This story was originally published on February 11, 2021
Meet the 29-year-old waiter with big plans for a tiny seafood joint he hoped would lift the fortunes of the least-classy end of Auckland’s Princes Wharf. And the neighbours who wanted to stop him.
Check out the update at the end of the story.
Part 1: Who wants a dry seafood bar?
At school, Tylor Springfield never thought about hospitality as a career. He was going to be an architect.
So the fact that this week the 29-year-old waiter opened his own, tiny, seafood bar on Auckland’s Princes Wharf, still seems to him like a bit of a miracle.
Except his customers can’t drink bubbly or cocktails with their oysters and sashimi. Alcohol-free only.
Six months after applying to renew the liquor licence on the former bar and nightclub, it’s still being blocked by neighbours who say they don’t want any more hospitality outlets on the wharf.
Although the police, the Auckland Council Licensing Inspector, and the health authorities have approved the application, the chair of one local residents’ association says everyone is fed up with noise and nuisance from existing bars and restaurants – or rather, their patrons. One more outlet will just make it worse.
But other people living in the former warehouses on Princes Wharf say a small, upmarket, owner-operated bar is just what their scruffy end of the wharf needs. They say Covid has closed some premises; others like Euro and the Crab Shack are part of big corporate structures tied up with rich listers and big finance.
They mutter about David and Goliath, about compromise, and how it’s a mess.
Meanwhile Springfield says his business – and his life savings – are on the line.
Part 2: How did it get to this?
Springfield’s dad ran a construction company; he thought about studying architecture. But he says he took a gap year and after his first week job hunting had three options: car washing, dish washing, or being a runner for Auckland’s upmarket waterfront restaurant Soul Bar.
He took the latter.
“I got a trial shift front-of-house [at Soul] and I was terrible. I was so shy. But they called me back and agreed to train me.”
By the end of a three-year apprenticeship in waitering and restaurant management, Springfield was considerably more outgoing – and had fixed on hospitality as a career. He worked at several of the city’s well-known restaurants: the Maple Room, the Crew Club, Good George, and Oyster and Chop. He was part of the team that got Sky City’s Grill restaurant two hats in Cuisine’s good food guide.
He worked long hours, lived with his mum, saved for a house, dreamed of running his own place – one day. Maybe by the time he was 40.
And then, in late 2019, he saw a listing on Trade Me. A tiny, rundown rectangle of hospo space on the most downmarket part of Princes Wharf – down from Euro, the opposite side from the Hilton Hotel.
“It was the only place small enough for me to afford.”
But it was waterfront, with views of the harbour and the bridge – and, he reckoned, of the America’s Cup boats when they came to town.
He started planning themes, and hit on ‘beach house’, after his grandmother’s place at Mt Maunganui. He put together a raw seafood-themed menu – sashimi, oysters, rum-cured salmon, and planned a selection of cocktails.
He cashed up all his savings – around $100,000 – for the lease and the fit-out, and chose good quality stuff – nice glasses, platters, two top-of-the-range ice machines.
Part 3: Auckland Council drags its feet
On August 24, 2020, Springfield applied to the Council to renew the premise’s liquor licence. He couldn’t imagine what could go wrong – he thought he ticked all the boxes. Shop 5, shed 23 had been a bar in the past and the strip was almost exclusively bars and restaurants.
Springfield had years of experience running restaurants, with no problems around excessive alcohol or noise; anyway he was planning an upmarket seafood bar, not a loud dive.
Importantly, the local authority licensing inspector, the police and the medical officer of health all thought it was fine.
The Council’s published timeline told him getting a liquor licence normally took six weeks. If there were objections, it could take 10.
Easy. With that timeframe, Springfield was confident ‘Off the Hook’ could be up and running in November or early December, with any start-up creases ironed out well before the America’s Cup racing started on December 17.
He was wrong.
The council’s licensing team didn’t even hear the application until November 26, three months after Springfield filed it. And Ramsay’s appeal against the granting of the licence means going to court – a potentially lengthy and expensive process.
Springfield reckons he’ll be lucky to be able to sell alcohol before the America’s Cup finishes. Before the dead winter period arrives.
And in the meantime he’s a young guy with his savings on the line. He put opening night off hoping he’d be able to sell alcohol, but eventually opened last weekend.
Still, without that liquor licence, he knows most people won’t come.
And in the meantime he’s bleeding money. He estimates $30,000 so far.
As his father Dave Springfield wrote to council before Christmas:
“Tylor relied on Council’s advice in good faith, with plenty of safety margin, and now is going to suffer significant financial cost as well as emotional stress and harm, while he waits out a Council shut-down period. This is wrong on so many counts and we ask how he can seek compensation to at least cover his costs due to these delays.”
Auckland Council’s alcohol licensing team leader Ritchelle Roycroft says the timeframes on the website are “only a guideline”, and that the objections, the availability of licensing committee members and a backlog of applications after the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Not good enough, Dave Springfield replied in January.
“As a direct result of Council delays in starting the application, Tylor now has a no-revenue period at the busiest time of the year, and additionally has standing costs for rent, opex, insurance, utilities and wages in excess of $13,000 a month.”
Part 4: Frustrated neighbours
David Ramsay and his wife live in an apartment on the fifth and sixth floor of Shed 23, the former warehouse which also houses Springfield’s Off the Hook seafood bar.
The area has mixed use zoning – bars, restaurants and commercial space on the ground floor, owner-occupier apartments, rentals, and Airbnbs above.
And Ramsay is fed up.
Fed up with the noise from bars on the wharf, which sometimes continues late into the night, he says. Fed up with drunk people, with the fights that happen sometimes – though mostly further up the wharf – with the general nuisance of living above hospitality venues.
And the last thing he wants is another bar on the block.
Ramsay chairs the Shed 23 residents committee, and he tells Newsroom he is acting on behalf of other residents, who lodged 34 objections to Springfield’s licence.
He sends us his submission to the Auckland District Licensing Committee hearing last year.
“Fundamentally, the reason why the application has attracted so much opposition is that a number of the existing entertainment premises on Princes Wharf have abused the requirement to respect the needs and interests of other commercial and residential uses.
“The amenity and good order of the area is already so badly affected by the effects of the existing licences that until that situation is addressed, the residents believe no further licences should be issued.”
Part 5: Entrenched positions
Ramsay doesn’t have anything against Springfield per se – or his seafood bar.
But his objections have already delayed the opening for months. Now he’s appealing the Licensing Committee’s decision to grant the licence – meaning the case has to go to court.
Even if Ramsay and the other Shed 23 residents lose again, they could delay the process again with another appeal.
Ramsay must be aware very few people are going to frequent a seafood bar where you can’t have a glass of wine or a cocktail with your oyster.
Without a licence, Off the Hook will struggle to survive.
He says he’s prepared to compromise. Many, if not most, waterfront bars and restaurants have 3am closing on their licences – that’s what Springfield applied for. The chair of the licensing committee gave Off the Hook a 2am closing deadline. Ramsay says he’d settle for 1am and more noise control restrictions.
“I met with Mr Springfield in October 2020 and advised him that if he agreed to the residents’ proposed noise management plan and to 1am closing, all 34 objections would be withdrawn, there would be no need for a hearing, and we would advise the licensing inspector that we were happy for his licence to be issued subject to any conditions which the District Licensing Committee may impose,” he told Newsroom.
“His response was that the residents were being malicious and vindictive and attempting to stifle his business.”
Springfield remembers the meeting differently.
“The first thing he said was ‘We don’t want another bar’. So I know no matter what I do, he’s always going to be unhappy with my business. I’m the new guy on the block.”
Springfield says it just feels unfair. The big boys can open until 3am if they want – several have a licence until 4am, according to the Licensing Inspector’s report.
But Off the Hook customers would have to leave at 1am. If they wanted to carry on drinking after that, they would likely just hop down the road to the competition – Euro, or Crab Shack, or any of the others around the Viaduct Basin.
Of course, most nights it doesn’t matter; the wharf is largely dead at 1am. But having a later deadline would be good for birthdays, stag nights and other functions, he says.
“I just want the same licence as everyone else. They are all bigger and have later trading hours. I will potentially lose business if I have to shut early.”
He says it’s frustrating to have to compromise, when the licensing inspector’s report clearly states that “it is very unlikely that a tavern licence of this size would have any impact in the area, considering the size and nature of the neighbouring venues”.
“I have the right to have a business here,” Springfield says. “Just because someone thinks I should close early, it doesn’t mean I have to.
“Why should I suffer when I haven’t even traded yet?”
Ironically, it’s not just bars where nuisance and noise is a problem – it’s happening at apartments too, particularly those rented out short term. Airbnb renters having parties, and the like.
“Since May 2018, there have been 16 noise complaints made against private residence on Princes Wharf. Of these, four resulted in an excessive noise direction (END), two resulted in non-compliance with an END, and two resulted in a seizure undertaken.”
Part 5: David versus Goliath
Mikey Reynolds is another Princes Wharf resident. He is the former chair of the residents committee of Shed 24, the next building along. He and his partner Lynda have lived on the wharf for more than four years.
They walk past Off the Hook while Springfield and I are chatting, and when they hear what we are talking about, they draw up chairs.
“We can’t wait for Tylor to open,” Reynolds says. “It’s exactly the place we want – seafood and quality wine – in an area of fried pub food at best.”
The middle part of the wharf is increasingly down-at-heel, he says. Maybe a bar like Off the Hook could start to reverse that trend.
“And we are excited that it’s owned by someone who has come from a hospitality background and can see the gap in the offerings. We don’t want a group where it’s all about profits.”
The big boys on Princes Wharf are the Nourish Group. The company has three restaurants on Princes Wharf – Euro, Crab Shack and Coley & Punch, and lists 14 restaurants on its website, including Soul, Andiamo, Shed 5, and Jervois Steak House.
Its offices are also on Princes Wharf.
One of the directors of Nourish Group is Brian Fitzgerald, a former director of Strategic Finance. He was still working with the company when it collapsed in 2008, owing $368 million.
A Stuff article from 2014 suggests Fitzgerald used to own high-profile Wellington restaurants including Shed 5, The Crab Shack and Pravda, alongside celebrity chef Simon Gault. Which is presumably why he’s on the Nourish board.
Fitzgerald is also a director of Dockland Shed Leases, which is Springfield’s final landlord in Shed 23.
And he had involvement in the Hilton Hotel project, also on Princes Wharf, according to the Stuff article.
“I have a long-term vision for down here.”
Springfield wonders, as the licensing application drags on, whether Ramsay’s ultimate goal is to get rid of as many bars as possible on Princes Wharf, by objecting to their alcohol licences.
Covid has already been super-tough for central city hospitality businesses, he says, with turnover down as much as 30 percent, even for people with a licence.
The Y Not restaurant and bar next door to Off the Hook closed down last year.
The irony, Springfield says, is that with the beautification of the Viaduct basin, in particular the tearing down of the Tank Farm oil storage depot, the east side Princes Wharf is more attractive for visitors than it has ever been. The sunset is better and at last you can see the Harbour Bridge.
“I have a long-term vision for down here,” Springfield says. It involves great views, fresh seafood, line-caught by small suppliers, and organic vegetables. “No red meat, no chicken, composting all our food waste.
“We are trying to do the right thing,” he says.
But even good sorts need a glass of wine.
UPDATE: Tylor Stringfield finally got the liquor licence for his bar Off the Hook in late May, nine months after he applied to renew the premises’ existing licence. The irony wasn’t lost on him that he received his approval just in time for the winter season – when business is pretty slow for a waterfront bar.
Meanwhile, the Covid lockdown was another potential setback, but also a positive, he told Newsroom in December (2021).
“Yes I survived! Actually it went well, my rent came up for review while in lockdown, I had an evaluation which almost halved my rent and the landlord accepted it and wished me success.
“So I almost have a good shot to make this work now.”