Hosting Hospitality: A Conversation With Greg Cornes Of Goodness Gracious
Hey Greg! Tell us a little bit about yourself: what do you do and where are you based?
I’m a cafe operator/business owner in Auckland, New Zealand. I have three micro-cafes, each called “Goodness Gracious cafe and bagelry”, and all operating in high density areas to service a predominantly time-poor customer base. The first site was in Eden Terrace (2014), followed by others in Parnell (2017) and Takapuna (2018). The business is still very much owner-operated as I do everything from payroll, HR, marketing and accounts to business development and operation management.
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That’s awesome to hear you’re really involved in the day to day. How did your career in hospitality begin?
I started working in a restaurant as a bar-back and runner while at university, and I fell in love with the industry. I could soon see myself owning/running a hospitality business. I went on to work in various roles and in many types of operations, from nightclubs to cafes. I ended up dropping out of university; I felt I was learning more from real world experience.
So was Goodness Gracious your Plan A, or did it develop organically over time?
It was something that grew organically; it took a decade of life and work to decide what sort of cafe I wanted. In fact the plan was only finalised when I was looking for a site. I wanted to eliminate risk, and I knew that a smaller footprint would mean less rent and fewer staff.
From this, the menu developed: a bagel-centric menu could be produced from a small kitchen. And that menu is now central to our reputation.
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Growing up in your early years, were you always interested in business?
In retrospect, it’s clear I was naturally inclined towards business, but it’s always been more about enjoying the process than desperately seeking success. I have a working class background. My dad was a super hard worker and my mum was super savvy. They had a side hustle manufacturing, sewing and printing bibs, cloth nappies and blankets for Plunket. We had a full set-up in our basement where my siblings and I would have to heat press, fold and package many of the garments.
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During my early secondary school years, my brother, a friend and I placed third nationally in the Young Enterprise Scheme. We were the smallest team by a longshot, and we had basically zero support from our school until they realised we were going to place. Later in secondary school, my friends and I organised some rather large (ticketed and well-run) underage parties at the old Mid City complex in Queen Street. We were pretty savvy for a bunch of teens; we convinced some reputable brands and shops to appear on our flyers. Their logos on the flyers added credibility - an early lesson in the value of relationship marketing!
Goodness Gracious has three locations across Auckland - Eden Terrace, Parnell & Takapuna. Photos by Josh Griggs & Boshi Wang.
Cool to hear that you were hustling from such a young age! What were some of the challenges and obstacles you faced in bringing your ideas to fruition in opening your first Goodness Gracious - or was it smooth sailing?
It was far from smooth sailing. In my early twenties I’d invested in some property, which I’d always hoped would fund my dream (it was also a roof over my young family’s heads). Selling it meant moving my wife and daughter - with another baby on the way - into my dad’s; generally the opposite of what other 29 year-olds were doing at the time. In effect I bet my life savings, and my family’s security, on the cafe - and I sure felt the pressure!
Then it took 19 months from signing the lease to opening the doors. At one point - after I’d already hired my head chef, Steph, convincing her to leave her job - it seemed the whole lease negotiation had fallen over. I didn’t tell her about it until the morning of our scheduled research trip to Melbourne, when I’d received an email from the landlord acknowledging that all was good.
Steph was simultaneously mad at me and pleased. Then the Council lost our building consent for a month, a tiling job and a painting job had major problems, and my main contractor tried to take me for a ride financially!
In the era of social media, how do you deal with negative feedback and criticism while maintaining brand integrity?
We don’t get much, I’m pleased to say! But for starters, you have to judge whether it’s genuine feedback - a customer wanting to let you know about a disappointing experience - or someone with either a motive or a desire to harm your business. You can often tell which it is by the degree of vitriol.
If it’s genuine feedback and the customer has good reason to be disappointed, it’s good to have the opportunity to apologise and to tweak our service appropriately. If it’s genuine feedback but you feel the customer came to the cafe with unrealistic expectations (e.g. seeking a restaurant experience rather than a cafe experience) we use it as an opportunity to give that customer and all future customers a clear idea of our modus operandi. The more our customers understand our thinking, our philosophy, the better for them and for us.
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Whether any criticism is genuine or deliberately vitriolic, I believe it’s important to respond: to give any future readers of (or participants in) the digital conversation the full context of the issue under discussion. Hopefully they’ll then be in a better position to decide whether our cafes, and our aims, are a good fit for them. If we didn’t respond to the vitriolic stuff, there's even a risk of validating it.
In short, we are grateful for genuine feedback. It either helps us improve or it gives us a chance to explain our philosophy. But we feel obliged to show up the occasional vitriolic comments, clearly aimed at undermining our business, for what they are. This is our intuitive reaction in a fast-changing world (and that’s certainly in keeping with our style!). Time will prove whether or not we were right.
You now have three Goodness Gracious locations in Auckland. How has the hospitality landscape changed over the past five years?
More choice for customers, and more discerning customers. Aucklanders have long been spoiled for choice - now they’re even more so! As an operator, you have to stay sharp. I think customer expectations have risen. Customers are now more willing than ever to hunt down what suits them, and they’re happy to look for it both on the high street and in the suburbs.
In a way it’s better if they make their own voyage of discovery. Some media reviews compare apples with oranges, judging hole-in-the-wall cafes against full service restaurants, or vice versa. The mainstream media’s favouritism is sometimes fickle; an establishment can fall in or out of media favour depending on whether it’s frequented by who’s who patrons or relationship with the owner(s).
I sometimes feel sorry for visitors to Auckland. I don’t think our “best place” lists are always representative, and they’re often out of date, having included businesses that no longer exist. In the new hospitality environment, my advice to potential customers is this: it’s worth looking yourself for establishments that suit you. Approach each with an open mind and make your own decision whether or not to return. In that way, you are rewarded, and so is the business that you judge to be worthy of your patronage.
Following on from this in an increasingly competitive hospitality market, how can a business like Goodness Gracious continue to stand out?
It helps to have core values and a clear philosophy, and then to stick to them! Consistency is the key. For us, it’s meeting our customers’ needs - relaxed atmosphere, great coffee, tempting food and first-class service - and especially offering value for money. It seems to be working so far!
Finally, do you have any advice for young would-be entrepreneurs?
Two things: follow your passion, and be patient.
Passion is vital if you’re going to dedicate the time and effort you’ll quickly find are required. I work between 50 and 80 hours per week, every week. And I think about business almost 24/7. Imagine spending that time on something you’re not passionate about!
You’ll probably have to sacrifice time with friends and family. During my time in business, I - like every business owner - have struggled to balance my personal duties (a parent’s death, friends and relatives facing challenges and needing support) with my duties to the business and to my staff. It’s not easy, and unless you’re passionate about your business it’ll be all but impossible.
It’s only in retrospect that I know about the importance of patience. My move into business was delayed for several years by the global financial crisis of 2008, and especially by the GFC’s impact on the capital gain I’d been banking on. And then every successful step has, for one reason or another, taken longer than hoped. But there’ve been benefits; with extra time have come extra refinements. With patience, the destination you reach might be that much more worthy of the journey.
Thanks so much for your time and insight Greg!
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Photos: Newspread, Josh Griggs, Boshi Wang & Calum McCartie