Spoilt for choice: Hamilton's eatery glut

22:46, Jan 19 2014
 Hamilton restaurants
Nine in a row: How many restaurants does Hamilton have? Can we really sustain them all?

Anyone looking to organise a group dinner is always faced with the tough question: Where do we go?

There's a lot to consider. Do you feel like a bit of spice, or a good old-fashioned steak? Do you want to bring your own wine or do you want a fancy cocktail to complement your tapas? Is there anywhere that caters for your vegan or gluten-free or lactose-intolerant mate?

And just when you think a decision is near, a walk down Victoria St throws another spanner in the works. Signs pointing to specials here and pictures of delicious food there bombard you.

The Times took to the streets this week to count how many places offering food we had available to us in the city. The number is mind-blowing.

A stroll from one end of Victoria St to the other found 66 places to eat. If you poke your head around the corner into Hood St and Alexandra St, there are 23 more. Garden Place boasts 11 eateries and in Centre Place you'll find 15 more.

In total that's 115, and there are many more hiding down the side streets of the CBD before you even make a start on the restaurants and cafes out in the suburbs.


So with a population of just over 200,000, do we have the numbers to sustain all of these venues?

Hamilton hospitality stalwart John Lawrenson says, in short, no.

"There are some well-known bars and restaurants in good locations that are creaming it but there are also a lot of people just scraping by and probably feeding themselves from their own restaurants just to be able to eat," he said. "That's why they keep shutting down and changing hands."

But as soon as someone bows out of the cut-throat industry, someone new takes their place.

Mr Lawrenson said that is because so many people have a dream of owning a cafe or restaurant, but with an overpopulated market it can be a struggle and people end up flicking businesses off for next to nothing for the next entrepreneur to give it a crack.

Or they just hang on in the hope that something will change and they can finally make some money off it.

In reality, it's unlikely they will.

"People are desperately holding on in the hope that someone will come along and give them way more than it's worth but most restaurants are worth almost nothing," Mr Lawrenson said.

Hospitality NZ regional manager Alan Sciascia confirmed times are pretty tough out there.

A recent survey of their members found almost half of the business owners were paying themselves less than the minimum wage when you took into account the hours they were doing to keep the business afloat.

"The hospitality business is somewhere between marginal and reasonable. It's not a huge money-making venture. There are some operators that do very well but it's difficult to make a good fist of," he said.

But although a walk down main street on a Friday lunchtime found one in three eateries empty, some say they are doing just fine.

Thai House Express manager Michele Thammarong said they had a lot of regulars who continually come in for dinner because they offer big meals at low prices. She did agree that Hamilton was spoilt for choice when it comes to places to eat.

"I think there's quite a lot, I think you could go to a different one every single day of the year if you wanted to."

And punters were delighted there were so many options.

Martin Stratton, who moved to Hamilton eight months ago from the United Kingdom, said he tries to eat out at least twice a week.

"We've been very impressed by the diversity and quality we've found," he said.

And Helena Miles said she goes out for lunch most days.

"I think there is a lot but it's good because it gives you a lot of variety."