Being in the restaurant trade can be a rocky road at the best of times. For Lisa Scholz, owner of Christchurch fine dining restaurant Saggio di vino, the last three years have been a combination of stress, insurance company wrangling, council regulation juggling, real estate hunting and finally, designing and opening her dream restaurant next door to her original location.
Located on the corner of Bealey Ave and Victoria Street, Saggio’s was one of the city’s best known restaurants with an enviable customer base of loyal regulars boosted by travelers over the summer months.
The September 2010 earthquake tipped all of that on its head. The building that housed Saggio di vino had been previously earthquake strengthened, so it withstood the 7.1 magnitude quake, but the older building next door, which had just been emptied of tenants by its new owner ready for renovations, did not.
Within 10 days of the quake, developer Richard Driver had made a decision to demolish, got the necessary consents and was underway. In the meantime, Scholz’s restaurant business was on indefinite hold as the landlord of her building decided to repair the corner site, starting with the erection of scaffolding and the removal of two walls.
Just a few months later, in February 2011, the second major quake saw the building become no longer viable and Saggio di vino had lost its home. Fortunately, the initial decision to repair meant that there was time to remove the existing kitchen equipment and furniture, including the two SKOPE gastronorm fridges that had been part of the business for the previous 20 years.
In the meantime, the neighbouring property had started construction but the ground floor space had already been leased, so Scholz began the task of trying to find new premises in a city full of broken buildings and other restaurants and cafes looking for new homes.
After 6 months of looking, Scholz placed an advertisement in the Press stating her business was looking for space, and provided her contact details. Within a day or two she had a pile of plans and proposals to consider, most of which were in their very early stages. Despite signing several expression of interest documents, no progress was made till November 2011 when Scholz was contacted by Driver, who told her the previous tenants had fallen through and offered her the space.
“It was bigger than our old restaurant but of course I said yes – it was perfect, to be able to stay in the same location and give our customers something familiar,” Scholz says.
Once the lease was signed, it was all about getting the interior designed, fitted and up and running as quickly as possible, particularly as the business still had staff on the payroll, bills to pay and no income coming in.
The restaurant re-opened for business on June 14, 2012, one of the first businesses to re-open – on virtually the same site, on the periphery of the CBD, but with 60 seats instead of 45 in the old restaurant.
At the time, only a few hotels were up and running, with The George on Park Terrace the only one within walking distance. That meant a tough first year, without the usual tourist business, but the boost of seeing regular customers coming back through the doors more than made up for it.
With the influx of workers involved in the Christchurch rebuild – from engineers to construction workers, and the amount of building activity going on in Victoria Street, the restaurant has been kept busy – and has found no need for a dress code, unlike others in the street.
“Turning people away because of what they are wearing is not hospitality and we are in the hospitality business,” Scholz points out.
She has even adapted their menu to include steak frito – steak and fries cooked in duck fat to cater for the increase in male diners.
“If a worker comes in wanting a meal and a glass of wine, we are certainly not going to send them home to get changed first. Once they have left the area, who knows where they might decide to go for the evening.”
The tourist trade has started to grow again with the re-opening of more hotels in the city, and having a number of bars and restaurants in Victoria Street itself has been a positive for Saggio’s too.
“We always benefit when there are a number of places for people to choose from – it is far better than being the only one in a street.”
Scholz and her partner Yommi Pawelke are positive about the future in Christchurch and believe that things will be largely back to normal within the next two years or so.
They would like to see more developers like Driver pushing projects through in other parts of the city, and look forward to a time when the Gapfiller projects are no longer needed.