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Behind the curtain at Miss Clawdy

miss clawdys waterfront auckland restaurant idealogKeeping tight control on the family business has been key for the Wiley family, owners of top Auckland eatery Miss Clawdy. 

It could have been the glorious afternoon sun in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter, the zesty baby beetroot, quinoa and chargrilled zucchini salad, the homely recycled timber walls and woven basket lampshades, or entrepreneur Dennis Wiley’s excitable fluffy pooch Chloe. Maybe it was all of the above, but for the hour and a half I spent at Auckland’s Southern American eatery Miss Clawdy, I forgot about my packed schedule and became its perfect consumer.

Leisurely feasts are a long-cultivated tradition for Dennis, his wife Belinda and sons Tom (28) and Jeff (26). So it’s natural that their first restaurant after Wiley exited uptown Auckland’s Squid Row would tap into the growing trend of places where you can’t book – and where losing track of time while sharing dishes and rambling conversation is the norm.

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Tom and Jeff Wiley. PHOTO: Tez Mercer

A family trip to Sydney and Melbourne to search for inspiration for their venture unearthed plenty of places where patrons were happy to wait for a sought-after place. In today’s hyper-connected culture, that’s certainly not the norm.

“You still get some people, there will be four of them and they’ll all be on their phones, which is a sad sight,” says Tom. ”They’ll be like, ‘where’s my food?’, and they’re in a rush. We just want people to come in here to share and talk and chat away. That’s the sort of vibe we’d love to create, because that’s what we like to do as a family.”

Where once Kiwis struggled to break away from meat and three veg in front of the six o’clock news, perhaps daring to have a bit of Asian takeaway, they’re now game enough for this modern twist on American southern hospitality, garnished with Mexican, Argentinian and Caribbean fare.

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Dennis is a serial restaurateur and an industry name, but Miss Clawdy can’t bank on the kind of celebrity enjoyed by the likes  of Peter Gordon, Al Brown and Josh Emmett, all chefs recognised well beyond the locations where people come to eat.

“I’m known by my peers, but I don’t think I’m as well known as some people who get a lot of publicity,” Dennis says. “Those guys tend to put their name to it. They’ve capitalised on their TV fame and they’re all chefs – they’ve done very well, but they are their own brand and they’re highly sought after.”

He set up his first Kiwi restaurant, Shorebird, in Wellington in the early 1980s. Auckland seafood restaurant Hammerheads was his first eatery in the city and since then there’s been Sausalito on Auckland’s North Shore, Mink Cafe in Parnell, Vivo in Newmarket and Squid Row.

Tom and Jeff played in the restaurants’ offices while their parents worked at night, later becoming kitchenhands at Sausalito during their school holidays from Kings College. Dennis schooled his sons in every aspect of the trade and within a couple of years of leaving school to join Squid Row, Jeff was its manager. Tom combined work in the restaurants with a year studying sport at Unitec and stints playing rugby offshore before returning to Squid Row.

The brothers agree Tom is ‘Mr Fix It’ – he looks after IT systems, social media and marketing, while Jeff deals with people management and recruitment. Jeff reckons he’s not a people person, but work demands that persona. Their father is the veteran in the engine room at Miss Clawdy, making sure costs were covered in those tricky first few months since it opened last August.

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PHOTO: Clinton Tudor

With a 51 percent shareholding to the boys’ 24.5 percent each, Dennis and Belinda ultimately have the final say, but the family members agrees it’s a harmonious team.

Family businesses are known for the challenges that come with blurring the line between work and leisure, but a management facilitator enlisted by Belinda has kept progress smooth.

“It’s just enabled the four of us to get together and nut out any issues with staff,” Wiley says. “It’s getting our structure right and making sure everyone understands what their role is.”

Jeff made Miss Clawdy’s first key hires, including head chef Danny Simpson, a fellow 20-something and a sous chef ready to step up.

People management is something Jeff has had to learn from his father and the family’s facilitator. “I started being a manager when I was quite young,” says Jeff. “I didn’t really have the confidence to say what was right or wrong. Learning from dad in that sense has been huge. You’ve got to care but you’ve got to be quite firm as well.”

Matt Gossett worked his way from waiter to general manager at Sausalito, later helping the Wileys open Squid Row before forming two eateries of his own.

There was no ‘precious boss’ son’ act as Tom and Jeff learned the trade, Gossett recalls. And he reckons keeping tight control has been key to the family’s business success.

“They never turn their back on it. As an owner you have to be aware of all the problems and pretty much never take a holiday. Their strength is that they’re passionate about what they do and they’re fully involved.”

The hardest thing was finding a name, but when Dennis heard Lloyd Price’s 1952 hit Lawdy Miss Clawdy on the radio, he thought of Sydney restaurant Mrs Sippy and US star swimmer Missy Franklin and the deal was done.

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Now the growth prospects at Auckland’s North Wharf are tantalising.

“We knew this was going to be a really neat precinct for Aucklanders to come to, like Ponsonby Rd and Britomart are now. More restaurants in one place attract more people, which is what we lacked [with Squid Row] on Symonds St. Here the foot traffic is amazing.” 

ASB’s new offices house 1,500-odd staff, the Auckland Theatre Company is soon to build a 600-seat theatre in the building to draw hungry patrons, nearby land is being converted into apartments and townhouses and Waterfront Auckland’s vision for Wynyard Quarter includes an innovation hub and a five-star hotel. Dennis and Belinda, ASB North Wharf landlord Kiwi Income Property Trust, a bank loan and a brewery contribution have funded Miss Clawdy to the tune of $700,000.

“When you’ve spent that much you have to have queues out the door virtually every shift to get that cashflow going as soon as possible,” says Dennis. Two thousand punters a week is a good start.

The father and sons aim to open more eateries together, whether or not that’s another Miss Clawdy elsewhere. Dennis has had at least six offers to open Miss Clawdy in other locations. For now, one’s enough.

“We hope we’ll get known and people will say, ‘the Wiley Boys have opened another place, let’s see what their latest offering is’.” 

Amanda Sachtleben is an Auckland writer and social media type, who's also Idealog's former tech editor and business journalist.

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