Marc Weir is a face I’m always happy to see: usually because it is just before I am about to eat some of his delicious offerings at his restaurant, Loretta.
Marc is someone I admire in Wellington. He always looks pulled together for one, with a simple, striped top and plain trousers. We have similar taste in bathroom products (Aesop, all the way). He also has a very engaging Instagram which I love seeing for its almost Louvre-worthy pictures of food. On arrival at Loretta, Marc greets you warmly, although without excessive effusion, and the proceeds to sit you down for one of the best meals in Wellington.
Before Loretta opened, the Capital severely lacked in what I like to call ‘The Gwyneth Factor’ in the restaurant scene: it wasn’t staying up with the play of international food trends, calling for ‘cleaner’ healthier offerings which still tasted great. Loretta was the first to do green smoothies, offer interesting gluten-free salads and find the balance between San-Francisco cool, and Wellington edge.
Despite this seemingly healthy focus, Loretta does the best cakes for desert, most delicious pizzas, flatbreads and the perfect Aperol Spritz I am yet to find matched (even in Italy – what is it with the notion it should have SODA WATER in it?). There truly is something for everyone at Loretta, and it is my favourite place to eat. If I get asked ‘What is your favourite place to eat in Wellington?’ I can never escape from blurting out “Loretta!” I really would consider getting married there as I can think of no better setting in which to have all my loved ones gathered around a table, eating, drinking and laughing together (Marc has, in fact, already bet me to this one! He was married there a few years back).
Marc and I sat down after he’d already turned me down once, to be the honorary 150th Resident of Wellington, and share his story, in his own words.
Lucy Revill: The first question, which I tend to ask everybody, is where were you born?
Marc Weir: Auckland. I grew up in Auckland. Middlemore Hospital, and I moved to Wellington when my parents split up at the age of 12. We lived in Johnsonville. I always thought I would go back to Auckland; I hated coming to Wellington. Yeah, it just became home, I guess. By no means would I ever move back to Auckland, never at all. Wellington is home.
LR: What did your parents do?
MW: My mother is an accountant, and my father was a mechanic. Two children. My brother is younger and he was very close to my father, and I was very close to Mum, so that’s why I moved to Wellington with Mum. My brother stayed in Auckland with my father. We were given that option. I don’t know what parents do when they divorce these days, but we were lucky enough to be given the option of who we wanted to go with, which is nice I think.
LR: What’s your earliest food memory?
MW: There are two. Cooking French toast for Mum and Dad in bed – so that was on electric hobs in the ‘70s. I was probably seven or eight and always burning it. Also burning my wrists because I couldn’t reach the oven. So I would quite often be reaching up and I would have these burn marks on my wrists because I couldn’t quite reach.
LR: Were you cooking from a very young age?
MW: Yeah, I was.
LR: How did that come about?
MW: I don’t know. No one in my family particularly… I mean, they’re all good cooks – Mum’s a good cook. It was just something I wanted to do, I guess, as a child. Career-wise, when I was a boy, I always swung from wanting to be a chef to a teacher, back and forth – probably back and forth five times – and everyone used to say to me, ‘You need to go and join the Navy or the Army and be a chef there because that’s a good start,’ and I was like, ‘No.’
LR: Not you?
MW: I’m not joining the Army or Navy. My auntie was a great primary school teacher. So, yeah, I sort of swung back and forth. I think, looking back on it, I now do both of those: I teach and I cook.
LR: Where did you go to high school?
MW: Takapuna Grammar when I was in Auckland, and Newlands College in Wellington. That was hard. Growing up gay in 1980 was pretty tough; not unusual but just different. So, I went to Newlands College from 14 through to seventh form, and then I got accepted into Teachers’ Training College at the age of 17, which is really young. I would have been teaching when I was 20 or 21. I think that’s far too young. My first placement out of Teachers’ College was at Newlands Intermediate.
LR: Did you train at the Karori campus?
LR: That’s where Mum did some retraining when we were growing up.
MW: Yeah, a year and a half and then I dropped out. Yeah, my first placement was the intermediate school next to the college I had gone to as a seventh-former, and it was hard because they all knew me as a student. The worst two weeks of my life, I think.
LR: I’m really suspicious of people who say that they loved school. I don’t know why, it's so bad of me. It's like, maybe there are people who go through school and genuinely don’t have complicated experiences. They’re just like, ‘It was great from start to finish.’ I’m like, ‘Hm?’
MW: I had some really good friends, but I always thought I was sort of not in the cool group. I was in the cool group; the cool group liked me, if that makes sense. It was odd. They’re still friends.
LR: The cool group?
MW: Yeah. Sean, my best friend, he was my best friend at school for five years. It was good.
LR: What made you get out of teaching?
MW: I went through my teenage years and childhood years wanting to be a teacher or a chef. So when I got accepted into Teachers’ College, I think that was far too young. I hadn’t come out – I hadn’t even learnt about life or whatever was going on – and I think coming out was more important in those years to me than a career, so I just went back to hospitality. My first waiting job was when I was 17 at that hotel at the top of Ngauranga Gorge when it first opened in Newlands: ‘The Wellington Manor Inn’ or something.
LR: Is it open anymore?
MW: Yeah, it's still there; it's right on the top of the Ngauranga Gorge. I went for an interview and I put on my prom jacket and a tie, and off I went because I really wanted a waiting job. She hired me basically on my presentation. She said I was her biggest success. So that was the start of it. Then, dropping out Teachers’ College, I found a number of part-time jobs just to keep me going because that’s when Mum moved back to Auckland and I decided to stay in Wellington by myself. That was my first year at Teachers’ College. Mum and her partner moved back to Auckland. I stayed in Wellington, got a flat and went to Teachers’ College, dropped out, and got some hospitality jobs.
Where was it? A place in Newtown, ‘As You Like It Café’ or something – I can’t remember. I was there for two years and that was good. Then I sort of got my feel for things and got a job at Marbles in Kelburn, which was Ruth Pretty’s ex-restaurant, owned by Stella and Alistair. Then Greg, who used to come in for lunch, was Lois Daish’s business partner at the time and they owned the Brooklyn Café & Grill, and that’s where my career really started. I thought, ‘I really want to work there.’ I used to go in for dinner all the time. I finally got a foot in the door and said, ‘I want a job as a waiter,’ and I worked for Lois for eight years.
LR: Did you ever want to be a chef?
MW: Yeah, always.
LR: That was your foot in the door?
MW: Yeah, always. I think the only reason why I didn’t do professional training as a chef back in 1988, when I was 18, was because I knew more when I was 18 than 18-year-olds I would be in school with, if that makes sense.
MW: I think it's probably a good thing. I think if I trained as a chef, I wouldn’t be in the place that I am now, I would just be cooking. So having a good overview of everything in the business is beneficial, I think.
LR: How did you work your way up the ranks? How did you kind of pull yourself up?
MW: I don’t know. One of my staff members said to me the other day, ‘I’m going to buy a Lotto ticket.’ They said, ‘You’ve already hit the jackpot.’ I said, ‘It's not about that.’ I don’t know, Lucy. It's working hard, I think, that is the key to success.
LR: Thank you for saying that because sometimes I feel like it's all just politics and social connection.
MW: Honestly, I mean, that’s my view. Both me and my brother we were never given anything as children; we always had to work for what we wanted. I may sound like an old father saying that, but if I wanted to buy the coolest shoes for school, I had to pay for them. I mean, when you say unqualified, look around you: I’m obviously qualified at something, but we don’t have anything on paper. My brother is very successful as well, and I have been, and I think it's through hard work. I think hard work and stamina. Before we opened Floriditas, I had really only had two major jobs in my life, for eight years each. So that was working for Lois and that was working James and Julie, and they were eight-year stints.
LR: Before Floriditas, did you work for them separately doing something else?
MW: Lois sold Brooklyn Café & Grill. I was there for eight years. Change of ownership is hard in a business and I said to a friend, ‘I hear James and Julie are opening up another café in Palmerston North in the new library,’ and that was Clarks, and Grant said, ‘Yeah, you should go and run it.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going to run that; I’m not moving to Palmerston North.’ He approached them on my behalf and they rang me and we had an interview. I said I would give them a year’s commitment in Palmerston North, and it was eight years.
LR: Palmerston North will do that to you.
MW: It was a really good eight years. It was like running my own business without any financial commitment – learning, learning more skills and just growing a business. Into year four, the three of us talked about opening up a business together, and then it took four years and we opened up Floriditas.
LR: Gosh, things take time, don’t they, to come out?
LR: What was the inspiration behind Floriditas at the beginning? It's quite different to a lot of other places around town.
MW: I think way back then (14 years ago) we were one of the first people on Cuba Street to offer table service. You know, you come in, you get a glass of water straight away: that polished sort of service. We had set the benchmark, I think, for that sort of service. I think about Loretta today, and I think 14 years ago with Floriditas, everyone thought it was flash and so posh, and all the 20-year-olds (or 25- to 28-year-olds) wouldn’t come in because you got seated and you got given a glass of water and you got a menu. Now, looking at Loretta, in this day and age it's just normal.
LR: So true. Things definitely change. Wellington is sort of like ‘café capital’, but it's more than cafés, really, these days – it's actually kind of cultural. What was the change in your life that prompted you to go out on your own and first start Loretta, and then kind of go completely solo.
MW: That’s a different story again. The building that Floriditas is in wasn’t earthquake-strengthened. We had a really bad landlord, so we had to make another sort of plan. We knew that we could create a bigger restaurant. We knew there was a market out there for a bigger restaurant, especially for brunch. Floriditas is a 75-seater. For brunch in its heyday, at its peak, we were used to 480 for brunch, so we knew the market was out there. So we decided to pursue another space and open up another restaurant, just in case Floriditas had to close. Floriditas got a new landlord; they strengthened the building and did lots of work on it. By that stage we had already sort of created Loretta, the three of us.
LR: Which is where Simply Paris and the string of closed restaurants had been?
MW: Yeah, pretty tragic, really – pretty tragic space. There are a number that own the building, so we’re quite lucky because we’ve developed the building and it's ours. But many people thought we were fools opening up such a big restaurant in Cuba Street.
LR: More fool them.
MW: Then what happened was that our vision and our efforts got engrossed in one restaurant each, so that’s when we decided to just take one restaurant each, really; so Loretta became mine, and Floriditas became Julie’s.
LR: This is weird. It's like the parallel of you and your brother going to live with different parents. I know that sounds really weird.
MW: It is. There’s lots of goodwill. We still own the bakery together, which is the third company. It's called Ugly Duckling Bakery, down Swan Lane; so that’s a different company. Julie and I still work closely together, but we just have our own restaurants now.
LR: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learnt as a self-made man in business, in terms of how you try to grow or improve over a period of time?
MW: Consistency. That’s the biggest thing in running a business. You have to be consistent no matter what time of day it is – everything has to be the same. The pizza has to be the same whether it be lunch or dinner. The service has to be the same, and that’s the biggest thing. That’s probably the biggest thing that I learnt seven years back when the recession was on. Floriditas was at its peak and people were amazed at how busy we still were when there was a recession, and it came down to consistency.
I also think me working the business every day; and working the business every day means I get the respect of my staff. I’ve got a really strong, stable team (touch wood). My management team – Tanase, Erin, and Milan – they’ve been with me for four to six years, which is unheard of in hospitality. We aim to have staff with us for one to two years. Anything above that is brilliant.
LR: Is it hard with the transitory nature of people being students and that sort of thing?
MW: Design students we love. They’ve got great attention to detail, especially for service. I don’t want to sound like an old man here again, but there is a different culture of the New Zealand 20-year-olds coming through. It's all about them at the moment. They don’t want to work. If they do something wrong, it’s not their fault. It’s not just me saying that, it's a number of people. We used to have a policy of not hiring travellers, just because we wanted to have people for two to three years. But the people from Canada, the US, and London have a far better work ethic than that 20-year-old generation at the moment.
LR: Do you make people leave their cell phones behind when they’re doing service?
MW: Yeah. I’ll show you the sign downstairs. It's like, ‘No.’ Even if I had my cell phone – and that’s a work phone when I’m at work, and I’m not on Instagram or social media or anything – I cringe and I hide when I’m on my phone and a customer comes through the door. I don’t think it's a good look. So no, the staff aren’t allowed phones on the floor.
LR: What are some of the best things that Loretta has brought you?
MW: I pinch myself every day that I own something like this by myself. To me, it's my dream restaurant. Going back to when Mum and I were living in Wellington, we used to sit on a Friday night (Johnny no-friends) on Cuba Mall – was it a mall then or a street? I can’t remember – but we used to sit and people-watch in the car on a Friday night when I was 15 or 17. Then we used to go to the Farmers café because their food was half price on a Friday night and Mum was a solo parent. It was a great experience. Way back then, 30 years ago, I would never have imagined that I would be in Cuba Street today. I used to own two restaurants in Cuba Street and now I own one restaurant in Cuba Street.
LR: Is one enough?
MW: One’s enough. The biggest one is enough. I pinch myself. I’m humble and I’m really proud. I work hard. I come in here on my days off when it's closed, like Mondays, and I look around and I think, ‘God, how did I get here?’
LR: I wonder if it's like people always say, ‘dream big’ – like, I sometimes wonder if dreaming big is unhelpful or impractical, but then I see where you are, and as you said, where hard work will get you over a period of time.
MW: I don’t know, Lucy. Call it fate; call it hard work. One of my staff said, ‘You’ve hit the jackpot,’ and it's like: well, no I haven’t really, I’ve worked for everything I own, and I still work.
LR: I think that’s such a nice thing you said, for the customer to come in and see a face, and faces, that are really consistent, because someone leaving can change how you feel about a restaurant or café – and I know that because I’m my mother’s daughter, and she has very strong opinions on these sorts of things. But you know, she loves Erin, and Erin has always treated her really nicely and kindly, and that breeds loyalty I suppose, which is what’s so important to keep business ticking over.
MW: It does. I think about all the regular customers who come in here, and if they see me every Saturday and Sunday running brunch. We did 800 covers yesterday for brunch. It was full on, and I don’t think this restaurant would run successfully if I wasn’t running that brunch shift. Also seeing the likes of Erin every night, seeing the likes of Tamasi at the pass three nights a week – it's that consistency, and I think customers appreciate that as well.
LR: Finally, why do you love living in Wellington?
MW: I would move to San Francisco if I could. Honestly, if I could pick up Loretta and move to San Francisco, I would.
LR: But in the mean time?
MW: I’ll answer your question. One of my biggest sort of proud moments was when a chef said to me, ‘Your food is very California-based.’ Rapt. What was the question?
LR: Why do you like Wellington?
MW: I think it's home. I think it's a cool city. I have my business. I’m proud of it.
LR: Do you have any dogs?
MW: I have two cats.
LR: I was going to say, dogs would be quite hard to juggle with a business, I would imagine, because they need a lot more love and attention.
MW: My husband wants a dog, but we don’t have the space, not with two cats. I had to give up a good dog just because of work.
LR: Yeah, you can’t do everything.
MW: But yeah, I think Wellington is cool. It's home. From my house in Brooklyn – from my living room window – I can see the three flats I rented in my 20s, and I can see the Brooklyn Café & Grill.
LR: That’s so funny. Such a small world.