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changing tack
August 17, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Changing Tack

Wilson Cain is a 21-year-old Wellingtonian who runs Whitecaps along with his brother Jo, and soon with the help of Rhys Stannard. Whitecaps is a part-time restaurant based out of the Evans Bay Yacht and Motor Boat Club, serving “pub food on crack”, predominantly to members of the Club. The third in his generation to get involved in the restaurant business, Cain talked to Eve Kennedy about the business, his plans, and advice for those (like Eve) who are tempted to drop out and follow their foodie dream.

EK: You’re into yachting and boating; is that how you got into this [the Club]?
WC: When my boat was out of the water and I was coming in and out of the club, I noticed there was a sign saying that meals on Friday nights would be discontinued until further notice, and I didn’t even know that there had been meals happening here. It’s been quite hard before now to advertise to the public because of licensing; we have a special liquor licence, you can come as a guest to the Club if you’re signed in by a member, but the Club are bringing in a social membership.

So the food is predominantly for the members?
At the moment, definitely: around 90 per cent of our customer base is members.

So this all conveniently fell into place then? It wasn’t a lifetime plan of yours to go opening food enterprises, or did this coincide with what you’d been wanting to do anyway?
The latter. My grandfather owned restaurants and my Dad went on to have four restaurants. I never made it my plan for this to be my career choice, but I was cooking at the time [that the restaurant started].

As a 21-year-old, you’ve probably led quite a different adult life to those of your peers, many of whom are probably still at uni. Do you find that it’s quite hard to maintain friendships?
It’s a lot of work, but the good friends come out to the Club and hang with me or help in the kitchen. It’s quite a lot to juggle, but I still manage to go out on the weekends.

You’re not tempted to throw it all away and go to uni?
I’m thinking of going to Weltec next year to do a Carpentry course, but I could work around the Yacht Club there.

What do you recommend to someone who’s thinking of dropping out and ‘following their dreams’?
You’re not going to switch from uni one year to having a new business the next. I started working in kitchens; Mark Rawlins at Havana has taught me heaps in the three years I’ve been there. Without that, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do this. A lot of it is confidence, but that confidence comes from skill.

Has the money side of things been a steep learning curve?
Yeah, definitely. At the Club, we get to use the kitchen, power and gas for free; we just buy the food, sell the food, make money off the food. It’d be harder otherwise. The Club make money off the people coming in for the food and staying longer for the booze.

So do you think you’ve had it easier than most?
Yeah, the overheads we save are huge, but that reflects in our prices; ours are lower than a normal restaurant.

Do you think you do pay a price for that money saving in that you can’t do your own interior?
Definitely, but we don’t mind that. We don’t want this to be a restaurant, but a yacht club that does food. We bring the food out to the tables ourselves, everything is done by name. I think it’s a nice novelty. It’s a relaxed atmosphere.

So is that your business ethos? Fostering a community spirit and enjoying the atmosphere?
That’s part of it, definitely.

Would you do this over again if you knew what it would be like?
There are things I would do differently, but I’m happy with the way it’s worked out.

Is there room for expansion?
If we got many more customers, we’d hire someone else to do dishes and run food: then we could serve twice as many people. When we started, I was riding my bike around like crazy on Fridays trying to get everything ready; now we have ordering, and people delivering to us.

So tell us about the food? Was there a set idea of food that the Yacht Club expected?
A friend of mine described it as “pub food on crack”. We do burgers, pizzas, fish and chips, bar snacks and a meat main that we change from week to week. The customer base is mainly just blokes with boats.

Do you dream of owning your own restaurant?
I’m not sure; at the moment I’m quite happy with everything. I don’t have a five-year plan.

Whitecaps can be found at 401 Evans Bay Parade, Friday and Saturday nights.

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