Restaurateur Krishna Botica was an early adopter of Britomart, opening Café Hanoi in 2010 and Ghost Street in 2021. After dealing with the challenges of Covid, she says connecting in person is essential — and the central city is still the best place to do it.
JEREMY HANSEN Krishna, when Café Hanoi first opened here 12 years ago, is it fair to say Britomart was considered a bit undesirable?
KRISHNA BOTICA Yeah.
JH Can you describe what it was like?
KB I can describe it even before then, because this used to be my bus stop when I was a teenager. And, before Café Hanoi opened, I had a flatmate who worked in the derelict building which is actually now Cafe Hanoi. It was a Timezone place, a gaming centre that was very derelict, with blacked-out curtains over the broken windows – I felt sorry for my flatmate having to come to work in this building. But the reason we came down to open our restaurant here is we thought that the desire to live in the city was going to get greater. And, once there was a bit of a cleanup of Britomart’s heritage buildings – which feel like the only heritage buildings that we really have left in Auckland – we felt that we wanted to be here, because that’s where tourists will want to come and see the history of the city. This is where the history of the city exists. This is where it all began. So it wasn’t a hard decision, but it was met with dismay by all of my mentors in business. Luckily, everything started with a bang: We had queues out the door and around the corner for waitlists. Even so, events took a while to kick off in the area – people weren’t prepared to walk from The Civic, for example, but they’ve changed. They’re quite happy to spend the entire evening in the city now. They start early and they finish late because there’s a lot to see and there’s a lot to do. And when tourists are around, they gravitate to whatever looks the busiest.
JH What were the barriers to people visiting the city back then?
KB They were psychological. People saying, “Oh no, we just support local. And we don’t know that area.” We are all very habitual comfort zoners. And I think this is what has been very evident with Covid. People are that much more comfortable with being at home and not making plans. And that’s very concerning, I think, from a business point of view. The barriers to coming into the city are probably back to where they were when we first opened up, even though we now have an incredible number of beautiful buildings and businesses all along this waterfront area down to the end of Silo Park. It’s about reintroducing people to the joys of the city, and breaking those stay-at-home habits. It’s actually incredibly easy to get here. People might worry about paying for parking, but Uber is a cheap and easy way to get here. And the trains and buses are there too of course.
JH You obviously work in this part of town, but you live in Ponsonby. How do you use the city when you’re not working, if at all?
KB I walk the waterfront strip every single weekend with my family. There’s no way you can get bored, there’s always something new to see. We take our eight-year-old – he comes on his bike, and we walk with the dogs. We start in Britomart and sometimes go as far as the Harbour Bridge – most of it is on boardwalks or pedestrianised areas and doesn’t require crossing any roads; it’s pretty much all car-free. It completely suits us: we get our slice of urban buildings and architecture, we see boats and old yachts. I like to see the people getting on the ferries to go over to Devonport and then Rangitoto, Waiheke and Tiritiri Matangi. We always stop for a croissant and coffee. It can take anywhere up to two hours and it’s incredibly social, especially when you’ve got dogs. And my husband always says, ‘Where else have you ever been in your life that you can do this?’
JH So how do you feel about the potential of the central city as we hopefully put Covid behind us? Because it sounds from what you’re saying like some fairly magical elements are in place.
KB Oh, the elements are all there. The only thing that actually now remains is for the corporates to come back, because the tourism will come back and I’m hoping it’s going to come back quite quickly.
JH The hospitality business is about gathering in person. How important is that now, given that we’ve all been through?
KB What I think is really important is that you are more likely to talk to a friend about how your life really is when you can hug them and when you can be with them over a meal. We have done Zoom meals for my extended family every Thursday night during lockdowns; sometimes they will go for two hours, but it’s very different to being actually able to give someone a hug. Meeting in person has far more nuance than on Zoom. I think people are more open-minded when they’re outside their usual environment and are stimulated by other things. We’ve evolved in so many ways as humans, but that primitive desire to get out and find out what’s going on in the rest of the world is still very deep and profound, to my mind.
JH All of your businesses – in the form of Café Hanoi and Ghost Street – are now located in Britomart, as you’ve closed your Ponsonby restaurant. What is it about this location that has made you stake your future on it?
KB What’s incredible about this area is actually just the number of cultures and how cosmopolitan it is compared to the city-fringe areas of Parnell and Ponsonby. The thing that people have in common is we’re fond of urban environments. That’s not the case up in other parts of the city. And there’s just a far wider range of cuisine that’s available, far more choice in terms of smart casual, fine dining, takeaways, cheap and cheerful, burgers. It’s all down here.
I’ve been to Hong Kong, Singapore, through most of Southeast Asia, Europe and I’ve lived on the east coast of the States. This is better than all of them because we are compact and we aren’t overpopulated: You can still usually get into a restaurant on a Saturday night without having a booking. People here know they’ve chosen the right place to live.