Alumnus Nigel Searancke’s openness to new ideas is holding him in good stead as he leads his catering business through challenging times.
What did you study and why did you choose that degree?
I studied for a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Information Systems in the late 90s. It was at the time when computers and IT were just starting to have an effect on the world and on how businesses operated. Information Systems started to interest me in my first year and so in my second and third years I went down that path.
Very few people had cellphones then, there were no laptops and you were sitting in an actual lecture theatre and given paper notes. We had to copy everything down.
I studied as a mature student. I was 25. After school I worked, went travelling and when I got back to New Zealand, I felt I had to further my education. It was a great thing to do, a great age for me to go back and study after some life experience. I think I got more out of my study and my degree having a bit of life experience behind me.
What was Wellington like when you were a student?
It was just starting to lose its public sector vibe. Some of the head offices of some of the big corporates were starting to move north. Wellington was having a bit of an identity crisis then. It was also a time where the likes of Xero were sprouting up too. Inner city buildings were being transformed into apartments, and the nightlife was moving from Lambton Quay up to Courtenay Place. So it was a real transitional period. I moved into information systems, too, because I could see this transformation was taking place with IT business being encouraged to move into town.
Any memorable lecturers?
I immediately recall accounting lecturer Professor Don Trow. Accounting wasn’t a major part of my degree, but I’ll always remember his lectures. He used to ask his students questions. He used to pick the people in the very back rows—he said if you were sitting in the back row you knew everything. I obviously never sat in the back row. I saw him three or four months ago in a café in town and introduced myself and we had a chat.
You studied Information Systems. Now you’re co-director of one of Wellington’s preeminent catering companies. What prompted the transition from tech to the hospitality industry?
After finishing my degree, I worked in the IT industry for about three years. Sarah, my wife, is a chef and she moved into the catering industry working for another company before deciding to start up her own business. I was working away and just starting to get a bit frustrated with my career progression. It got to the stage where I had to take control and stop complaining and stop moaning about things.
Sarah’s business was taking off, so I took the plunge from working in town to joining forces with her. And it went from there. I joined the business about 20 years ago and Sarah Searancke Catering has been going for 28 years now.
How have you and your staff been faring during COVID-19?
We’ve been faring well. It was initially a very, very stressful time for everyone, just like it has been for everyone. It was a real shock to our business. We were looking at an extremely busy quarter coming up and in fact the day that the lockdown was announced, we had a full team of chefs in our kitchen preparing for a large conference. That production had to finish straight away and within about three hours everyone was gone. By the end of the week we were all in our bubbles.
Being in the catering industry, like tourism and large events, we are going to be one of the most heavily affected industries. Our team are under no illusions about the impact this will have on our industry. It has been a big shock and we are still at the beginning of it.
It was quite surreal even the week before the lockdown was announced, just watching the work get stripped from our books. We had a full year coming up and every day it just got peeled off. It was quite an experience.
You’ve established a new home delivery business “Let’s Cook” during the lockdown—tell us about what led to that decision? And how has it been going?
As the lockdown went on, one of our long-standing staff members said he’d been thinking about home delivery meals and had been keen to start something for a while. So we gave him a budget and he came back two weeks later with a website he designed, a plan and he presented the concept. It was a great idea and we moved from there. It was very much a staff-driven initiative.
We’re delivering a whole meal that people can put together. We’re supporting local suppliers. You have choice—you can select your own meals; you can buy meals any day of the week—and we deliver seven days of the week.
We’re into our fourth week now [at the time of interview] and it’s going well. We had a really awesome first couple of weeks, and our sales have been getting busier and busier so it’s a really good sign. While we’ve seen some sprouts of catering activity coming up in July, I don’t think the catering industry will fully come back until November or December. So it’s been great to come up with a product that we could launch quickly and that would last in the market for four to six months, or that we can run alongside our catering activity.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge in your industry as a result of COVID-19? What do you think the Wellington events scene will look like in 2021?
To survive over winter is key is for the hospitality industry. Once we come out of winter, towards the end of the year into next year, the public will be back, will be spending. But the biggest threat to the hospo industry right is winter and just surviving. There needs to be a real shift to installing confidence among the public as COVID-19 cases come down. So people come back to working in town, and the public come back to sense of normality as soon as possible.
Longer term, I’m optimistic. Our biggest client is Venues Wellington—TSB, Shed 6 and Michael Fowler Centre. There are signs of activity in July but come October, November, December, it’ll grow from there. Next year will be a really big year for us. That in itself has its own challenges, we need to survive the winter, but we also need to have relevant experience on hand and be prepared for when growth hits again next year.