Covid-19 hasn’t stopped businesses from thriving on Waiheke Island

Jane Phare visits three growing businesses on Waiheke Island – a pet shop, a whisky distillery and a family who make cashmere garments, ice cream, fudge, candles, soap, skincare, run a gift shop and café on the island – and a nappy business in the UK.

Ahipao, Matiatia

Esme Pfaff has an air of calm about her, astonishing given her multiple business commitments, the effect of Covid-19 and the fact that she’s squeezing in a Herald interview before dashing for the ferry and an appointment in town.

It’s a calmness she hopes permeates her café, gift shop, fudge counter, real fruit ice cream van and garment production workshop out the back.

She wants visitors to walk across the grass from the ferry at Matiatia and into what was the harbourmaster’s building, plop down on a bean bag under the giant Moreton Bay fig tree and chill out.

Roll back nearly a year and all was not calm in Pfaff’s life. Covid-19 threatened to derail her business dream – to design and manufacture luxury cashmere and other knitted garments for high-end international tourists.

The income from her busy Queen St store, run by daughter Alannah, was testament to her success.

In a barn on Waiheke, staff produced a mixture of garments in soft colours and neutrals – pure cotton, possum merino blend, possum cashmere, and pure cashmere – on a sophisticated 3D Shima Seiki knitting machine. Esme and Alannah Pfaff did a crash course in Japan in 2018 to learn how to use it.

The business was going so well that the barn soon grew too small and Pfaff decided to lease the near-derelict harbourmaster’s building at Matiatia from the Auckland Council. The idea was to restore it, create a workshop to produce garments for the Queen St store and establish a café and gift shop.

But by March last year, the Queen St business was gone. And so were the tourists, the sort who understood the effort of turning Mongolian goats’ hair – the superfine layer on the animals’ underbelly – into wraps and jumpers, and were happy to pay many hundreds of dollars to own one of the garments.

With the border closed indefinitely, Esme Pfaff was forced to shut the store and let go staff who had been with her for eight years.

But Pfaff, a mother of six – some of whom still live at home – was not ready to give up. She turned her attention to the harbourmaster’s building, a restoration that would cost her $600,000 and involve thousands of hours of labour, much of it voluntary from family members who spent the summer months and lockdown demolishing rotten timber,building and painting.

Pfaff’s husband Nick painted, gibbed and did construction work alongside Alannah’s partner Charlie.

Says Alannah, “We were doing highlights of the year [2020] in an album at Christmas. Everyone is in overalls.”

The result, Ahipao, is extraordinary – airy, elegant yet laid back. The café deck looks out onto foreshore land, on which local iwi Ngāti Pāoa have a claim, and out to the bay. The Pfaffs are partnered with Ngāti Pāoa who gifted them the name Ahipao, which means low burning fire, a beacon to help guide those out at sea back to shore.

Short-staffed after Christmas due to the difficulty of getting workers post-Covid, Alannah and her three sisters rushed around serving meals, selling fudge, coffees and ice cream, then hastily washed sticky hands to show a customer a cashmere garment or take visitors on a tour of the workshop.

Outside is on an old VW Kombi van which houses Waiheke Real Fruit Ice Cream. It was supposed to be a mobile business but the chassis turned out to be a bit dodgy so the Kombi doesn’t move from the lawn these days.

Ahipao opened less than three months ago and already employs 18 staff. And Esme Pfaff has more plans. The café has just been granted a liquor licence so the Pfaffs will soon be serving afternoon drinks and opening for dinner. Think acoustic music, low lights, uber chilled. And there’ll be another van joining the Kombi soon – anoutdoor cocktail bar.

Pfaff wants Ahipao to be a place where visitors can spend an afternoon sipping coffee or eating an ice cream for a few dollars, or splash out on a locally-made gift or knitted garment.

She is realistic about how many of those high-end cashmere garments, some of which are priced at up to $899, she’ll sell to Kiwi visitors off the ferry.

And international online sales are no longer an option with post-Covid rates making them uneconomical.

Pfaff says before Covid-19, a garment sent to Australia, tracked and traced, cost $27.”Our last jumper [sent] to Australia was $110 and it wasn’t traced.”

As a result, the Pfaffs have suspended international online sales in the meantime.

Instead, the family rely on the café for day-to-day cashflow and lean heavily on the success of their 20-year-old UK company Littlelamb, which makes reusable shaped nappies.

Founded on a sustainability ethos, the company doesn’t use air freight to transport goods. Instead, the nappies are manufactured in Turkey and are transported by road and sea to 57 countries from a distribution warehouse in Wales.

The Pfaffs plan to extend the Littlelamb range, adding in knitted children’s clothing made on Waiheke. Even if the locals aren’t buying cashmere, the new range will keep the knitting machine busy and Ahipao ticking along until the tourists return.

PetConnect, Ostend

Pet shop owner Jasmine Sinden is too busy to talk to the Herald on week-day mornings. She and her staff are flat out packing more than 100 courier parcels a day, ready for delivery to clients throughout New Zealand.

Afternoons would be better, Sinden tells us. By then, the handwritten notes will be finished and the PetConnect van will have done the Waiheke deliveries, including pet food orders.

Each day, she and her staff write more than 100 personalised notes to each customer and their pet. They’ll add in a little gift for the pet and sign off with a joke.

The jokes aren’t side-splittingly funny – “What sort of dog loves red wine? A Bordeaux collie” – but they bring a smile to customers’ faces. And that’s the idea behind Sinden’s business – connecting – hence its name.

Clients are not just shopping off a website, Sinden says.

“You’re shopping from Jasmine, Jessa, Vita, Ryan, Vita, Katie and Sian.”

And it’s working.The business has 15,000 followers across Facebook and Instagram and is growing so fast Sinden will start recruiting more staff next month.

Last calendar year the business grew 250 per cent compared to 2019. “We’re expecting to double again this year.”

A quarter of that business comes from Waiheke, the rest around New Zealand, including big fan bases in Hamilton and Christchurch.

Sinden specialises in New Zealand-made products from suppliers like Raglan pet food company Good Noze and personalised dog bowls made by Waiheke potter Lauren Young.

Some of the products are made by staff who work at PetConnect. Jessa McLeod dyes and hand makes dog leads, while staffer Ryan Neave hand makes dog name tags.

Sinden’s partner Todd O’Hara developed home compostable dog poo bags, and designed littlegreendog “poo pods,” small zip-up holders made from recycled plastic bottles.

PetConnect staff are encouraged to bring their dogs to work but Sinden, who has an ex-racing greyhound called Opi, has had to introduce a roster due to daily overcrowding.

Squeezed in next to the counter is a large aquarium in which Delilah, Sinden’s enormous pet turtle, swims around lazily.

PetConnect’s success is no accident. Sinden is ambitious for the business and knows about pets, and their owners.

She grew up on Waiheke and worked as a vet nurse at a local clinic for two years before moving to Auckland City. She spent four years with pet store Animates before moving toAustralia for six years to run one of Animates’ largest stores in Queensland.

“We had 2000 customers a week coming through our store. I had a lot of hands-on experience and I just loved being able to help people help their animals.”

Two things drew her back to New Zealand: the call of the island and an awareness that online sales would become increasingly important.

By early 2018 she was operating an online pet business from a farm shed at Palm Beach. After 18 months she was offered a pop-up store in Oneroa to test the market for a pet store on Waiheke.

By mid-2019 she had signed a lease on a building in Ostend but PetConnect had soon outgrown the space. Sinden is using a portable building in the carpark for the overflow until the owner redevelops the site to include a larger space purpose-built for PetConnect.

Waiheke Whisky, Onetangi

Beware of the Bog Monster. One tiny sip explodes on the tongue, roaring round the mouth.

Bog Monster, still in its American oak cask, is the creation of hobby whisky maker Mark Izzard and distiller Patrick Newton, who is also the winemaker for Mudbrick Vineyard.

Newton has drawn some of the amber fire starter out of the cask using a glass “thief” to give us a taste of what is shaping up to be a fine New Zealand whisky.

Before long, after ageing in wine and sherry barrels, it will be diluted and sold as a premium five-year-old whisky, at around $150 for a 700ml bottle.

At that point Izzard’s whisky-making hobby of 12 years – his day job is as a neck and throat cancer surgeon – will become a commercial venture.

Later this year Izzard and business partner and wife Rosie hope the Waiheke Distillery will be open for business at The ‘heke, a new open-air restaurant and garden bar. Waiheke Whisky will be made in a purpose-built distillery alongside the Waiheke Island Brewery, producing craft beer.

The restaurant, designed by Mark Izzard’s brother Paul, who’s designed places like Commercial Bay and the Auckland Fish Market, will serve wood-fired food from outdoor ovens.

The Izzards partnered with Waiheke Island Brewery to buy 3.2 hectares of land, just up the road from where we’re standing in Waiheke Whisky’s current distillery, a huge shed rented from Mudbrick Vineyard.

The new venture will make Waiheke’s Onetangi Rd the eating and drinking mile, with Wild On Waiheke, Stonyridge Vineyard, Tantalus Estate Vineyard and The ‘heke all in a row.

Until then the whisky is ageing in casks imported from Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey in the US, slowly developing its unique flavour, smell and colour. Each cask is tagged with evocative names – the “heavily peated” Bog Monster, Moss, Cantankerous, and Sweet Water.

Waiheke Whisky is yet to launch commercially but has already won two silver medals at the New Zealand Spirits Awards last year and a silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Awards in 2018.

It’s a simple recipe: organic barley from Gladfield Malt in Canterbury, yeast and spring water from Waiwater on the island which draws on an aquifer originating in the Coromandel.

“It’s [the water] about 170 years old roughly by the time it gets to the surface here. It’s extremely pure,” Mark Izzard says.

Waiheke is the perfect place for a distillery. “It’s a great climate for whisky here, by the sea on an island.”

By September the first casks of whisky, now five years old, will be available for sale and visitors will be able to tour the distillery and brewery, hang out for the day, have a bite to eat or a drink at the garden bar. The Izzards want The ‘ heke to have a relaxed feel – no need for high heels.

Whisky aficionados will be able to learn how the whisky is made and lay down a barrel of their own.

Mark Izzard’s whisky hobby started in 2008 when, fascinated by the art of distilling, he bought a small still off TradeMe and began making single-malt whisky.

By 2015 the distillery had moved to the Mudbrick shed, the small still had been replaced by large copper stills based on 1840 designs, built in New Zealand, and Newton had come on board as the distiller.

Now new stills are being manufactured in Scotland and the whisky will be tracked using sophisticated technology.

The Izzards have lived either part-time or fulltime on the island since the 1990s, with Mark Izzard operating at Mercy and North Shore Hospitals and his Skin Institute business in Auckland and on Waiheke.

Rosie is an entrepreneur and professional director – known as Roanne Parker in her professional life – who will run the business side of Waiheke Whisky and The ‘heke.

She knows the importance of storytelling, the provenance of the whisky, rather than simply building a brand.

“I think consumers more and more are looking for the depth and transparency of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

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