Nathan Houpapa is executive chef of Café Hanoi and Ghost Street restaurants on Britomart's Tuawhiti Lane. He talks to us about how his team pulled together through the COVID-19 pandemic to survive as a company, and then adapt their systems in order to be more resilient in a hard-hit hospitality landscape.

MELINDA WILLIAMS If you can cast your mind back, can you describe the team you were leading when the pandemic hit? 

NATHAN HOUPAPA Pre-COVID we had Cafe Hanoi and Ghost Street in Britomart and Saan up in Ponsonby so it was quite a big team, about 85, 90 staff, of which I was directly responsible for probably 45. We were doing very well as a company, really humming. So when the first lockdown came along, it was a big shock to everybody. In hospitality you've got to roll with the punches quite a lot, making changes on the fly, but this was something we hadn't had before.

MW Can you remember the ways you initially moved to support your team?

NH Initially everyone was in a bit of shock. The directors of the company were definitely in shock. We just didn't know what was going to happen. There were a lot of Zooms, a lot of worry, a lot of what-ifs. It was quite a stressful time. We had, I think, about $8000-10,000 worth of stock just sitting in our chillers, so we gave all of it to our staff. They were grateful for that. But that was a huge loss of money, and I'm sure most restaurants unfortunately experienced the same thing. We had a couple of Zoom meetings for the staff to ask questions and Krishna, our director, was very available and sending out emails every couple of days with updates of what was going on and what we were trying to get done. But yeah, I remember that first week being pretty hectic. A lot of it was just me calling people, or my head chefs calling people. I'd be in touch with my senior staff in the kitchens and they'd be saying, 'Oh, this person is worried about this. This other person is a bit upset'. So then I'd call them. But it was very hard. At the same time, I was in lockdown with my young daughter and we were trying to figure out her schooling and how that was going to work.

MW You managed to hold onto pretty much all your staff, even through a very bumpy period. How did you achieve that?

NH I put a lot of it down to a decision that our directors made very early on that they did not want to lose any staff. That became one of the biggest goals for our company. That posed some challenges, but we got through to the other side. Actually, unfortunately we did lose a few who did not want to get vaccinated. That was a really tough time because I respect everybody making their own decision. But the mandate came in, so we had no choice. The directors made some immense sacrifices over the last two years in order for everybody to keep their jobs. And I think people could see what they were going through to keep the lights on, and that has generated loyalty. But we did lose a business, Saan, the restaurant in Ponsonby. It just became unmanageable. We needed to do something to survive and that was what we had to do. 

MW What forms of external support from the industry or wider community helped you get through?

NH One advantage we had was we had very understanding landlords both down in Britomart and in Ponsonby. Hospitality restaurants are a cash business, so you don't have a lot of cash reserves and a few weeks of poor trading can really put you in trouble. We had a good relationship with our bank, so that really helped. But the landlord support and the wage subsidy from the government are the two reasons we're actually still operating.

MW Where did your leadership team – that’s Krishna, Tony, yourself and others – resource yourselves in terms of your mental health and learning how to support your team?

NH Family mainly. Our family spent a lot of time in touch with each other during that lockdown period. Some of them were isolating and some of them weren't. I think just talking to each other every day really helped. Krishna, my immediate boss, one of the directors, while she had a whole lot on her shoulders, she was my rock at the time as well. She was always available to me. I think it was a two-way street, we'd talk each other off the ledge some days. I did reach out more recently for a bit more professional help, which was really helpful as well. In hospitality you're used to dealing with a stressful environment. When you're working a busy night service, the pressure is immense and that probably helped me in that period as I'm used to dealing with extreme pressure. But I guess the difference is that's for short periods of time.

MW Do you think one of the positive things to come out of the pandemic is a stronger recognition of mental health and removing the stigma of talking about feelings?

NH 100 percent. Something that has been discussed at management meetings is how it has become okay now to say that you're not all right. I think it's a really positive thing. There used to be a kitchen mantra when I was a young chef – 'You leave your shit at the door; no one wants to know your problems'. It wasn't great advice in hindsight, and now, having more of an understanding of where staff are at makes a big difference. If you know what's going on, they feel more able to approach you. If I'm honest, I’m now allowing a lot more time off than I used to. And that comes back in loyalty. So it's just a much better way to operate, isn't it?

MW Hospitality is an industry that doesn’t work 9-5 hours, so it must challenging to help staff achieve a good work-life balance. How are you thinking about that?

NH: We just don't have set rosters. We're very flexible. If people need time off, they can get it. I remember as a young chef, I missed pretty much every family event or friend's birthday because I had to work and I wouldn't even bother asking. I think if that was the attitude now, we wouldn't have any staff. I have staff that don't want to work days, they just want nights. It's just about appreciating that private lives are important and if you're respecting that, then it plays into longevity of your staff. A lot of my staff are now on four-day working weeks and they're so happy.

MW Do you think there’s been a shift from seeing staff as fundamentally replaceable ‘workers’ to a more realistic and holistic view of them as individuals?

NH Absolutely. I think maybe five years ago I saw staff as replaceable, and that was a big change that I had to go through myself as a manager. Now my staff have become the most important thing to me, so it's good to be aware of what's going on with their lives and being able to be flexible and approachable enough for them to tell me when something's going on. It results in a much better relationship. I mean, juggling the roster can be a bit of a headache, but it's worth it for the payback.

MW Do you think that there's a greater recognition at the broader hospitality industry level that things need to change?

NH I think hospitality still has a bit of a way to go. Hospitality is getting a bit of criticism in the media at the moment, around immigrant workers and pay rates and things like that. And to be fair, the industry needs to take that criticism on board. I think for quite a long time, pay rates especially haven't been that attractive.

MW How have you managed to juggle staff shortages alongside your more flexible approach?

NH I think we're very lucky compared to a lot of other restaurants who I know have had to close for periods of time. We're actually overstaffed at the moment in our kitchens, which I think just comes down to how well we've looked after them throughout. I get a lot of comments from customers saying, 'Oh, your team, they just work so well together. They look so organised and happy'. And for me that's the biggest compliment – even more than the food. 

NEXT / Climate risk is a financial risk, for everyone from homeowners and small business owners to large corporates. Westpac's Head of Sustainability Belinda van Eyndhoven explains how to use banking to build a more sustainable economy.