During times when many restaurateurs have been clinging onto their businesses in the hope of survival, the owners of The Bunker Restaurant and Bar in Queenstown have made a bold move, more than doubling in size.
As executive chef and co-owner Ben Norfolk says: “Fortune follows the brave.” He’s hoping that holds true.
He and his business partner Cameron Mitchell, who sold two other venues in downtown Queenstown last year, had two options in early 2021 after a tough 2020.
“We were either going to hold down the fort or invest and this opportunity came up,” says Ben. “We’ve always wanted to expand and never had the opportunity to,” he says. “It just happened to be the worst timing ever.”
They took the brave step of securing double the size of their lease, extending from their current Cow Lane site right through to adjacent Queenstown Mall after a former souvenir shop vacated the lease.
The three-month build, which kicked off in February last year, stretched out into a seven-month project after “all sorts of hidden treasures” under the existing building.
It wasn’t only the building timeframe that stretched but also the budget. An original estimate of $1 million ballooned into almost $1.6 million, including taking on the new lease space.
“It’s been a massive investment,” says Ben. “We gutted the whole thing inside.”
The new-look Bunker, now with two bars, opened on November 20 2021 with a huge welcome from local fans.
“We launched loud and proud. Everybody seems happy and we’ve had some amazing feedback about what we’ve produced,” says Ben.
However, last year it was Ben’s turn to help design his own kitchen. He’d longed for a larger, newer one for some time, but had to make do with the cramped original version. “My excuse was always that I was cooking off of a six burner and drop stove – that’s always what I used. But now I’ve got everything,” he says. The much more spacious modern version cost at least $250,000 and features all the mod cons and necessary chef’s toys – two Combi ovens, eight burners, a chargrill, sous vide and Thermomix, to name a few. “I was so excited to finally get in there,” he says.
Regulars and visitors have been delighted walking into the flash new, rustic-style interiors, and even more so when they’ve tasted the ramped up menu. “I changed the style. It’s now a bit more exciting and there’s a bit more theatre, not that stuffy, white linen, formal, fine dining feeling like this is only for special occasions,” says Ben.
“We have to be adaptable to all markets,” he says. “I wanted guys to be able to come in here with a mate and enjoy a one kilo tomahawk with sides.”
The Bunker’s focus is still be very much on premium game meat and seafood, food that’s local, sustainable, paddock to plate. “I wanted it to be refreshing, refined and respectful,” he says. All of my produce is locally sourced from the likes of Nevis Garden and Gibbston Microgreens, and my lamb comes from over the hill (Cardrona Merino), my venison and wild boar from Fiordland and crayfish from Kaikoura.” There was no need to change that, but Ben says he’s made it all a bit sexier and stepped it up a level. “I’m super proud of it.”
His new 8-course degustation menu has been “flying out the door” since reopening, all delicious, locally-sourced produce from the surrounding region and around the South Island. Smoked Canterbury ostrich, pancetta ragout, whipped truffled potato, confit egg yolk, served in an ostrich egg shell, wild Bannockburn hare loin nicoise, braised leg roulade and black olive emulsion, all served alongside West Coast paua tortellini, kina foam and nasturtium.
One Northland specialty has made it on the a la carte menu though – sustainably farmed Ruakaka Kingfish. Wakanui Beef Fillet is also served a la carte with bone marrow and beef tongue, while the Duck Leg comes in lollipop form – crispy, with plum jus.
Ben’s Petit Fours are far from ‘petit’ in size and have been the most popular choice, offering a selection of frozen crème brulee, macaron, lamington and chocolate cremeux.
There’s been a shift away from intimate fine dining as customers opt for a more relaxed, welcoming atmosphere showcasing local and regional finds. ‘Story’ is paramount as part of the dining out experience for many. “Customer service is key for us too,” says Ben. “People need to feel welcome, comfortable, take their shoes off if they want, or order a pinot with fish. I won’t turn my nose up at that,” he says. “We’re just here to show people a good time and take them on a journey.” “We’ve always been lucky to have the locals supporting us, especially in the bar, so we’re very grateful for that,” says Ben. “We’d always struggled to service the town before with just 28 seats in the restaurant. We always had to turn people away. There were never enough seats as we were only a small intimate restaurant with bookings weeks out, prior to Covid times.”
The Bunker now seats 70 inside, instead of just 30, with two cosy, large fireplaces. A new, more intimate, cosy cocktail bar has been incorporated downstairs adjacent to the restaurant, catering for about 40 people. “This offers a more late night, speak easy vibe serving great cocktails where you can sit down and enjoy several good whiskeys while the younger customers party in our upstairs bar,” says Ben.
A new feature, a winding internal staircase connects the restaurant with the newly-redeveloped much larger upstairs bar and its greatly extended outdoor bar area which has capacity for about 100 people. At present that’s encased by marquee style covering with plenty more fire pits to heat the space with plans for a retractable roof to be installed soon.
The interiors are rustic, refined and re-envisioned, put together largely by Cameron’s wife Tina Mitchell, who has an eye for interior detail. The Bunker has retained its old world charm – dark wood, green banker’s lamps, brass furnishings and its red carpet entrance.
While other operators had been forced to shed staff last year, Ben and Cameron have taken on more to cater for more than doubling their size. “Queenstown’s lost a massive amount of staff, but luckily we’ve retained a lot of our staff so we’re fortunate,” says Ben. “We started out with about 15 or 16 and now we have about 20 to 25. We’re pretty lucky, but we’ve always treated our staff well.” “We have at least another three in the bar, hosting, runners, table service, and on meet and greet. My bartenders are happy to be waiters as they can’t be speed pourers right now.” Ben now has four chefs and two kitchens hands working with him in the kitchen.
It hasn’t been an easy road pressing on amid so much uncertainty. “The stress was ridiculous, so we just had to watch the news and hope for the best, letting the government point us in the right direction,” says Ben.