Namu Group founder David Lee fell in love with Auckland’s cafe culture over a decade ago and has since become one of the city’s most prolific restaurateurs with a rapidly growing stable of eateries.
South Korea-born Lee initially gained insight into New Zealand’s food and beverage sector as a 27-year-old while working for an import-export business. His job was to identify New Zealand-made products that would be popular in Korea.
“I was lucky that my boss liked me. He trusted me, my taste and my ideas even though I was a junior,” Lee tells Broadsheet. “I learnt a lot there and gained an understanding of New Zealand quite quickly.”
At the same time, he became a regular at his local cafe and fell in love with hospitality. Now, he has a stake in seven food and hospitality businesses – with three new ventures to come in the next few months.
There’s a cluster of his Auckland venues in downtown Auckland’s Commercial Bay: Asian-inspired eatery Poni, hotdog shop Good Dog Bad Dog, Korean restaurant Gochu and Green Door Pizza. In Ponsonby he has Aigo Noodle Bar, which he opened a sibling for in Newmarket, right by his daytime cafe, The Candy Shop.
It’s a far cry from his beginnings in the industry. Initially, Lee struggled to find hospitality work without experience and started washing dishes at a cafe after working his other job. “It was a really important time in my life. If I didn’t have that, I’d never understand my staff working in the kitchen. I’d never understand how they feel.”
He took those learnings and started his first business, a suburban cafe in Browns Bay called Ben Gusto, which he sold in 2013. Other businesses he’s founded and since sold include Herne Bay’s Dear Jervois, Parnell cafe Simon & Lee and Major Sprout in the CBD.
Managing all his venues is a huge undertaking, especially at a time when restaurateurs and diners are feeling inflationary pressures. As his business grows, he’s needed to streamline things. Now one person at Namu Group is responsible for making calls at each venue. “The business has to be run by one person. One head, one brain so there’s no confusion,” says Lee.
One of those colleagues is writer and Eat Lit Food creator Albert Cho, who recently joined the business. In a deft move, Lee carved out a role for Cho based on his palate and passion for the industry. The pair regularly talk shop, swap notes on food trends and create dishes together. “He oversees all of my venues and makes sure everyone’s happy, especially me,” laughs Lee.
The next opening will be Tobi, taking over a large site in Ponsonby that used to be Indian restaurant Bolliwood. Tobi will cater to the masses, seating 110 people inside and 20 outside.
The high-ceilinged space will have a minimalist white, Scandinavian aesthetic filled with teak furniture, accents of navy and custom lamp shades by artist Seung Yul Oh. Lee previously commissioned artist Hanna Shim to create the tufted rug at Aigo Newmarket and loves influencing the design direction of his businesses.
He intends for Tobi to be laid-back and more about fun than fine dining. The plan is to offer an extensive lunch and dinner menu of crowd-pleasing favourites with some twists, in the style of a new-age bistro with elements of nostalgia that will resonate with Kiwis.
He is also setting up a new pasta joint at Commercial Bay called Gemmi, Korean for “fun”. With interiors designed by Ctrl Space, the venue will seat 65 people and is due to open in November. “We thought it was a nice play on words because it’s also on the corner of Commercial Bay’s dining area, so it’s like a hidden gem.”
While Lee hadn’t planned to grow his portfolio to its current size, property developers have been eager to work together – and this has led to organic growth for the business. It’s easy to see why. Lee knows when to leap on new opportunities and bring together unexpected combinations – like Italian and Korean cuisine at Aigo – without the results seeming contrived.
When he’s not busy with work, the father of two dines with his family – his wife, Sue Lee, is a ceramicist – and takes a relaxed approach to planning his schedule. “What I try to do is wake up every morning and be ready. I don’t really freak out. I don’t really worry,” he says.
Travel helps him glean global market intelligence and have time with his family or on his own. He will often walk 40,000 steps a day on these trips. “I even go to bad places to understand why those places are not doing well,” he adds.
But it’s not all about transplanting ideas: Lee also spends time chatting with young people to figure out what will work in a local context to anchor the shifting industry. “The world of hospitality is ever-changing, with trends often being the force of what the concept should be. There’s no answer. No right and wrong.”
Want to hear from more top restaurateurs? Read Josh Emett's After Service interview.