A woman walks into Waihi Beach Hotel's restaurant on Wednesday, looks around at the handsome interior, utters one word: "Wow."
Yep, the wow factor is the thing now at the old-school hotel and live-music venue in Wilson Rd. The hotel's about the first business you see when you swing off the roundabout into town, and its restaurant has clearly had major - and expensive - surgery that has left none of its parts untouched.
It's been done by skilful hands in a sympathetic, family-friendly bistro way that seems a perfect fit for its holiday town location. The big dining room is airy, comfortable with green banquettes, stylish chairs, and light-fittings that look like giant puff-balls. You can see the staff at work in the kitchen, there's a deck, a kids' playground, and you'll likely be eating fresh, local food. If you're not tempted by a plate of avocado and chilli bruschetta, or porchetta, gnudi, peas and beans, you could get a faithful dish of battered fish and potato scallops, or a side of hand-cut chips. Or a whole roast chicken to share, with roasted potatoes, and garden harvest salads. It's not too pricey, either. Most mains are at the mid-$20 mark rather than the more widespread mid-$30s.
If you had the whole chicken, and were of a mind to take the carcase home for soup, staff would no doubt neatly bag it up for you, because they are strong on customer service. And if you're unfamiliar with some of the ingredients on the menu - gnudi, buratta, freekah, cotoletta, for example - don't worry. They step you through everything very nicely.
What's happening here is an intriguing summer story of the big city guys working a new, small patch, and finding something special there. Making a significant investment, and planning a production hub that will feed back to their eateries in Auckland.
So here goes the story: The revamped Waihi Beach Hotel Eatery & Store, to use its official name, kicked off on December 20. The Eatery does breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, drinks on the deck, every day from 7am. The adjacent Store has gelato and cabinet food. The service is excellent, the food is simple but smart, in what some may say is an unlikely location, and alliance. Combining Auckland hospitality leaders with a local pub, and a local personality.
The new venture is a partnership between Waihi Beach vet Pip Jones, and the Auckland Hip Group of restaurants headed by Scott Brown and Jackie Grant. The prestigious and award-winning Hip stable includes Auckland establishments such as Takapuna Beach Cafe & Store, St Heliers Bistro & Cafe, Rosehip Cafe (Parnell), Richmond Road Cafe, Kohi Cafe, Store and Bar, Provenance Matua Valley, and three in the Britomart Precinct, Ortolana, The Diner and Milse.
Brown and Grant's establishments are known for their fresh, farm-to-table ingredients, simple but elegant fit-outs and good service. The couple had managed international hotels overseas; when they came back to Auckland 10 years ago, they found it difficult to get a decent coffee without queuing at a counter, so they started Cafe on Kohi, where table service was a given. Their successive establishments have a large and loyal following in Auckland. Now they've looked south, way beyond the Bombays.
So the question is, why exactly Waihi Beach with the local vet? Why Hip & Pip?
Pip Jones has the quick answer to this. "Why Waihi? Why not?" Jones sits on the deck of the new eatery with Hip's executive chef Jo Pearson. Jones has a coffee to hand, she looks around the new innovations, says it's been a huge undertaking.
She's just been in the adjacent store, where they make their luscious gelato, and a customer she knows has sought a quick word of advice about her aging cat.
Jones says it's like this all the time. She's a multitasker, busy at her vet clinic across the road and active in the hotel's management. She likes good food, can talk cats and gelato at the same time, does the odd bar shift, knows how to pour a Jack and Coke. Her partner, Nigel Sanderson, is the hotel's general manager.
Jones lived in the United States for 20 years, did her veterinary training there, and started her vet clinic in Waihi Beach nine years ago, when she moved back to New Zealand with late husband Chip Hankins. They also bought a dairy farm, did an organic conversion, and in 2008 bought Waihi Beach Hotel (built in 1967) with three other families.
Hankins loved music, had dreams for the hotel, but he died shortly after the purchase. Jones says the hotel ticked along, then 18 months ago, she bought the others out, and discussions with the Hip Group got more and more detailed.
In the New Zealand village, there's always a backstory about longtime friendship. Which is the case here. Jones
and Hip's co-founder Jackie Grant have known each other since they were nannying together in San Francisco, when Jones was about 18.
Grant and Scott Brown have been visiting Jones at Waihi Beach for many summers.
"They'd come down to visit, look around, talk about how things might work," Jones says.
Brown takes up the story. Half the reason for the Hip involvement turns on the long friendship with Jones, he says. "We've been coming down here for about 12 years, staying with her, loving the surroundings, thinking about the hospitality side of things."
They worked on a business case for Waihi Beach. Brown jokes that the hotel venture is probably not the best financial decision he's ever made, he knows the winter will bring its challenges, but the master plan doesn't hinge entirely on the hotel. It's around local growers as well.
The Hip Group has been, in his words, blown away by the quality and variety of the produce in Waihi Beach and surrounding region of the southern Coromandel/western Bay of Plenty. Things like fruit, vegetables, microgreens, eggs, avocados, feijoas, nuts, garlic, shallots and more. "It's sensational."
It's better than what Brown can find in Auckland, where growers seem to be either too small or too big to provide the specialty seasonal produce his outfit wants. So the goal is to create a depot and distribution centre at Waihi Beach that can help supply the Auckland end of the business.
The Hip Group wants local food on all its plates. At the moment, local means New Zealand-wide. Brown'd like to bring this to within 150km of where they operate.
There's more, too, for Waihi Beach. They plan to build a creamery at the hotel site, using the organic milk from Jones' farm, which currently goes into the Fonterra pool (her farm is outside Fonterra's organic pick-up route).
Brown says the creamery will use Jones' milk to make cheese, yoghurt, mascarpone, creme fraiche, mozzarella, gelato. There is a resource consent process to work through: he's envisaging full operation in 18 to 24 months.
A solar-powered organic micro-brewery is also on the list, using hops grown near Katikati. The hotel's garden bar will also be redeveloped.
It's a big investment, even at this stage. Brown says they began by thinking they'd do a "quick little refurb" on the restaurant to develop a $300,000 pop-up eatery for summer. The arrangements didn't seem to be working; in early October, they decided to scrap the pop-up. "We said, stuff it, let's just go the whole hog, a proper Hip Group venture with all the bells and whistles. Around $1 million later, there it is."
Some people have asked Brown why he's made such an investment in Waihi Beach. He says the Hip Group is in it for the long-term, adding something of substance to a great beach and community. There are new jobs as well. Although about 15 Hip staff came from Auckland to do the training and start-up, and three are staying on, most staffers will be from the area.
Brown knows it will be a balancing act for the business in winter; their first one lies ahead. Waihi Beach has a resident population of about 3000, it can swell to 26,000 at the summer peak. In winter, they're hoping to be a food destination on a wet weekend, there's a function room and there will be special events.
Local support is an important part of their success. Brown says he was very, very nervous when they opened. He didn't want the locals to think it was all about Aucklanders coming to town, running the show. "We want to be part of the community, to provide a place for people to connect."
So far, so good. People seem to be enjoying it, he says, modestly.
Out on the deck, late Wednesday morning, there's a hum among the tables on the deck, big groups, little groups, people doing just what Brown says.
Vet Pip Jones and chef Jo Pearson are talking about where they're sourcing ingredients. Almost on cue, a woman comes over to say hello to them. She's Susie Wright, "the avocado lady". She has a small orchard in nearby Athenree.
Wright is also a happy customer. They've celebrated her daughter's sixth birthday here and Wright and some friends enjoyed a four-and-a-half hour brunch recently. "I love it," she says, "the food is outstanding."
Others say the same thing. Part-time Waihi Beach resident Catherine Ryan thinks it's the best thing that could have happened, loves the fit-out and the creative food. Hamilton city councillor Rob Pascoe and wife Trish (who was born and bred in Waihi Beach) are longtime holidaymakers here; they're enjoying the fresh flavours, interesting food, and well-trained staff.
Waihi Beach events and promotions co-ordinator Anna Schroeder says she's never seen so many cars parked outside the hotel, as there have been this summer. It's running on word of mouth, she says, and she's had a really enjoyable time there. "I'm really pleased to see it encouraging a family environment. Our main demographic is families."
Schroeder says anyone who aims to do things for the betterment of the town is welcome. She thinks the new management has some really great ideas, particularly in the area of sustainability.
Although the winter in Waihi Beach is a "different ball game", the Hip Group has a lot of experience behind it.
"If they do half the things they want to do, they will be very successful."
It's early days yet, but you can tell Scott Brown is encouraged by "the look of sheer delight" he's seen on the faces of people who walk into the place. Just like the woman on Wednesday who said "wow". Hip & Pip have added a touch of class to the coast.