Auckland’s Dominion Rd – once a bustling foodie destination – has become a heartbreaking reminder of the long reach of Covid-19, as restaurants close or struggle to survive. Reporting by Mina Kerr-Lazenby.
The handwritten note in Paasha’s window says it all.
“It is with heavy hearts that we announce the temporary closure of Pacha,” it read. “Some of our employees have been exposed to Covid-19 and our small, hardworking team is unable to function.”
The little Turkish joint is among dozens of restaurants along the Strip that have been wiped out by Covid-19. Many restaurants and cafes have closed, with opening hours posted in windows telling a very different story from the large “closed” signs that now adorn entrances.
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Traditional restaurants, including Tom Yum Eden, Jun’s Grill Fish and Yokoso Sushi, still only offer take-out service; tables topped with Covid sign-in sheets are a reminder that many restaurants are reluctant to welcome diners back.
Dominion Rd, once a busy thoroughfare, now looks like a ghost town.
For decades, the popular strip – which stretches across the city between central Eden Terrace and suburban Mt Roskill – has been one of the hubs of Auckland’s foodie scene.
With dishes from all corners of the globe, it has remained a shining example of Auckland’s vibrant, multicultural appeal.
But now it represents something very different. An empty shell of its pre-Covid self, Dominion Rd has become a symbol of the wreckage Covid-19 has wreaked on the hospitality industry.
Some owners hold on by the skin of their teeth.
Sungho Jeon laughs wryly as he reflects on the “really bad time” to open his restaurant A Noodle Less Ordinary in early 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit Aotearoa.
He says business was tough – “very, very tough” – and was especially tough in the beginning, when he couldn’t rely on loyal, regular customers to keep him afloat.
“We had to start from scratch without anyone knowing who we were, and it was really difficult to get customers in.”
Jeon watched for two years as many businesses around him fell, including a bakery and a cafe across the street.
He continues because there is no alternative.
“I have a family to take care of,” he says. “There’s a lot of pressure on me right now. I’m devastated, but you just have to keep going.
Paul Wong also suffered the unpredictable bad timing of opening a restaurant shortly before the country’s first lockdown.
Chinese barbecue skewer bar, Mr Hao, located closer to the Eden Park end of the Strip, did well in its first weeks of operation in March 2020.
But as Covid-19 cases began to climb, business “tumbled off a cliff” – especially from the Chinese community.
“Our business attracts a lot of Chinese customers because of the authenticity of the food,” Wong explains, “and it’s those customers who, within days of outbreaks, tend to drop off quite dramatically and stay in the cold.” gap for long periods thereafter”.
Wong says the decline in Asian customs prompted him to create a more balanced offering to meet the needs of Chinese and Western locals; an innovation that turned out to be a silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud.
New Flavor owner Lin Ma, who has operated on Dominion Rd for 10 years, agrees that diversity is key to survival. More traditional Asian restaurants that cater solely to the Chinese market are “almost dead now,” he says.
Still, business was a struggle. Ma and his wife Cathy took over New Flavor in June 2021, and while those first two months saw the restaurant thrive — “always full, even at 2 a.m.” — things quickly went downhill in August, when the second Auckland lockdown has taken hold.
“There were no sales for a month and a half,” Ma said.
The introduction of takeaways in September reduced them to 30% of pre-Covid sales. Now they have increased by about 70-80%.
Wong mourns the restaurants that have sunk and remembers much sunnier times on Dominion Rd.
“There were queues outside the door with people waiting for tables,” he says. “It’s changed so much since then, and right now it’s hard to find a half-full restaurant.”
For those who managed to stay afloat, the specter of Omicron loomed over day-to-day operations.
Tasca manager Ilya Penzin says the Spanish cafe had to turn to local school children for help when the labor shortage started to hit.
La Vois Français bakery owner Tetsuya Namekawa says he was forced to close for days as his bakers and counter staff fell ill.
Upmarket haunt Cazador has been forced to cut its supply, with manager and co-owner Rebecca Smidt saying it’s ‘unreasonable’ to split staff to cover different roles.
“The whole team is strained as we grapple with industry-wide staffing shortages, and it’s exhausting trying to cover all the bases,” says Smidt.
Offering “click and collect” is not feasible, she adds.
“Quality takeaway offerings also take time and staff to bring together, and establishments like Cazador are operating day-to-day at the moment as staff move in and out of isolation – so it’s not just not possible.”
Still, Dominion Rd Business Association director Gary Holmes says the strip’s hospitality future remains “strong” and its foodie appeal will rebound once Covid-19 passes.
Wong, too, is optimistic. He opened a second branch of Mr. Hao in Albany just before Auckland’s lockdown in August, and will open another restaurant in the coming weeks.
“Sometimes we joke about what it would be like to open a restaurant without an outbreak,” he laughs.
“I feel for so many people who are struggling, including us, but the only way is to keep fighting.”