennett has had offers from corporates but reckons he prefers being his own boss - even if it does mean finding yourself elbow deep in dishwater at 1am after a big function.

The company is turning a profit, Christmas turnover has been good and Taste was a finalist in the 2012 Champion Canterbury awards.

Last Monday, Taste Events catered Pegasus Bay Winery's annual staff dinner; slightly intimidating to cook for the best restaurant in New Zealand, but really a privilege, Bennett said.

Taste puts on many events throughout the year, including the annual 20-day Feast of Canterbury each September which highlights the region's best restaurants, boutique retailers and growers.

It also produces the free quarterly Feast magazine, promoting local chefs and produce.

The company employs about 12 staff as well as casual workers.

Bennett has a sense Christchurch has a lot more to go through before it gets better.

"Gap fillers are great but we need to really start the rebuild, we need to really start getting the hotels open.

"I've just noticed with the market recently people have still got their hands in their pockets a wee bit. I think a lot of people are still going through a hard time."

The big, connected companies are doing really well but small businesses needed to be looked after a bit more.

Competition from the council's events companies did not help, Bennett said.

It's challenging running a business from a heritage site. It means a slow meticulous repair of Riccarton House. The original bistro is expected to reopen by October 2014. Well before then, Taste will open a new cafe at Airport Business park. Patrons will get their first taste in February.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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