Hospitality Business Magazine

Queenstown Restaurateurs Expand with Charcoal Oven Cuisine

Successful Queenstown restaurateurs Jonathan Bisley and Lou McDowell own one of the resort town’s busiest restaurants, but they aren’t about to rest on their laurels.

As well as owning and operating the South African-inspired Flame Bar & Grill at the prime Steamer’s Wharf location on Lake Whakatipu, the couple has now opened a new restaurant, Sunfire.

Solid-fuel cooking is a prominent trend in overseas dining and the 110-seat Sunfire restaurant – downstairs from Flame – is believed to be the first eatery in the Southern Lakes to serve cuisine cooked in a charcoal oven.

“People are taking a risk when they’re going out for dinner now – it’s a luxury and expensive. What they want is to come back and order exactly the same dish they have enjoyed before.” – Jonathan Bisley

“Opening a new restaurant is a bit like having children,” says Jonathan. “You could be like, ‘you know what, I’m happy with this first child and I don’t need any more’. Then one day you wake up and think: ‘I’d like another one because it can play with the first child’. And then you have the second child and you can never imagine your life without them.

“That’s like Sunfire. We could have stayed with Flame, but now we’ve got this new thing which has a whole lot of challenges to it, and it’s going to test us all and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

When Jonathan went on a culinary scouting trip to Europe last year, he was so impressed by the food cooked in the Josper charcoal oven that he decided to bring one to New Zealand.

Wagu Eye Fillet.

“We imported the charcoal oven from Barcelona because the food it produces is just extraordinary – it elegantly sears, smokes and grills simultaneously to create irresistible, crisp flavours while retaining the moisture and integrity of the ingredients,” he says.

Sunfire has provided the opportunity for Jonathan and Lou to keep evolving. With the 125-seat Flame known as a Queenstown institution, diners usually know what they want to order from the menu before they even arrive. Sunfire is a little more unexpected and experimental, and offers a completely different experience.

Both restaurants, however, share the same crucial three culinary values: quality, consistency and value.

“Consistency is the single most important thing to me in terms of any food offer. And that’s supported by quality,” says Jonathan. “When outgoings are higher, the temptation is to take out expensive ingredients. If margins are down, you’ve got three choices: either put your prices up, start taking expensive ingredients out, or compromise the portion sizes.”

Jonathan and Lou refuse the latter two options, and instead look to their supply chains to achieve better value through economies of scale or adjusting the menu mix. Where necessary, they have increased prices to retain the same value and quality their diners expect.

Kingfish Crudo.

“People are taking a risk when they’re going out for dinner now – it’s a luxury and expensive. What they want is to come back and order exactly the same dish they have enjoyed before.”

Having a long-term business strategy to guide their decisions has also been crucial for Jonathan and Lou. The vibe of Flame has always been appealing as a dinner destination, whereas the lighter, brighter, indoor-outdoor flow of Sunfire presented an opportunity for breakfast and lunch, as well as a dinner service, therefore it was the ideal ‘brother’ to Flame.

Administration costs – as well as 90 staff – are shared between the two restaurants. The couple rent five houses to sub-let to staff: Queenstown accommodation is hard to come by, and this helps Lou and Jonathan retain their teams and offer consistency at Flame and Sunfire.

“From an organisational and cultural point of view, you’ve got these two outlets that have the same DNA but different experiences,” adds Jonathan. “Different to work in, similar customers but a different occasion, so that adds to the energy of the environment.”

Glory Bay Salmon