With 30 years as a successful restaurateur under her chopping board, Queenstown foodie Fleur Caulton didn’t think there were any lessons left to learn about running a food business. Video / NZ Herald
Administrators appointed yesterday to the Madam Woo/Hawker & Roll/Rātā restaurant chain have already closed three of the Malaysian-style street food Hawker & Roll outlets but none were full restaurants.
Malcolm Hollis, a PwC administrator, said
today the small servers in Auckland’s Commercial Bay, a Tauranga mall and Queenstown had shut.
Nine outlets or eateries had been running, either as full-service-style restaurants or more food court-style servers, he said. It was the latter that PwC shut in moving on the smaller outlets yesterday, he said.
“We’re trying to save the remaining parts of the business. They’re good but these other ones were too difficult to manage in the current environment,” Hollis said.
Takapuna’s Madam Woo had already shut, so that took closed outlets to four all up, he said.
Lease liabilities to businesses like Commercial Bay landlord NZX listed Precinct Properties was “something we’ll have to look at,” Hollis said.
Five outlets are still trading, Hollis said: Queenstown’s Rātā, Madam Woo restaurants in Hamilton and Queenstown, Hawker & Roll at Auckland’s Sylvia Park and commercial kitchen operations, which supplied the chain from Onehunga.
Rātā was so popular, Hollis said, that Queenstown-based Fleur Caulton who co-owned the business said they could have served more patrons last night if they had capacity.
“We welcome continued support. Rātā in Queenstown was full last night and I spoke to Fleur this morning who said they could have done a lot more if they had more staff,” Hollis said today.
Star chef Josh Emett was less involved: “My understanding is Josh Emett hasn’t been actively involved in the business for a couple of years now. He’s still a shareholder, but from what I’ve been told he didn’t have active involvement at all. However, Fleur Caulton is still very involved and I’ve been meeting her in the last couple of days,” Hollis said today.
The chain taken over by administrators struck trouble well before the pandemic, closing a southern restaurant three years ago because of critical staffing shortages, and a Christchurch outlet two years ago.
In January 2019, a year-long battle to find skilled staff for Dunedin’s Madam Woo resulted in the closure of that stylish Stuart St eatery in heritage premises, much to the disappointment of locals and tourists.
At the time, restaurant manager Kevin Beckett said he struggled to get senior skilled kitchen staff and many workers were from the student population who disappeared after the academic year ended.
By May 2020, trouble emerged for Madam Woo Christchurch and the Herald reported how that restaurant was closing too with eight staff laid off.
By September, 2020, Herald journalist Jane Phare was interviewing restauranteur and businesswoman Fleur Caulton in an article headlined Saving Madam Woo, Hawker & Roll and Rata from Covid-19 damage.
Pre-Covid, the Go To Collection’s nine restaurants – Rātā, Madam Woo and Hawker & Roll – were ticking along nicely and Caulton was on the lookout for just the right sites with a view to opening more. Her main problem was finding staff with the right fit, qualified and passionate about food and hospitality.
Then along came Covid-19 and lockdown. Suddenly she went from a business that had funds coming in every day to nothing, that article of 2020 said.
Yesterday, the Herald reported Madam Woo, co-founded by celebrity chef Josh Emett, was part of the restaurant group now in the hands of voluntary administrators.
Malcolm Hollis and John Fisk, of PwC, were appointed by the directors of Go To Collection, the hospitality group that operates the Rātā, Madam Woo and Hawker & Roll restaurants in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and Queenstown.
The company employs more than 100 employees.
Hollis said the administrators’ role was to try to rehabilitate and restructure the business to avoid an alternative process like liquidation.
“The company has experienced a difficult period due to the impact of Covid-19, especially the extreme shortage of staff. We will work with the team to devise and implement a restructuring plan to ensure the components of the business that are operating well can have a successful future. The best-performing restaurants will continue to provide high-quality services. However, the less popular sites will be closed. “Nearly all existing staff will be retained,” Hollis said yesterday.
“In addition to a restructuring plan, it is intended that a proposal by way of a deed of company arrangement will be put to creditors at a watershed meeting before Christmas.
Today, retail consultant Chris Wilkinson said it was very sad about the chain being with administrators.
“They are good operators and very much at the heart of the experiential dining scene where the theater of the kitchen and restaurant vibe is as important as the quality and flair of food. I was working in Queenstown earlier this week and from conversations with operators and property owners, the variable but improving nature of trade has been particularly challenging, he said today.
In terms of the restaurant scene, the challenges of getting staff at all levels of skill and qualification were immense and unprecedented, Wilkinson said.
“Many of New Zealand’s leading restauranteurs are currently back in the kitchens, or leading service because the skills and talents needed to deliver high standards are simply not available. Other restaurants are limiting the number of tables, hours and opening days which is particularly noticeable in the main centers as people bemoan the lack of choice earlier in the week,” he noted.
The hospitality sector continued to struggle.
Patronage and customers have changed their own habits through flexible working hours and days.
Consumers’ disposable income was also hit by high inflation.
“One glimmer is that consumers are increasingly turning to the experience economy with food, beverage, entertainment and leisure sectors. Some really interesting examples of how this will begin to shift the mix in our retail and city centers,” Wilkinson said.
The Companies Office lists Fleur Caulton, Andrew Glenn and Michael Hill International director Emma Hill as the directors of Go To Collection.
Shareholders include Caulton and Emett’s Mayfare, with 66.67 per cent, the Edgar family’s SIL Long Term Holdings with 8.33 per cent and Sir Stephen Tindall’s K One W One, also with 8.33 per cent.
Caulton and Emett co-founded and opened the first Madam Woo restaurant in Queenstown in 2013. The pair then opened three other restaurants in Christchurch, Auckland and Hamilton, and launched Hawker & Roll, which has five outlets.
Another businessman involved in the restaurant trade said today that the late Sir Eion Edgar had been a big champion of Emett and Caulton. Edgar had wanted Madam Woo in Dunedin, which is why he opened there, that businessman thought.
But Covid had taken a huge toll on the chain and without Edgar to champion Emmett, Caulton and the chain, there was less impetus to keep putting in money, he believes.
That is why administrators were called in and he doesn’t think the chain will remain anywhere near the same shape in the future. A number of restaurants will close, he thinks.
Many restaurants were operating on either restricted hours or only opening five days a week. Which days they were shut varied depending on clientele, location and demand, that man said.
He also wondered about other businesses Emett is involved in, including upmarket Waiheke Island eatery The Oyster Inn at Oneroa.
The Herald profile on Caulton two years ago said she drew hard on help and advice from some of Go Too’s shareholders and board members: her neighbor, businessman and philanthropist Sir Eion Edgar, Emma Hill, who chairs the Michael Hill jewelery business and Sir Stephen Tindall .
Hill, a shareholder and board member from day one, had been a huge support, Caulton said two years ago. “She’s been a rock for me, available at any time.”
But rentals were being paid on what was then the group’s 11 sites: Queenstown’s Rātā, three Madam Woo restaurants, five Hawker & Roll outlets, a Queenstown support office and the Hawker Kitchen in Ōnehunga that produces products for the group, like curry pastes.
Negotiating with 11 different landlords was a time-consuming “nightmare”, Caulton said back then.