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Karla Karaitiana 9503640 Photography 2B Magazine Story ‘James Pettengill Tomato Cafe’

The Fruits

of Labour

Interview and Images by Karla Karaitiana

James Pettengill is no stranger to hard work or controversy. Happy to descibe himself as outspoken, He admits to starting his first business in Palmerston North, because he wanted to drive the competitor out of the market. Now 20 years on, he is the heart and soul of ‘Tomato’ Cafe. Voted the Manawatu’s top cafe of 2012. I sat down with James, to see what his thoughts were on small business in the Manawatu.

Spite. I had applied for a job at another gourmet burger shop, knowing I was twice as fast on the grill as their fastest cook, and was declined. I knew I could put the chap who bummed me out of business, so I set out to do so. We did out-compete them in the end and the other gourmet burger shop eventually closed down.

“I have endured worse jobs and my current circumstances are at least my own design.”

You started your hospitality career while living on Waiheke island. What was it that bought you to Palmerston North? And what is it that kept you here?

I came to Palmerston North to study at Massey. It was the easiest university to get into, and the only one that would have me with relatively low entry grades. You were a young man when you set up your first business in Palmerston North. What inspired you to do that at such an early age?

Can you discuss the significance of the ‘forklift pie’ picture above your desk? What does that photograph signify to you?

I was working for a transport company in between businesses after running low on capital after a not so successful attempt at becoming a professional entertainment producer. A good mate of mine drove in one day and handed me a pie, which I thought was strange but nice, as I feed it into my face while driving a forklift he then produced a camera and snapped a shot of me. Later when I opened tomato the photo

resurfaced with the caption “Never Give up” it now sits above my computer screen as a reminder that even when things are really tough, I have endured worse jobs and I my current circumstances are at least my own design.

if you are a creative type being different is by definition success.

You have owned Congo Burgers, The Flying Fish and now Tomato, three completely different businesses, each with their own quirky identities. Would you say that ‘being different’ has been a key to your success?

A previous employer, Tim Addis, who I operated a pack house for. He taught me what hard work really is. Without him I would not have been able to dig deep enough to sustain the 100 hour work weeks for 18 months straight that it took to get Tomato into black ink.

Who has had an influence on your career and what was it that made them inspirational?

“...if you are a creative type being different is by definition success.”

Being different is definitely harder as it involves accepting more risk and effectively leading fashion in the market in which you operate, but if you can stick to your guns and prove your concept it is ultimately more rewarding. You need to remember being different is rewarding but not in a financial sense, if you just want to make money you are better to invest in a franchise and be, well, the same. So it depends on what you define as success,

Can you describe what a typical day in your life looks like?

Wake up 5.30am, shower, kiss the kids good morning, work all day, pop home, read the kids a story, return to work and work all night, have a beer on the way home, kiss the wife good night, wake up again the next morning and repeat the previous day.

That sure sounds like a demanding day! You are incredibly ‘hands on’ with every aspect of day-to-day running of Tomato. Do you think its necessary to your success, or simply a choice on your part?

Absolutely necessary, all my businesses out-compete my competitors by providing extra value to the customer the only way to sustain this is to work harder and keep your staff working harder than the other guy on the street. Waged staff are never as productive, it takes two of them to do what I can do myself in the same time, likewise with standards you always care that little bit more yourself, you need to be there and be seen to ‘give a toss’ by your staff, so they do likewise.

shopping strips of South Auckland 20 years ago, it’s a real shame. Malls offer little in terms of cultural diversity, boutique shopping, or enhancement of a town’s unique character. They are a plague of generic sameness that descends on a once diverse city-scape’s and reduces them to carbon copies of something dreamt up by marketing fairies in Auckland. The decline will eventually halt and a new CBD will evolve in the low rent environment. Look at the likes of Panmure (a South East Suburb of Auckland) and you will see Broadway in 10 years time.

“I’ve always had a knack of inadvertently offending people. It comes with being forthright and outspoken, but it’s just the way I’m wired so I figure the world needs to get use to me not the other way around.”

You have managed to use Tomato as a place to mix politics with coffee, and have yourself been involved with local body elections. They say that you should never talk politics over dinner. What drives you to defy that notion? I’ve always had a knack of inadvertently offending people. It comes with being forthright and outspoken, but it’s just the way I’m wired so I figure the world needs to get use to me not the other way around. One thing I realised early in my working life is that if you are good at what you do, it really is irrelevant if people like you personally or not. When I look out into my busy café and see people who I know for a fact personally can’t stand me enjoying the fruits of my labour, it brings a little ray of warmth to my heart, affirming we are truly doing something right.

What are your thoughts on the inner city, and the increasing number of empty premises? I saw the same thing happen to the suburban

What do you think would encourage change in our inner city?

You need businesses investment, and this requires confidence in our regional economy and our cities management alike. The real issue is that the critical mass to sustain the foot traffic, to warrant investment in either new retail or the space to house new retail has been a monopolized reforestation project on baron land that has been burnt off. It will take a long time and many phases, and a lot hard working optimists will lose a lot of money trying.

Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to start his or her own business in the Manawatu, what would it be? Be realistic about the market here. The Manawatu has a very low average wage, and consumer preferences lag the bigger centers by 5 to 10 years, the typical punter is conservative. The market will punish you if you push established norms too far, so you need to be subtle if you want to innovate or offer up something new. You will ultimately prevail if you can sustain a long lead in time for a radial concept, but you will need deep pockets and a strong constitution in the face of initial rejection. a

Tomato Cafe  
Tomato Cafe  

Magazine Article written in the style of 'The Page' Magazine, Palmerston North