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The king of restaurateurs, David Lee talks on the journey of creating a business

David Lee is the restaurateur brains behind some of Auckland’s most popular restaurants and is now working on his seventh eatery, Tobi, in popular city fringe suburb Ponsonby. We get a chance to sit with him and ask him what it takes to create a business for the masses and simultaneously be innovative.

When it comes to what Aucklanders love to eat, Lee knows exactly how to tap into their minds.

Each of his hospitality restaurants have quickly become part of Aucklanders’ dining habits, but what does it take to be the king of restaurateurs in Auckland?

Now working on your next restaurant, how have you been able to continue to come up with ideas in the hospitality space whilst also juggling the spaces you currently have right now?

Whether I’m opening up a new restaurant or not, I’m constantly looking at what other restaurants are doing overseas and that includes both the food and fit-out.

I genuinely find other people’s creativity interesting and inspiring, and I feel as though this consistent studying has made my vision stronger for what I want for my own restaurants.

Since I have such a clear idea of what I want, coming up with ideas for the space comes quite naturally.

When it comes to creating ideas for new spaces and restaurants, what is that process like and how do you ensure the ideas are creative and innovative?

My favourite process of creating a new space is to do it slowly.

When I opened Dear Jervois, following the demolition, I just sat in the middle of the site every day as I envisioned how I wanted the space to look. One day I’d add a light here, one day I’d chip away at some walls to make it look more industrial.

Taking your time with a space achieves a sense of the spacing having been lived in, which is a quality that cannot be achieved through a quick build.

That’s the approach I have taken with this new restaurant Tobi.

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What is it like to juggle growing your businesses but also maintain your established places?

Honestly, as liberating as it was when I came to the final product, the process can be not only stressful but also very lonely.

However, now I have my team at Namu Group and it’s amazing how much of a difference a supportive team can make. It has taken a long time, but I finally have a team where we all trust one another and work towards the same goal. We’re all always doing something and holding down the fort in some way.

David Lee.

The world of hospitality is ever-changing, with trends often being the force of what the space looks like, how do you fight this?

When it comes to opening a business, I believe that it should come from a genuine desire and strong and authentic vision. This applies to business owners in general, not just restaurateurs.

For instance, I come across a lot of young kids these days who make a lot of money on superyachts. You ask them what their plan is, and they say they’ll start a business in order to put that money to use.

Personally, I think the chronological order is for you to have an idea and then find financial backing, rather than starting a business because that seems like the natural next step, as that’s when you fall into the trap of subconscious copying.

If you were to look back at your journey so far in the hospitality industry, are there any tips you would give to someone who is planning to open up their own space?

My advice would be to find a team you can trust and lean on each other. It’ll take time, but it’s so worth it that I can’t explain it in words.

Bernadette is a content writer across SCG Business titles. To get in touch with her, email [email protected]

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