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How good design can put the heat back into retail: lessons from Garage Project, Allbirds and Whoa! Studios

Hottest Fit-out

Wellington-based brewing company Garage Project recently opened a cellar door in Auckland’s Kingsland, bringing the best of its brand to Auckland’s growing craft beer community.

The fit-out communicated the brand essence well: dark ceilings create a cavernous feeling which is complemented by stylish décor and long, hanging LED lighting. Spotlights are used strategically to highlight the back wall and refrigerators, which are stocked with the brand’s many drink options.

The fit-out has an industrial vibe with exposed concrete beams and polished floors. The colourful art design on the outer building contrasts with Garage Project’s bannering.

The decision to open a cellar door in Auckland – the first venue away from the safety of their home market – was not something the crew at Garage Project took lightly. 

Finding the right space to suit the craft brewery’s unique vibe took 18 months, before they finally settled on a site in Kingsland. The new cellar door opened in March. Rob Wilkinson, who is in charge of Garage Project venues, says the process was something everyone knew they had to get right first time. 

“It was important to us to find a site that suits Garage Project, and that had to be a bit off the beaten track. Ponsonby would never have suited us. Our biggest market is still our home market but all companies that produce their products outside of Auckland know they have to have something on the ground there too.”

Both the Wellington taproom and cellar door were designed by Matt Smith but Wilkinson says initially they wanted an Auckland-based designer to take over the reigns of the Kingsland cellar door. They wanted someone who knew the area and market better than the Wellington-based team. But achieving Garage’s Project’s distinctive gritty vibe is no easy task and the project was finished with Matt Smith’s expertise. 

“It’s ended up being a really lovely balance of the look and vibe of Garage Project with an Auckland touch. Wellington is a bit gritty and we’ve used that same grit in the Auckland venue but with a bit more polish on top.”

Garage Project have made a name for themselves with their colourful can and tap badge designs, and creating a space that allowed the beer to do the talking was critical. The space was created as a blank canvas with simple design to really let the beer art shine.

“I had a life in hospitality before Garage Project and I think people sometimes forget that you’re not going to eat the fit-out. Sometimes they can get too intricate in the design process and people don’t think about the longevity of the space. It can be visually obsolete before the doors even open.”

The cellar door boasts 12 tap beers that are constantly changing, which can be tasted in small glasses or as a tasting flight. The main focus of the cellar door is the wide range of bottles and cans plus flagons for people to buy and drink at home.

Most of the beers are still brewed in Wellington, but in order to meet the ever-growing demand three beers are now brewed at bStudio in Hawke’s Bay. 


Judges’ comments from James Blackwood: Matt Smith did a brilliant job of Garage Project’s Wellington taproom and brewery. A style slavishly loyal to the brand’s ‘anti-brand’ persona, he created not just a bar, but a destination. With the Kingsland cellar door concept, Matt’s done it again. Simple, elegant and a million miles away from your typical craft beer tropes, the Kingsland Garage Project cellar door is a class act. Also, a special shout-out went to KFC, whose fit-out for their Fort St restaurant was highly praised for successfully turning our perceptions of the brand on its head.

Nominees: Lonely, Deadly Ponies, Blush, Aesop, Deuce Sneakers Newmarket, Mecca Maxima Takapuna, KFC Fort St, World Queenstown, Scarpa Newmarket, Garage Project, Rocket Espresso.

People’s choice: Deadly Ponies

Hottest Retail Concept: Whoa! Studios

Whoa! Studios is the only film and design studio open to the public in New Zealand. It’s a child-friendly and immersive environment where visitors can experience a world-class live show, park and family food offerings. Featuring state of the art studio and theatre facilities, experience the live ‘Custard’s World’ shows, the ‘Urban Playground’ and family eatery ‘The Grounds’, run by celebrity chef Ben Bayly.

This unique family-friendly activity was the brainchild of technology entrepreneur David Sutherland more than five years ago. The idea grew and, not content with settling with anything but the extraordinary, Sutherland even filed three resource consents before he was completely happy with the design.

The partnership with Ben Bayly hugely influenced the unique world of Whoa! Studios, with Sutherland initially expecting to create a more familiar venue for families. With Bayly’s on-site restaurant The Grounds, they worked together to create an atmosphere that is more commonly found in Europe, where adults can easily find healthy restaurants that are child-friendly.

“The concept of a fresh, healthy food restaurant at a family-friendly activity was something we knew would be risky. The profitable food option for children’s entertainment venues is generally popcorn and Coca-Cola, but we wanted to reflect community aspirations rather than take the easiest option.”

Sutherland treated the creation of Whoa! Studios as a project that was not inherently for-profit, which helped him make decisions based on what he thought was right, rather than easy. 

Creating the playground was also a veer away from the norm. Sutherland and his team conducted an international search to find the perfect centrepiece which ended up being a giant crochet trampoline that the rest of the playground was designed around. 

Sutherland unleashed his newfound sense of freedom after his corporate past, and wanted to create a world full of creativity. 

“Underneath our aspiration for it to be unexpected, we wanted to have the element of surprise. In my previous life I had to come up with corporate goals and vision, with Whoa! Studios our goal is just to create smiles and fun.”

Despite spending 20 years behind a desk, Sutherland never lost his inner child. Now he is surprised by how many corporates want to engage with Whoa! Studios for team events. While Whoa! Studios was built to be an experience for families, its versatile design has made it possible to reach an exclusively adult audience as well. 

“It’s really nice to unlock that child-like fun in people who don’t get to unlock it very often.”

About 70 percent of the visitors to Whoa! Studios come from outside of Henderson, which Sutherland hopes is a positive for the local area. So far the reaction has been one of surprise and delight. He says Whoa! Studios is all about creating those little memories that keep families close. 

Judges’ comments from Sarah Dunn: Whoa! Studios is a classy re-imagining of the family fun park, expertly working retail into its offering alongside a high-quality ‘modern family eatery’. It embodies the ongoing importance of entertainment and experience to the retail industry.

Nominees: AS Colour, Reduced to Clear, Dry & Tea, The Free Store, Barkers Groom Room, Thankyou, Little Bird Unbakery, Giapo, Whoa! Studios.

People’s choice: Barkers Groom Room

Hottest Pop-up: Allbirds and Coco’s Cantina

Woollen sneaker brand Allbirds came together with eatery Coco’s Cantina to give New Zealand consumers a first chance to get up close and personal with the shoes. Perched on Karangahape Rd, Coco’s exhibited Allbirds’ sustainable, woollen shoe varieties within the restaurant, and staff donned custom sneakers in Coco’s Cantina’s colours. The interesting partnership came from a mutual recognition for quality, craft, imagination, and sustainability; as seen with Allbirds’ use of locally sourced, renewable and sustainable merino wool, and Coco’s Cantina’s egalitarian ethos, which prioritises staff over profit.

Customers could use the opportunity to see, try and order anything from the range, and then have it delivered the next day. 

“Coco’s is really committed to innovation,” says Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown. “Not just with the food but in the way, that they hire and build their team. They’ve hired a really diverse range of people to work there and I they hold a really incredible warmth and energy. So, I think the pop-up was a really natural extension.”

The pop-up allowed Kiwi fans of the brand to see the shoes, try them on, then have them delivered to their homes. Brown says the collaboration suited Coco’s dedication to creativity and prioritisation of staff wellbeing over profit. 

“I also think that this idea of innovating through nature, they do that with their raw ingredients as well. They present a brand to the whole that is really humble and understated, but full of world class expertise, so I think there is a bunch of similarities there between them and the Allbirds brand.”

The two local brands designed a bespoke range of laces blended with the restaurant’s signature colour, which were free with any purchase at the showroom.

“The response to it was great, New Zealand is a very important place to us, obviously it’s where I’m from and where the idea for this product was from. And although now we are based in San Francisco, I very much think of New Zealand as home. So, it is important to come back often.”

Co-founders Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger

The positive vibes that the collaboration brought was something only done by mutual appreciation. Allbirds’ use of locally sourced, renewable and sustainable merino wool, and Coco’s Cantina’s egalitarian ethos suited well for the pop-up weekend which was a whole experience, rather than just another showroom focused just on trade. 

“It’s important to realize that retail is not always about the transaction,” says Brown. “It’s about the interaction. So, doing that along with another brand like Coco’s is something it feels like we’ve done successfully.”

Judges’ comments from James Blackwood: The notion of shoes displayed in a restaurant may seem a little odd, even uninviting. Until you make the connection between craft, quality, sustainability and a reputation for doing things with flair and imagination. So Allbirds teaming up with Coco’s Cantina for their first New Zealand outing seemed like a perfect fit and was both original and conversation-worthy.

Nominees: The Daily Edited, Made in Mexico, Nespresso, Havaianas, Onceit, House of Vans, Nudie Jeans, Karen Walker + Hedleys Booksellers, Allbirds + Coco’s Cantina, Escea.

People’s choice: Coco’s Cantina + Allbirds

These stories originally appeared on The Register.
Review overview