Sweet spot still temps remarkable restaurateurs

Kerry and Gary Ford, owners of Ford's Restaurant and Bar.
Marion Van Dijk/Stuff

Kerry and Gary Ford, owners of Ford's Restaurant and Bar.

Ford's Restaurant, located at the top of Trafalgar St, has had many iterations as a café or restaurant since the late 1980s.

I can't remember what business was operating in the premises before Jane and the late Nigel Price renovated the old building and turned it into Nelson's first coffee roastery, Pomeroy's.

The business changed hands a couple of times before Adrian Hill turned it into Bardelicious. It eventually became Fords Restaurant and Bar when Garry and Kerry Ford took over the space while they still owned and operated the White Morph in Kaikoura.

Garry is a chef by trade and oversees the running of the kitchen as well as mentoring young chefs through their apprenticeships while Kerry, an accountant, runs the business including managing staff and the front-of-house operations.

When they first took over the lease for Ford's Garry initially stayed in Nelson but later was mostly based in Kaikoura running the kitchen at the White Morph. He kept an eye on the menu at both places while Kerry remained in Nelson running their new enterprise with plenty of commuting between Nelson and Kaikoura for them both.

Last week I talked with Kerry about everything from the challenges of running a hospitality business to commuting between two businesses so far apart and why they do what they do.

Her very quick answer was "just because I love it, you can't work this hard and do this job unless you love it. We get a real buzz when everything works well, a bit like hitting the sweet spot with a golf club.

"When it all works and every customer leaves happy, I still get a buzz from that."

They first moved to Nelson in 1989. Kerry had a job at the Nelson Marlborough DHB in the finance department while Garry worked was a sous chef at the Rutherford Hotel.

"I studied for a B.Com part-time for 10 years while working full time at the hospital in their accounts department and just worked my way up until I was the Financial Accountant.

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"We also had two children during that time too so lots happened in my life over those 10 years."

They had always wanted to own their own hospitality business so when they went to Westport for a weekend they got all excited about the Bay House Café that was on the market at the time.

"We started on negotiations but it fell through and as we already had our hearts set on buying something we just kept looking," Kerry said. "The White Morph in Kaikoura came on the market so we bought it.

"We sold our family home, took two kids, the dog and my mother to live above the restaurant. The first night we served six people and thought 'what have we done' but it worked out really well.

"I must say we couldn't have done this without my Mum, she helped out and looked after the kids while we worked downstairs."

Kerry told me the early and mid 2000s were a great few years in Kaikoura.

It was the beginning of the boom time with Whale Watch starting to get established, the exchange rate was great, all the tourists just wanted crayfish and Cloudy Bay wine and didn't care what they paid for it.

"But we also made sure we looked after the locals and regulars," Kerry said. "Because they are the base of any hospitality business that helps see you through the quiet winter months and tourists are the bonus."

"The White Morph was often the first stop for international visitors, they would get off the plane in Christchurch and come straight to Kaikoura for whale watching," Kerry said.

"We were often the first New Zealand dining experience for many of them so we were promoting not only Kaikoura but helping educate them about New Zealand customs, like not being expected to tip and so on."

In 2006 they made a move back to Nelson for the children to go to school but carried on running the business in Kaikoura. They had to look at a way to make everything work and found the commuting style of life worked really well.

"In Kaikoura, I would work all hours of the day but when I was in Nelson I could be a full time mum.

"We'd each work four nights in Kaikoura and on the last night drive home ready to take the kids to school in the morning," Kerry said. "It was either Garry, me or my Mum there for them but we made sure we were in the same town for important things." 

"The crux of making that work was a great team at the White Morph. By the time the place was written off by a fire in 2013 many of them had been with us for eight years or more.

"We have one waitress who has worked for us for nine years across four restaurants."

As well as the White Morph, the couple also had a second business in Kaikoura, the Bayside Blue Café, that was only open in the summer and was pitched at a cheaper price point than White Morph. 

Once they bought Ford's they gave up the Bayside lease.

"Two restaurants was silly, three would be ridiculous," Kerry said. 

In 2010, their daughter Amber got a job at Bardelicious and "she said to us you should so buy this".

"That was May and by July we had.

"It was about the location that really sold us on it. The top of Trafalgar St is a great dining space, the premises had previously had a great reputation so we knew all we had to do was make excellent food and have great service, put good systems in place again and we would have a successful business."

With their willingness to work hard they turned it around quite quickly.

The first year at Ford's was tough on many fronts. As well as starting a new business they both lost their fathers in the first month of opening.

"My Dad had been unwell and he died the day after we opened then Garry's dad died four weeks later," Kerry said.

"It also took us a while to put a really good team together but with the staff we have now everyone works really well together.

"Every person in the kitchen has started with us as a kitchen hand, worked for others, travelled and come back, three have also completed their apprenticeships with us so they know the standards we expect.

"Lis Huntley, our head chef, started with us as a kitchen hand, did her apprenticeship with Service IQ and she came and helped us start Panama, when we sold that she came back here as sous chef, then head chef when opportunity came up.

"Richard Craig has just re-joined us after two years in London at The Delaunay. When he arrived back in town recently he dropped in looking for a job, we didn't have one but the next day someone resigned so it worked out really well."

Sous Chef, Jesse Laugesson, started in Kaikoura and has worked across all four restaurants. 

"He came to help open Ford's and when the White Morph burnt down he came to help open Panama," Kerry said. "Then when we had a sous chef vacancy recently I contacted him and he came back to Ford's.

Kelly Biggs has just completed her apprenticeship and two current kitchen hands are doing the NMIT Chef course and working part time at Ford's.

So what about the biggest challenges?

"Cashflow," Kerry says. "We need to make sure we are right on top of our budgets.

"Nelson is so seasonal but we also need to look after the staff and make sure they have enough hours to survive on during the winter.

"We could run a leaner machine but we need to keep staff and we know the wages we pay pays their rent and supports families and we take that responsibility really seriously."

Consistency in service and food is also really important. 

"Setting the standard and making sure everyone knows why they are doing something, I am a great believer in staff understanding why they need to do things not just do what we ask them to."

And of course there is Garry. "For us it is a partnership, we always talk about everything. I couldn't imagine doing it without him, he is very calming and stable influence in the kitchen.  He helps set the standard.

"This summer will be the first summer we are here in the same place together with one restaurant and we're feeling really excited with the team and where we are at with the business and life in general."

 - Stuff

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