How eight hospitality families survive the pressure in the kitchen

by Leisha Jones / 21 April, 2017
Photographs by Charles Buenconsejo and Malcolm Campbell

Owner-operators in the hospitality trade often liken running a business to having a baby – it’s demanding and takes over your life; it keeps you up at night with worry; and you don’t always feel comfortable leaving it in the hands of somebody else, because you know they will never care for it the way you do. So what happens when you throw in the added stress of having a child while trying to run a restaurant? Or if your business partner happens to be your sibling, or your mother? We spoke to families and couples working in food to hear how they balance their family life while growing a business – or if balance even exists. 

Gemmayze St - Liane Farry and Samir Allen

Samir Allen and his mother Liane Farry have a lot in common – they were born on the same day, they both love food, and they share a feisty Lebanese passion that courses through everything they do. “We are very much a team. Samir runs the kitchen and I run the front of house,” says Liane, “but there’s no balance going on. We clash but we get over it fast.” Samir says his love of cooking came from working at the feet of his mum and nana, who taught him how to care about food. He cemented the love of his culture’s cuisine while working at his cousin’s restaurant in Lebanon. “We’re a big family but really close,” says Samir. “My dad comes in and sits at the bar and chats with Mum. My nana and aunties are always here, and all my cousins come in. If they want to go out for dinner now, they come here because it’s the family restaurant. It’s really cool.” Samir’s brother Nathaneal occasionally works at the restaurant too, and while it adds to the chaos, it also adds to the authenticity. “Us being here all together adds to the realness. Mum doesn’t change herself on the floor, she’s still Mum. She talks to everyone the same way she talks to us. I wanted the restaurant to be relaxed and Mum is a huge part of that. She makes it feel like home, because Mum is there, looking after everybody.”

Shop 15-16, St Kevins Arcade, Karangahape Rd

Fort Greene -Liam Fox and Andrea Mulhausen

Liam Fox and Andrea Mulhausen describe their three-year-old daughter Olivia as the third partner in the business, a true “hospo baby”. She has a tiny apron hanging on the wall and knows all of the regulars. “We wouldn’t do it any other way. We make her a part of the business so she loves coming here,” says Liam. “But it’s hard trying to prioritise. You are trying to get something off the ground but also trying to make sure that your child knows what you look like.”

Working in such close quarters, six (sometimes seven) days a week, has also had its challenges, and they admit it hasn’t always been breezy. “It’s funny ‘cause you only ever argue about the things that don’t matter at all,” says Liam. “It’s just the minutiae. But then you end up laughing because it’s the stupidest thing.” Liam says it’s not so much the amount of time they spend together, as it is the lack of time apart. “We are learning how to manage our time better and realising that just because we want some time apart from each other, doesn’t mean we love each other any less.”

Navigating the tiny shop space requires boundaries. Liam dominates the kitchen, and anything forward of that is Andrea’s. Liam says Andrea’s hot Latin blood often sees him thrown out of her zone. Andrea rephrases for him: “Well, I’m definitely more passionate. I’ll call it passionate. I’m more bossy, but that doesn’t mean I’m the boss. That comes with the Latin blood. I was born like this.”

22 St Kevins Arcade, Karangahape Rd

Tiger Burger - Esther Jeong and Matt Shephard

Following the success of their Korean-inspired fast food on Auckland’s market circuit, Esther Jeong and Matt Shephard decided to take a risk, throw in their jobs in media and give Tiger Burger a full-time home. Matt says they thought a lot of the skills they gained from the markets would translate, and some of them do, but running a restaurant is a completely different experience from what they did before. Says Esther: “We didn’t realise what we were in for. We have learnt everything the hard way. Some couples are just not meant to work together. You need to analyse what kind of relationship you have. I’m really impatient and fiery – very Korean – and he’s calm and chilled out, not as bossy, so it works.”

Prior to opening, the couple discussed that the business might make or break their relationship. Matt says a lot of people don’t think through the worst-case scenario, and that you need to “hope for the best, plan for the worst”. They drew up a contract which promises that if they do break up, they will have half of the business each and remain friends. “It sounds silly,” says Matt, “but I think if everyone knows from the beginning that it could ruin things, then you just need to lay it out and be open about everything. Because if you hold on to things and let it fester in your head then it will just create tension further down the track.”

549 Great North Rd, Grey Lynn

The Pie Piper and Doornuts Suzanne and Danielle Butler

Danielle and Suzanne Butler – the mother-daughter duo behind The Pie Piper – learned to clearly define their roles very early on, when they first began selling their American dessert pies at Auckland markets in 2014. Danielle says while they occasionally fall back into a mother-daughter relationship, starting the business required a change of attitude. “I had to shift from my mother mode to thinking, this is my business partner and therefore I have to actively listen and we have to work together on something.”

In their recently opened Karangahape Road retail bakery, and with their other side business (a door-to-door doughnut delivery service called Doornuts), Danielle will stick to the kitchen, while Suzanne will take care of front of house. They say pies are all about happiness, friends and family. “Because of what pie is about, our people that work for us are like part of our extended family,” says Danielle, “Hopefully our shop has that same feel too.”

Danielle says while the opening of the physical store has brought them closer together, the high-pressure situation can be testing. “I feel blessed to work with a family member because if it was just a normal business colleague I wouldn’t get as direct communication as I do with Suzanne. Because she’s my daughter she can read me better than anyone else, and vice versa, so when I’m in meltdown mode, we can balance each other out.”

3/321 Karangahape Rd

The Engine Room - Carl Koppenhagen and Natalia Schamroth

Natalia Schamroth and Carl Koppenhagen first met cooking when they were 17 and 18 years old, but romance didn’t begin to simmer until they came back together about 14 years ago, when Koppenhagen worked for Schamroth at Reuben cafe at Auckland Art Gallery. Schamroth says they both have strong personalities but, creatively, they have always been on the same page. “The best thing is that you are working for a common goal,” she says. “We are doing it for us.” She says they are both control freaks and now their son, who is only three, wants to take control too. “He’s got a bedroom at the restaurant in the office and comes to work five nights a week. He loves it. That’s all he knows. He loves all the staff and it’s actually quite nice having a kid around, it brings a softness to everyone.”

A few years ago, the restaurant underwent renovations which saw it almost double in size. Schamroth says as they have grown, their roles have changed. “We were a bit delusional when we opened and thought one of us would be on the floor and one would be in the kitchen and we would swap. But we were so busy so quickly that we just had to stay in one position and that was it. But as we’ve grown our roles are changing. As much as we wanted to stay on the tools day to day, we need to be able to run the business more than physically working in it every single day.”

115 Queen St, Northcote Pt

Kiss Kiss - Celeste Thornley, Jasper and Ludo Maignot

For Celeste Thornley, working with her part-French partner Jasper Maignot and his brother Ludo – who all own and operate Kiss Kiss together – is actually a breeze. “Often I just zone out when they are having an argument in French. But I think I mediate them as well.” The brothers had worked together before in Melbourne, and while most quibbles that take place happen under stress in the kitchen, they don’t happen often and they don’t last long. Jasper says none of them have a “spiky attitude” and Ludo agrees. “If we have a clash, at the end of the day, all we do is just say ‘I love you’ and that finishes it. You can’t leave the place being angry.”

They say the best thing about being a trio is that they have a whole set of skills to draw on and all naturally gravitate towards their strengths. Celeste has a degree in fine arts, Ludo a background in spatial design, and Jasper is the motivator, or “the ballbreaker” as Celeste calls him. When it comes to day-to-day operations they all pitch in and take on what needs to be done. The trio recently helped the boys’ mum set up her own florist, another family project. Outside of work, the business is often at the centre of conversation. “We just spent our whole holidays talking about work,” says Celeste, “but I came back thinking how lucky we are to work for ourselves and to work together.”

1 Rocklands Ave, Mt Eden

Woodworks - Jessica Brewer and Matthieu Gosset

Before opening their first business – La Boulange on Jervois Road – Matthieu Gosset and Jessica Brewer already knew they worked well together. They had met at a restaurant on the North Shore, where Jessica worked as a waitress and Matthieu was her manager. Twelve years, two daughters and a handful of cafes later, Jessica says their current business, Woodworks in Avondale, has been the most challenging. In July 2015, the cafe was gutted by a fire caused by a stack of freshly laundered tea towels which spontaneously combusted. “It was really stressful because we both lost our jobs on the same day,” says Jessica. “But that’s also one of the good things about working together, you know exactly what the other is going through all the time.”

Recently reopened and restored almost exactly to its former state, Matthieu now runs the cafe day to day while Jessica – a freelance designer on the side – takes care of accounts and design collateral. “I think the key is to have clearly defined roles within your business,” Jessica says. “If you’ve got a strong relationship it can work. It depends on the people. We work well together because we are both quite level-headed. If you worked with someone who flew off the rocker every five minutes, or didn’t have the same work ethic, or someone that you didn’t trust 100 percent, it would be tricky. But if you are both on the same playing field I think it’s fine.”

1790 Great North Rd, Avondale

The Kimchi Project - Kyung and Ben Huh

Ben Huh and his wife Kyung inherited the lease for the hidden courtyard space which is now The Kimchi Project from his brother about eight years ago – back then it was a late-night smoke-filled dive bar. Ben says they wanted to transform the business into something they could be proud of and somewhere their sons, aged eight and 10, could also enjoy. So they changed the hours, renovated the previously dingy courtyard into a green and sunny oasis, and even added a kids menu.

Currently Ben is working days and Kyung is working nights, so they only cross over for a few hours during the day. Ben says the whole process has been stressful (he lost eight kilograms during the renovations) but luckily, it has not impacted their marriage. “Our staff say, ‘you guys never fight’. I guess a lot of people fight, cause it’s so intense and you are spending a lot of money and spending a lot of time here. People get very sensitive.”

Married for 15 years, The Kimchi Project marks the first time the couple have worked together. “We are finding out that we have different character traits and different things we are good at. I’m good at finding people and paperwork and she’s really good at managing the staff and putting systems in place,” says Ben. “And look at this!” He proudly holds up a small ceramic bowl of salt. “She has been shopping all over Auckland finding the right stuff. This kind of thing she is really, really good at.”

20 Lorne St, central city

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