Dramatic changes to city restaurant over 16 years

Over to you . . . Former Cafe Rue and Bar owners (from left) Brenda and Gary Lee pass the keys to the central Dunedin restaurant to its new owners Kevin Ly and Kunyu Li on Friday. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE

When Dunedin couple Brenda and Gary Lee bought central Dunedin eatery Cafe Rue as a going concern 16 years ago, it was a different business.

The business was about half the floor space and was only open for lunch.

The lunch service continued but to bolster the business, an out-catering service was launched – one of the first of its kind in the city – feeding lunch to up to 13 offices in an afternoon.

The company grew, introducing a dinner service in the restaurant for three nights from Thursday.

“They went really well.”

When Java Hair Salon on the corner of Moray Pl and Lower Stuart St closed about five years ago, a wall was knocked down and Cafe Rue expanded.

In the new area, a bar was built, increasing its ability to host functions such as 21st birthdays or engagement parties.

As the business grew, the couple got busier, as the food sector in Dunedin got more competitive.

“Sixteen years ago, we didn’t have Vogel St and we didn’t have 25 food trucks running around the place.”

Competition was healthy but many restaurants had failed in Dunedin, he said.

The last economic downturn forced the closure of 10 restaurants in Dunedin.

For a restaurant to survive, an owner had to “batten down the hatches and keep things tight and tidy” and look after diners to ensure repeat custom.

Customers returned if they were given what they wanted at a reasonable price, he said.

He expected business in the sector to get harder as costs continue to rise, such as compliance and minimum wage.

“It only needs to get a little bit harder to make it untenable.”

But tougher times ahead were not the reason the couple decided to sell the business as a going concern.

“It was just our time – we’ve given it a good crack and made some good friends and it’s time for a break and a rethink. Our kids have grown up and we don’t have to work as hard to live.”

The focus would shift to being “novice farmers” on their lifestyle block in Fairfield.

The business was handed over to its new owners, married couple Kevin Ly and Kunyu Li, on April 1 but the handover to ensure a smooth transition was continuing.

Dr Ly said he and his wife were working as researchers at University of Otago but his contract ended and he decided to “follow his passion of creating in the kitchen”.

“I was working in a windowless basement laboratory – here I get to mingle with customers . . . I’ll leave the research to my wife and I’ll do what I love.”