Featured in Capital #90. Subscribe to get the real thing here.
Modern Asian “street food” sharing-plate restaurants are appearing all over Wellington. Dean White was in early.
When I first met Dean White he was a student at Otago University. Then, he was the very young manager of Plato, a smart waterside seafood restaurant in Dunedin. Not too many years later he owns three Wellington restaurants and a charity space. His flagship, Mr Go’s, has reopened in the city’s foody area, in Hannah’s Lane.
How did you do it? asks John Bristed. I’ve always worked. My parents gave me pocket money, for things like stacking firewood, cleaning the deck or the cars, mowing the lawns. When I was seven, I started building a treehouse. A lot of my earnings went into materials for it. By the time I was 12 it had two platforms over three trees.
Who influenced your attitude to money? Probably my dad. My parents are careful spenders. As an adult I’ve also decided that “you get what you pay for’’.
As a kid, what did you think you might become? Like many five-to ten-year-olds, I imagined I’d be in the police.
Is that police mentality part of being a restaurant owner? You could probably say counsellor. Or mentor. But a policeman? Yes, in a way.
Where did you start? I was 12 and at Wellesley College. We lived in Korokoro so I got part-time work at the Dowse Museum Café which wasn’t too far away. Then I moved on to Chocolate Dayz in Days Bay. By the time I was in the sixth form at Wellington College I was working part time at Maranui Cafe as a kitchen hand. I was full time there after I left school. Then I had a spell at Parliament as a catering events supervisor. It was a very good gap year and I blew quite a lot of my savings having a good time. I left to go to university.
I did commerce at Otago. In my second year in Dunedin I picked up a part time waiting job at Plato. I was promoted to maître d’, then restaurant manager, and during my third year there I spent six months working full time as well as studying full time. That was too hard. I had to leave the job so I could finish my degree in the three years.
Plato had a famously difficult pair of customers? Even though they came in at least once a week they’d still want all the same specials read out to them. They’d ask endless questions about the food, and every single time they’d ask for a couple of items that weren’t on the menu.
Are awkward customers like that worth the trouble? Yes, we need regular customers. As long as they’re fair and reasonable. I think those kinds of characters make hospitality.
I hear you met your wife at Plato? It was serendipity. We met at a party outside Plato. We discovered that we both worked there as wait staff, but on different days. We’ve been solid partners ever since. She’s my favourite critic. We were married two years ago.
So what brought you back to Wellington? Home. After university I did four years selling for a smallgoods manufacturer, then I moved to Auckland, and worked with Bird on a Wire. They asked me to run one of their chicken restaurants in Wellington on a franchise deal. But I realised then that I’d rather have my own business. I had a bit of a concept in the back of my head, and leased the space in Taranaki Street where in 2016 I started Mr Go’s.
Where did you get the money to set up Mr Go’s? I remortgaged my house. I bought a house quite young; then, I needed only a 5% deposit. If it wasn’t for that I don’t think I’d be where I am today. Every dollar went into the restaurant. But it worked. We were open for only 10 weeks before the Kaikoura earthquake hit. Luckily, we had business interruption insurance, which gave us a very large financial boost. We were closed for about four months. It was not something you could plan for, and to be honest, it was the lump sum that really meant we were properly set up.
How did you pick Mr Go, the Haining Street gardener you’ve made into a tiny legend, for your business name? I was doing up my house in Newtown, and found all kinds of relics under the floorboards, bottles, old newspapers and so on. I came across old articles about people in the area around Mt Cook and the war memorial, and there was the story of Ah Go. He was one of the market gardeners who were pushed out by Western settlers. I decided he deserved a bit of respect and so he’s Mr Go.
Why do you like restaurants? Is it the food, or the people, or the money? I’d say it’s the food, but I love the energy. When you see an empty restaurant it’s just another room. Fill it with staff and customers from all walks of life, and they bring that energy. So, probably, people.
How do you manage a large staff? Since Mr Go’s opened we’ve bought Ombra which is a tapas style restaurant, but Italian, and started Kisa, which is Middle Eastern. There’s also LTD, sublet five days a week as a pay-as-you-feel charity restaurant. We’ve now got 115 staff, and an HR Manager. Before that I struggled along with them all, but now it’s a different relationship. Probably about 40 of our staff I haven’t interviewed.
Do you know all their names? I do. There are probably five that I haven’t met yet, but I think I’d know their name if I saw them. To know them all by name is a goal of mine.
Have you borrowed more money or taken on partners? Both. I borrowed more money and I’ve two silent partners in Mr Go’s.
How or where do you find an outstanding head chef? You hope the new head chef already works for you and so you promote him or her. You just have to hope you’ve chosen well.
Restaurants have brands and identity, but people’s preferences change. How do you deal with that? During covid people learnt to cook more and they learnt more about different flavours and tastes. You really have to just keep up with the movement. What was cool or hot five years ago may not be any more. You’ve got to do a fair amount of travel.
Where do you get your interesting Eastern and Asian influences? There are good sharp restaurants in Australia, also Los Angeles and London. Our chefs’ concepts have to be distinctive. You’ve got to research. Vaibhav Vishen (former head chef at Mr Go’s), and now the man behind Indian street food restaurant Chaat Street, says, “Dean has been a great mentor: He took four of us to Sydney for a couple of days to research the restaurant scene there. I thought we might manage six restaurants. We visited about 30! In each one we ordered every dish on the menu; everything was tasted.’’
How do you determine the optimal price for menu items? What would I be willing to pay?
What’s the most important quality in a restaurateur? In the end it’s financial discipline. Otherwise you’re not going to keep the doors open.
How do you deal with suppliers? Pay people on time, pay your suppliers on time. That always gives you a level of respect, because not everyone does. And they listen to you more. And, you’ve just got to shop around.
How do you handle customer complaints and ensure they leave satisfied? Customer complaints in house are the easiest ones to solve. You figure out whether it’s a personal preference or a muck up and that’s quite easy to resolve in house. When friends ask “Should I do a restaurant review?” I say, “If you loved it, absolutely”. It’s great feedback. If you didn’t love it, contact the restaurant and say why; give them the chance to make amends. If that response isn’t good, then go ahead and do a review.
Have you got any concerns about the future of the hospitality scene in Wellington? Yes, we’re different from many cities. If you compare us to Auckland, a lot of our hospitality is in the CBD. And when I say CBD, I include Te Aro. Rents we pay here are substantially more than say, Ponsonby Road; the cost to build is high, rates are high, so what we have to pay in rent to compensate a landlord is high, and that’s a key concern.
What does and doesn’t work with Wellington on a Plate? I believe that you need a reason to dine out, an event, an anniversary or birthday, and that aspect of Wellington on a Plate works. It gets people out and creates a positive atmosphere for hospitality in the City. However, there’s a disconnect regarding the quite large fees (up to $1,500) restaurants pay to take part in Wellington on a Plate and the cost of running it. There’s an ongoing friction there as the event isn’t cheap to put on either. This aspect doesn’t work. I think that the restaurants feel they do more than enough for the city for those fees to be lower or insignificant. Council needs to review their funding of the event.
What advice would you give to somebody who started out in the restaurant industry? It’s probably as hard to run a small business as it is it to run a big business. There are still the same difficulties. I’d say go bigger. If you can finance it. Focus on what you’re good at.
Do you have investments other than restaurants? Any plans to expand? Only Kiwisaver, and no.
What has been your greatest day in a restaurant? After Mr Go’s had been open for about two years, we decided to renovate it and make it larger. We were closed for exactly one week. It was a big ask. We were up to our eyeballs doing it. I didn’t sleep for 120 hours.
And because we were trying to finish the paintwork we weren’t able to open until very late, at 5pm. Sometimes you wonder if it’s worth it. But we opened the doors and half an hour later the whole place was full of customers.