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A brief history of Cobb & Co

The steak at Cobb & Co is not too pricey and not too fancy. Photo/Getty.

Tally-ho Cobb & Co!

Great expectations in family dining

It’s possible that Cobb & Co is a gateway family restaurant. The traffic-light drinks, shrimp cocktails and heritage-themed decor will only satisfy for so long. Pretty soon, recreational diners are craving ever stronger hits and before you know it they’re haunting the Valentines’ buffet; then it’s just one short step to Denny’s and its round-the-clock offering.

Once, according to stuff.co.nz, there were 37 Cobb & Co family-friendly restaurants throughout the land. Times, tastes and tolerance changed and now, as is the case with Denny’s, there are just seven.

Cobb & Co did (and still does) the basics: roast of the day, steaks – not too pricey, not too fancy. You won’t find one in the main population centres: not Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch nor Hamilton boasts one. 

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You’ll have to go to Rotorua, Taupō, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Levin, Invercargill, Whakatāne or Dunedin to sample the “honest-to-goodness home-style meals prepared like Mum used to make”.

Cobb & Co emphasises its connection with the eponymous 19th-century stagecoach company founded by Freeman Cobb. There doesn’t seem to be any direct connection between the two enterprises, apart from both having lots of pictures of stagecoaches.

The “history” section of the website – “how the guest was won” – is frustratingly vague, starting with the Otago gold rush. It’s in verse, I think; you be the judge: “News of this fabulous find, around the world began to gush/Sparked off the start of what became known as the Otago gold rush.”

Today, the seven restaurants are a mix of franchise and company-owned. Cobb & Co is nothing if not adaptable and has always tried to move with the times. Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in a 1985 corporate video aimed at getting staff informed and energised about: “The most exciting changes in Cobb & Co since 1973.” It’s introduced by company rep Ray Inaudible, who announces in his idiosyncratic style that “I’d like to let you in. On how it all. Came about.”

Turns out Cobb & Co had learnt their customers’ “greatest expectation was quality. Yes, quality.” Indeed – who would have guessed? And the company listened and acted. Now, the video specifies, it will only buy export-quality meat, meaning great steaks and “no more complaints”.

And that’s not all. They would be introducing “attractive hand-held menus” and breakthrough dishes such as the “TTT” – the turkey triple toasted.

However, our host must move on – “Anyway, enough from me” – although not before repeating word for word the finding about quality, like some sort of neurolinguistic programming strategy designed to keep the staff compliant.

There follows a slideshow of menu items with a voiceover from (It can’t be? It is!) Dick Weir, inspiring confidence with all the avuncular authority he can bring to bear.

Weir goes into quite some detail, as he describes the chilled juices served in a 250ml glass “on a doilyed saucer”. The wontons come with “50ml of sweet and sour sauce in the sauce dish”. It’s the glimpses behind the scenes that provide the most fascination. All soups “should be stirred before pouring into the bowl. And remember – only two-thirds full.”

Incredibly, Weir keeps his cool throughout, never once getting carried away with excitement at what he’s describing.

Finally, he advises the team, “Don’t forget to offer a liqueur of speciality coffee” because… “This is your last chance to express quality to our customers.”

This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.