Auckland’s migrant food scene has been hit by the Covid pandemic, with a slew of restaurant closures across the city. But there are promising signs of recovery, as Alexia Santamaria reports.
It’s no secret that the pandemic has been an extremely stressful time for the hospitality industry.
We’ve seen the closures of long-standing Auckland institutions like Euro and O’Connell Street Bistro, new players like Saxon + Parole, as well as crowd favorites Saan and Xuxu; and many other places are just holding on.
Gary Holmes is the Trade Associations Director for Dominion Road, Northcote, Glen Eden and Glen Innes and has a broad overview of a number of areas in Auckland with large migrant populations.
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“It’s certainly been a very difficult time for business owners and a handful of places have closed, but it’s interesting that in some suburbs we’ve seen new things pop up quite quickly in their place, which suggests future optimism.”
Holmes says Northcote unfortunately only has two operators left in the food court, which leaves her feeling a little sorry, but most of the other standalone places are still there.
“In Dominion Road, we lost Viet Kitchen, but a new restaurant, Top Fortune Hotpot, opened in the same location. There were a few Chinese restaurants near the Valley Rd intersection that closed, but otherwise most survived.
“Glen Innes and Glen Eden appear to have largely come out of this well – despite the struggle, most places are still trading.”
One reason some suburban restaurants may have weathered these tough times could be because people supported their local restaurants and takeouts while working from home, rather than their CBD office.
Anna King Shahab and Antony Suvalko run Lazy Susan, the go-to Facebook page for insight into Auckland’s food scene.
Both live near Dominion Road and Sandringham and say the majority of their local restaurants have suffered but ultimately still have their doors open.
“The restaurants in my hood seem to have overcome the many challenges – no doubt through hard work and many restless nights. There were even a few new ones – great additions,” says Suvalko.
King Shahab agrees: “I don’t think there has been a significant impact in terms of diversity as a result of Covid. In fact, perhaps the opposite – there has been an increase in people making and selling food from their home countries through Facebook and WeChat – these are obviously not bricks and mortar based businesses , but they certainly add to the diversity of the food scene.
“There has been a proliferation of Malaysian openings over the past two years, and more particularly of Indonesian restaurants, which were previously thin on the ground – now we have a number of them, and they are moving by truck, overlapping this which can only be a few. very difficult times.
Suvalko and King Shahab are both sad about the loss of places like Cafe Abyssinia (Ethiopian cuisine) and Just Plove – Auckland’s only Uzbek and Kazakh restaurant, during the first lockdown, but are happy to see the pop-up Yeshi Desta’s My Mother’s Kitchen takes on the challenge with a diverse new offering of Ethiopian cuisine.
“I was also particularly happy to discover Taiba, which was launched via local markets after the first lockdown,” says King Shahab.
“Sahar Basheer and Quadri Mahmoud make a range of Palestinian cheeses that I had never come across in Tāmaki Makaurau before.”
Obtaining statistics to analyze the situation is difficult because official closure figures are communicated retrospectively and can be up to a year behind real time.
“We know there have been a number of closures, but we don’t yet have an exact picture of what that looks like,” says Marisa Bidois, CEO of the Restaurant Association.
“It’s hard to say if we’re losing diversity any further, but given that Auckland has one of the most varied cuisines in the world and that’s partly due to the impact of migrant workers in the industry with which they may have suffered. border closures and visa issues.
“Access to skilled migrants has been limited, which has limited access to the specific skills necessary for these restaurants to thrive and survive.”
What seems clear is that while the suburbs have struggled over the past two years, the real pain is in the CBD.
“We are based in Fort Lane,” says Chand Sahrawat, co-owner and COO of well-known and award-winning restaurant, Cassia, “and have seen so many doors close all around us – Madriz [Spanish Tapas] Ika Bowl [Hawaiian Poke] Hello [European] and mexican [Mexican food franchise].
“It’s really sad and definitely makes this area less interesting for anyone walking around looking for a place to eat.”
Jamie Freeman, president of the Hospitality NZ Auckland chapter agrees.
“Hospitality is the absolute driving force of a city. When tourists arrive at a wide choice of restaurants or bars, the city feels vibrant and interesting, and like it can cater to everyone – families, couples or young people looking for a good night out.
“Right now, places like Queen Street are desolate. We need to bring fun and life back to our city to make it appealing to visitors – and the people who live there.
Freeman says it’s great that the borders are opening up, but fears there could be a delay of up to a year before visitor numbers rebound.
“The town has definitely suffered – rents are higher and footfall has been a huge issue. We’re rebuilding slowly, but it’s more Friday and Saturday nights than Sunday through Thursday. In a hotel business, these are the days that keep your head above water.
Sahrawat says that these days Cassia only offers lunch on Fridays because there are no office workers around.
“It’s sad because it was the kind of place where you could grab a takeaway lunch from many great places – whether it was a burrito from Mexicali or a Middle Eastern salad from Ima and go eat it on the poufs at Takutai Carré in the sun.
“It’s like someone put a knife in the CBD and twisted it.”
But will this loss of variety determine the future culinary diversity of the supercity?
Business owners hope not, and can see some hope for recovery now that the traffic light system has turned orange and tourists can visit without border restrictions.
“With the recent change to orange, we are all hoping office workers will slowly return, and we will see central Auckland hospitality again.” said Sahrawat.
“While big places like Commercial Bay are great, we also need individual mom and pop owners who cook original and cool food from around the world to make our town an interesting place to dine.”