Mel Simpson | Piopio, NZ
In 2008, Mel was contacted by a group of local family investors and asked to consider opening a café with their financial backing as part of a larger community effort to revitalize the provincial Waikato town of Piopio. A survey of residents indicated that there were three services wanted by the community: a doctor, a postal service and a good café. At the time, Mel was managing one New Zealand’s most famous cafes, Bosco in Te Kuiti, however she was passionate about the small town and couldn’t refuse the opportunity to build something special for the community.
How has a town with literally ZERO hospitality responded to the opening of an iconic café?
Were there haters early on? First of all, let me clarify that there were and still are other food providers in Piopio, but no full service cafes per se. But we have no “haters” in Piopio! The community has been exceedingly supportive of our business from the start. Our builder spoke to local school groups as the café was being constructed, while a team from Piopio College helped design and construct our fencing and bridge. Everyone was part of the excitement of a new café opening in town. We see a consistent mix of business from both locals and visitors passing through. Locals also support our catering business in a big way for their special family and business events.
You have been critical in the regeneration of the town. How has the area changed?
The biggest change since we opened the café in 2009 is that locals have a place to meet for food and a great cup of coffee, and people passing through now plan their trips around stopping for meals and/or coffees in Piopio. The Fat Pigeon has become a destination on that long drive up from or down to New Plymouth and a destination for those wanting an outing in the rural countryside. Visitors wander up the street, and call into Piopio Berry Orchard for fresh berries in season, so we think we have had a flow-on effect on the town.
Piopio’s regeneration has also been helped by Sir Peter Jackson’s decision to film part of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” at Denize Bluffs in the Mangaotaki Valley in 2011 (now “Hairy Feet Waitomo Hobbit Film Location.”) As a result, international and domestic tourism numbers are up, and people are coming to stay in the area.
Once The Fat Pigeon was up and running, we also got involved in a substantial renovation of the old Piopio Hotel, which we operate now as The Owl’s Nest Motel and Night Owl Bar & Eatery. The Night Owl serves dinner and good coffee, Wednesdays through Sundays - Both businesses filled hospitality voids that previously existed in our town.
You are a community café as well as a go to roadie pit stop. Any challenges associated with regulars vs. commuters travelling through? How do they keep it fresh and popular?
The fun part for me is keeping our offering up-to-date with trends, ensuring our food cabinet is full of beautiful, abundant and amazing food, and keeping customers satisfied! We have lots of regular, repeat customers, so we do change it up from time to time, despite the occasional protest, and we like to offer our customers lots of choice. The Fat Pigeon has always had gluten-free options available and has increased those offerings due to customer demand. We’re also well known as kid friendly.
Our biggest challenge is managing queues out of the door, on busy weekends in particular. We don’t want anyone to have to wait too long for service. While it’s a good problem to have, we want to make sure everyone is served as quickly as possible, and our counter team is very focused on that.
Staff must also be quite transient. You must have learnt how to let go of some, but also how to keep hold of the hospo stars amongst your team? What’s your secret?
It’s difficult to source experienced staff in a small town, although we do find the occasional ‘superstars’ whom we cherish! Training is of utmost importance and a continuous process. For some, this is their first job, but with the right attitude and proper training they are able to thrive. We upskill our staff by taking them to cooking classes and food shows, and also to other cafes/restaurants.
Our biggest challenge with new staff is instilling that all important commitment to customer service, since it drives the continued success of our business. We try to convey and emphasize that with our Mission Statement: “To be the destination of choice for delicious food, great coffee and excellent customer service.”
Mel, you do lots of food travel worldwide. Talk to us about how this inspires you and translates through to the café.
It’s fairly predictable now that I arrive home from a trip brimming with inspiration for new dishes and presentation techniques for The Fat Pigeon. I travel with like minded friends who love good food and fun times. I’ve just started to organise food trips through Hello World in Te Kuiti. In March this year we went to Adelaide, Australia, and later this year I’m heading further afield, to Vietnam, which I’m quite excited about. Can’t wait to see what’s on the café menu after that!
I’ve been on a cooking tour with Chelsea Winter (MasterChef NZ winner and cookbook author) to Italy and took a cooking class in Florence. I’ve also been to England where we visited Rick Stein’s restau-rants in Padstow. Closer to home I’ve been lucky enough to have met and cooked a local “wild foods” inspired menu for Al Brown (NZ chef, restauranteur and cookbook author) at a community fundraiser here in Piopio. These amazing chefs and experiences keep me challenged and growing as a cook.
I bring new ideas home from my travels, give them my own little twists, and then test those out on the team at The Fat Pigeon. I never seem to have a shortage of willing taste testers! At the moment we’re giving some thought to a Fat Pigeon cookbook since customers keep asking me for recipes, but it’s early days.