Small Business: Restaurants taking inspiration from South-East Asia – Comensa Group
Restaurant group co-owner Krishna Botica discusses South East-Asian food being the flavour of the month and the logistics of running a food business.
What does your business do?
We have a few different businesses all under our hospitality group Comensa, all dining experiences, providing food and beverage and an experience of the culture behind the food. We own Cafe Hanoi, Xuxu Dumpling Bar, Saan – Asian-inspired restaurants. We opened Cafe Hanoi in 2010, Xuxu in 2012 and Saan in 2016.
What was the motivation for opening the restaurants?
The first cafe opened when we had an alliance with the then executive chef Jason van Dorsten who had wanted to open a restaurant when he was over in England with us. Then when he came back home we started talking about what we thought was an inspirational idea to get us all going.
It started as a bit of a dream for him, he loved Vietnamese food. We went to Vietnam a couple of times to try to understand the culture so we could reflect that with the products that we can access here. It took us two years to get it off the ground.
We had long waits at Cafe Hanoi and we wanted to control the experience for our customers who were waiting to dine at the restaurant so that is why we bought the bar across the road. It was more of a holding pen for us initially, and we developed it and two years later is when we actually turned it into a dumpling bar. That one wasn’t a firing passion from the beginning, it was the desire to manage the experience.
The third outlet was built around one of our chefs who we found out was a very experienced and encyclopedic about Northern Thai food. We didn’t actually want to open up a Thai restaurant initially, we thought there were too many Thai restaurants in New Zealand, especially Auckland.
We said “present us with some food so we can get our head around it” and every time he presented food I said “we’ve never had anything like this before” so we went over to Thailand with him to try to understand the culture behind it and how we were going to create an experience for people.
Why is it important to spend time in the country that a restaurant’s food is inspired by?
It’s not just about the cuisine, it is about the culture behind it. We do have a belief that food is the cornerstone of culture and you can understand foods to a certain extent but until you actually get over there and understand how it is created and the environment it is presented in, you don’t really understand how it works.
How long have you been working in the hospitality industry?
I’ve been in hospitality ever since my first day in a coffee shop when I was 13. Prior to starting Comensa, I was one of the owners of Prego on Ponsonby Rd.
What are the plans and goals for Comensa Group this year?
There are always plans to open other restaurants but we like to take our time. I think we’ll always focus on Asian restaurants. I did my 24 years with European food and I’m definitely more passionate about Asian cuisine, now. Asian cuisine is about texture and balance in the palette and doesn’t use dairy.
We have quite a big human resources strategy happening. We started a project last year within our team and we’re looking very much internally at our ongoing upskilling and training. The diversity of our staff base is quite extraordinary, at any one time we have between 20 and 23 different cultures working, so we want to dig deeper into the special-ness within our teams. Our team is made up of 75 people.
What’s the hardest part about running a hospitality business?
Everybody says hospitality has great cashflow potential, which it does, but you do have to pivot very quickly week to week, month to month based on what’s happening in your local area, in the wider economy and even trend within the hospitality sector so there’s lots of balls to juggle.
You have to look short term, as in next week; what’s happening with the roster, what’s happening with events round the city, public holidays, whether it’s school holidays … there’s lots of things that determine how profitable the business is, you literally have to key your eye on the calendar, and even look back historically. And then there’s staying on top of seasonal produce and staying modern.
One business opening up can take a chunk of your revenue depending on how successful they are or the flavour of the month.
What’s it like operating in Auckland’s hospitality industry?
Auckland’s hospitality industry is going gangbusters in terms of its creativity. We have a lot of Australians that come over and they talk to us about how vibrant the Auckland’s restaurant scene is. We see ourselves as a very large part of the tourism sector and as one of the drawcards in tourism now.
What advice do you give to others thinking about starting their own business?
Make sure you’ve got enough energy to sustain the business and make sure that you have your message right – you need to understand what you are trying to do in so much depth and detail that you’re living and breathing it.