Restaurateur and Hard Rock Cafe pioneer Luke Dallow quits hospitality

Hospitality veteran Luke Dallow has quit the industry, saying it is now “too hard” to run a profitable business and the industry is still at least 18 months away from any recovery.

Dallow, who has owned various restaurants and bars over the past 30 years, has sold his Auckland beer garden Midnight Gardener for next to nothing; “basically stock”.

The business officially changed hands yesterday and is now owned by young entrepreneurs Sean Bone, Bryan Anderson and Nicholas Fury, the owners of Ponsonby’s Parade Burgers.

Dallow is a big name in New Zealand hospitality, and if he could not make a business work in the current climate, it is a sign of grim times for smaller or less experienced players. The Covid-19 pandemic has pummelled hospitality and many operators are struggling to continue as the industry enters its third year of disruption.

Dallow told the Herald he decided to pull the pin on his venture during the last lockdown. Not being able to recruit international staff had greatly affected the business.

“The last lockdown really did jolt me. I was being creative with ideas and trying to get moneyback into the business by doing the picnics and we kept [being pushed] down again.

“I thought ‘What am I doing this for? I’m not even paying myself, why do I have all this money tied up in an asset that I’m not even getting any money out? I’ve been beaten up a little bit by Covid,” Dallow told the Herald.

“I love the industry and always will love the industry; it’s just tough times to run a business at the moment and my energy is spent.”

Dallow admits Covid had knocked him back and he no longer had the energy or passion to continue.

The decision to call it quits mostly came down to Covid knocking earnings and not being able to employ adequate staff. “Now it is just getting too-hard basket. It is getting too hard to run a profitable model.

“I’ve done 32 years; I’ve seen the GFC, [electrical] blackouts in Auckland City and we bounced through them – and did well in those negative times, but this negative time, she’s a different one. It’s real negative.”

Parade Burgers will relocate to Midnight Gardener’s Ponsonby Rd corner site, just a few hundred metres down the road from its current site and rebrand the container ship designed venue.

Midnight Gardener hit headlines last year when it traded as a “rentable picnic venue”, allowing patrons to bring in their own food and beverages and enjoy a few hours at an unstaffed eatery.

Dallow said the new owners of Midnight Gardener would be able to weather the Covid storm as they were young passionate guys starting out with fresh determination.

“This Covid situation has been like a forest fire. The forest has been obliterated but as we all know the shoots of the forest will always come up – six months or a year later and turn back into a forest, and I’m hoping these guys will be able to take it on.”

Dallow has spent more than half his life working in hospitality. He said he was saddened to leave the industry but took comfort in knowing he had helped a number of now successful business owners realise their potential in the industry.

Sid Sahrawat from Sidart and The French Cafe previously worked for Dallow, as did John Hellebreker, founder of Joylab.

Dallow will now focus his energy on the real estate market. For the past two years he has been working part-time selling property for Barfoot & Thompson.

He may even continue to dip his toes into consulting with the hospitality industry.

Dallow started his career in 1987 washing dishes before climbing up the ranks waiting and running bars and restaurants in South Auckland, before relocating to London where he found his feet at the Hard Rock Cafe. During his time with Hard Rock Cafe he hosted and chaperoned multiple celebrities, including Madonna and Elton John.

He later went on to open multiple Hard Rock Cafes around the world, including the Copenhagen and Antwerp locations, before returning to New Zealand and opened his first bar – Salsa – in Grey Lynn at age 30.

Dallow said his career had been centred around selling happiness and when he found himself unable to bring joy to his customers he knew it was time to move on.

“Hospitality to me is seeing the smiles of my customers enjoying what they get in front of them. It’s an emotional business and that is my major driver in hospitality – and I haven’t seen that lately.”

The hospitality veteran said he believed the industry was still 18 to 24 months away from facing any real recovery. As he puts it: “that’s when I see that forest blooming again”.

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