Leigh Sawmill Café – 20th Birthday

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They say it takes a village to raise a child – and it took a family to transform a working sawmill into one of the country’s favourite venues to eat, drink and watch eclectic live music. Trinity Roots bassist Rio Hunuki-Hemopo has played many times over the years, along with other repeat local acts such as Cornerstone Roots, Tami Nielson, Nathan Haines and Jakob. Hunuki-Hemopo says, “the Sawmill is unique in many ways but it’s the location and vibe that really set it apart.”

He also credits the staff: “The constants that I think make the place are Ed, Ben, Susan (general manager and music director) and the crew that the Sawmill attracts. It’s amazing that another decade has passed and the hospitality and enthusiasm is as generous as ever.”

Brothers Ed and Ben Guinness are the creative force behind the business, but the Mill has always been a collective effort, and a strong team has allowed them to step back from restaurant operations in recent years.

In the beginning both Guinness sisters were instrumental too. Nicola embellished the place with her beautiful furnishings and Annabelle, in the kitchen, produced edgy food with a focus on freshness. The siblings’ parents Grattan and Marguerite also had both hands on deck.

Meanwhile, Ben’s then-wife Jane Cresswell raised the bar with her movie industry expertise and Annabelle’s husband Phil Randle oversaw restaurant management and front of house. But, says Phil, a dive shop for Goat Island was “the original catalyst for a business in the area”.

The Guinness family bought the still-operating sawmill and ran the shop from a corner site. The last of the log processing was used to build the café; two years later it completely took over their focus.

Phil says the Mill “established itself quickly as a destination for Aucklanders” and the initial traction was down to two factors: “Ed driving the music, and Annie’s outstanding food.”

“The early days were wild,” says Annabelle. There were Christmas theatre productions, medieval banquets – and huge parties. Noise control wasn’t a concern and a couple of thousand people could pack the upper field to roam between three stages of dance music.

Annabelle left the kitchen 14 years ago – aside from guest appearances and consultancy – and says the current kitchen team, led by Amie Hooper, is doing a fantastic job. “The Mill serves beautiful, generous food. They never scrimp on quality.”

Salad greens and herbs come direct from the garden down the hill, where Ben and Ed have installed a prototype for a worm-based composting unit designed by local Coll Bell. This produces a concentrated ‘worm juice’ fertiliser to be recycled around the sprawling, verdant property.

But the soil was barren in the beginning, leached by huge piles of woodchip. Every tree, shrub and flower you now see blooming was hand planted and hard-won. Green-fingered Marguerite once laid a lavender boundary around the café but when Dave Dobbyn came to play, her garden was trampled by the crowd.

Marguerite’s diaries tell of her myriad duties in the early days: sewing buttons, photocopying menus and making fudge from her family recipe. The patriarch of the family is distantly related to the Irish brewers of Guinness, but Marguerite’s pedigree lies in confectionary. Her father and brothers established the Van Camp brand in the late sixties, but sold the business to Cadbury in the eighties.

Nowadays, Grattan can still be seen at most gigs and in the morning you might see Marguerite flitting about with flowers to adorn the café’s chunky wooden tables. They agree the most rewarding aspect of the 20-year tenure is the fact that “everybody is still together”.

The Mill was not the family’s first joint venture, however; they cut their teeth at Oblio’s, a seminal gourmet restaurant on Ponsonby Road. Annabelle was trailblazing in the kitchen, while Nicola was bringing flair to front of house. Phil managed the business – started by his brother – and the young Guinness brothers learnt the ropes as Marguerite and Grattan helped out in every department. It was then, says Phil, that the family realised hospitality could be a viable career.

As for the future, the museum aspect of the Mill is under development. At the moment you can look through internal windows at some of the original gear, and the ancient generator can be fired up when needed; soon you’ll be able to see the saws turning at five revs a minute. There’s also excitement about potential uses for the building freed up since the unaffiliated Sawmill Brewery took their business to Matakana.

Hunuki-Hemopo speaks for many when he says, “Congratulations – here’s to another two decades of great times and music at the Sawmill!!”