Melba 25th Anniversary
MELBA first opened in 1995 on the iconic Vulcan Lane in the heart of Auckland City. From there 8 MELBA stores have opened; Victoria St, Ellerslie, Queen Street, Manukau, Albert Street, Hillsborough and the newest member to the MELBA family, MELBA Lunn Ave which opened on the 11th of November looking out over Stonefields.
A few weeks before opening Lunn Ave we sat down with our long-time Innocent customer and friend, Shawn Pope, the charismatic owner of MELBA, to talk about the last 25 years and what makes MELBA tick.
Innocent Packaging: Mōrena Shawn! Thanks for taking time out of your busy pre-opening schedule to catch up. Firstly, 25 years, what a milestone. Can you take us back to how MELBA all began?
Shawn Pope: We’ve now owned MELBA for around 15 years. So we brought MELBA when it had been open and trading for about 10 years.
Funny thing is, several years earlier, there used to be a Melba restaurant around the corner in Chancery Square, which back then was the place to be. A young man called Chris Upton, who now owns O’Connell Street Bistro, had visited a diner in America called Melba. He really liked it, as it was like something out of Cheers, where everyone knows your name and that’s how he came up with Cafe MELBA on Vulcan Lane.
He didn’t know there used to be a Melba restaurant right around the corner which was a bit like Studio 54, it was a restaurant in the evening and then it became a club by night. It died a sudden death after the share market crash in ‘87 and then Chancery Square got completely reworked.
Anyway, when MELBA opened it went well because there were a lot of people who remembered the name of the restaurant in Chancery Square. Chris owned it for about 6 years and then sold it, and then that person owned it for a couple of years and then sold it, that's about when we bought it. Which is around 10 years later, and it had seen better days. So within nine months, we’d closed our doors for 2 weeks to renovate and haven’t looked back.
Now we have 7 establishments with our eighth opening on Lunn Ave in November. Michelle and I have owned MELBA for 15 years now. That’s where it began and we’ve grown from that one sight.
IP: And isn’t it an iconic one! With 8 sites now, you must have a good idea of what is essential in making a MELBA store work. If you had to narrow it down to 3 elements, what would you attribute the success of MELBA to?
SP: Us having a vision that the MELBA experience could be shared outside of Vulcan Lane. Because we have a lot of people that work in the city but live in the suburbs, why can’t they have a MELBA experience in their neighbourhood, that was the start of it.
So the 3 elements would be first off, our people, making sure we have really good people, in the beginning, to help us grow. As we develop people MELBA grew; and as MELBA grew so did our people.
Our suppliers, we’ve been very loyal to our suppliers with some of them being with us for 15 years. Then, of course, our customers. It’s called the three-legged stool; our customers, our team and our suppliers are the foundation of our business. Get that correct and you’ve got a strong business.
IP: The three-legged stool. Now that’s a cool message.
SP: Internally, we’ve been talking about the fabric of MELBA, weaving these three elements together. Because I do think sometimes, ‘why am I doing this’, there must be an easier way to make money. High capital, low margin, why do it!’ I want to have a legacy, when I’m retired or my kids are asked ‘who’s your dad’ and they can answer; he owns MELBA, he’s the sustainable guy, the one that owns all those places that are unique and different.
We’re weaving all this stuff together [people, suppliers, customers] to make a strong fabric in what you want to achieve in our culture. The problem I have now is I can’t be everywhere. When I was on the coffee machine I could live and breath the culture, now I’ve got to permeate that through the business and get our teams to the same level. So we’ve been working on making more collateral around culture.
IP: I can imagine a lot has changed since you were on the coffee machine at Vulcan Lane. What wise words would you give your younger self starting in hospitality?
SP: Have a longer-term vision. When I first purchased Vulcan Lane and renovated it I set the entire cafe up to suit me. For my reach mainly, like where the grinder was compared to the coffee machine because I didn't think I’d have another MELBA. So what I should have done is have a more strategic idea for what I wanted to achieve and how I was going to achieve it. I kind of meandered through it and only in the past 3 years have I clicked about having a longer strategic plan.
So, if I was talking to my younger self I’d probably say get some advisors around you that can help you with a better plan for this great business. Because at that stage I knew Vulcan Lane would be a great business but I didn’t see the idea of MELBA being a great business across the wider Auckland region.
IP: At that time did you have someone to talk to outside of your business as an advisor or mentor?
SP: No, I’ve had business partners along the way, which has been great. I’ve learnt from those along the way. But I think I came to a bit of an epiphany, I suppose, about 18 months ago when my wife and I bought the company 100%. I needed to think about what do I want to do with MELBA, what does it look like in the future and what are we going to do to continue to grow it sustainability. And what I mean by sustainability is profitable and being able to reinvest in it.
One of the things we did early on in the piece was we kept MELBA local and we tailored the fit-out and the menu to suit that location rather than it being a cookie-cutter. So to answer your question, one of the pieces of advice I did get from a prominent kiwi businessman was, ‘franchise it, make it all cookie-cutter, it’ll be really easy to roll this out’. Which I said "NO" to, I was happy to go a little slower and do one store at a time to do it right for the location. Having a different look and feel, under the MELBA brand, and that’s worked well for us.
IP: Talking about new fit-outs and menus, you are currently elbow-deep in opening a new Melba Café location on Lunn Ave, could you tell us a bit about how you’ve tailored this location's design and offering to suit?
SP: The location first and foremost is getting the building right from the developer. So we’re in the new Stoneridge development and we’re in a purpose-built site which was critical for me as I didn’t want to get caught up in the rest of the development, I wanted to be in a standalone building.
The landlord was really on board with that and we’ve managed to get a 180-degree view of Stonefields, all day sun and we’re elevated. We took elements of the quarry feel of Stonefields; natural colours, earthy tones and a lot of touchpoints around the development of a quarry inside the site. Yet, we wanted to keep it light and bright so there is a lot of glass and viewing platforms. It's got a nice outdoor area and then we’ve tailored the menu to hopefully suit the demographic of that area.
IP: Perfect, so you take the framework that you know works for MELBA and then adjust the fit-out and offering to suit each area.
SP: Yup, we're trying to localise, so each site has its own motif and logo, which all sits underneath the MELBA brand. Each menu is slightly different, the look and feel of the fit-out are different. The engine is similar, the kitchen equipment and layout are similar - we’ve put a focus on making sure we can deliver there. It’s a beautiful little site, with some beautiful views. We hope that it resonates with the locals.
IP: When it comes to the operational side of your business, what inspired you to go down the green garden path of sustainability?
SP: When we first were in Vulcan lane and had 2 or 3 sites in the city, including in some corporate buildings. We were using recyclable takeaway cups and one of our big corporates came to us and said; look, we want to put recycling bins in and work with you to track what happens to your cups in our building. We worked out pretty quickly that around 98% of all the takeaway cups were not being put into recycling bins, they were just being put in the general trash.
Around the same time, I went to a food expo and there was a company doing biodegradable cups, it wasn’t Innocent Packaging, which we started using and I remember talking about it on our social media but then getting bagged for it online because, at that time, everyone believed in recycling. I was starting to unravel that recycling is not working on the level that should. I concluded that biodegradable cups weren’t quite adding up either.
So we started to use compostable Innocent Packaging for takeaway cups and we’ve never looked back. That's one of the reasons we’re now looking to get commercial compostable in play across all our stores for all our packaging.
IP: We’ve now worked together for 5, maybe 6 years. We too started with cups initially, and now we do everything else. Where do you see hospitality going with compostables?
SP: Well, I think for MELBA we’ve got a couple more stores planned for next year, and I hope we can achieve those. We’re looking at the potential MELBA HQ which will be a central hub for all our stores and the continuation of supplier strategy which will include compost collection in stores and have our customers be able to have a one bin process. Because at the moment we’re not quite there. Albert Street opened on 99% compostable packaging, with the only item we still have is Glad Wrap. We’re working with our landlords to get commercial composting in-store with the vision for MELBA to be one [compost] bin, it’s a stretch goal but it would be a big tick.
IP: It’s a journey right and it's not just packaging, it’s food waste as well.
SP: Correct, so I got inspired by going to Spark Arena, I think you told me to visit. Where they have one bin, to me, if we could get our MELBA stores along that path that would be a big win. Our Operations Manager, Kriselle is already committed to this, as am I. It’s not only a good story, it’s the only story.
IP: Couldn't agree more!
To celebrate MELBA’s 25th Birthday they’re running a scratch card promotion with a combined prize pool of $40,000 instant prizes. All you need to do is spend $15 in any MELBA to receive a scratch card. The promotion is running till early-December, or until every prize has been won.