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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BusinessJanuary 15, 2022

Mocktails, margarine sculptures and memories: Has Valentines still got it?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

In its heyday, Valentines was New Zealand’s leading chain of licensed buffet restaurants. But how does the once go-to birthday party venue hold up in 2022? Jihee Junn pays a visit, and talks to its new owners, to find out.

If you grew up in the 90s or early 2000s, going to Valentines was the ultimate dining experience. As a kid, it felt like a place that was fancy and upscale: a place where you were shown to your table and waiters would come round to clear your plates and ask if you liked your meal. A place where oysters and steak were as plentiful and abundant as the ice cream machine serving up vanilla soft serve. A place where tiny glass cups filled with trifle and green jelly adorned the dessert cabinets like sugary jewels. And a place where brightly coloured sodas masqueraded as cocktails for kids and margarine magically turned into larger-than-life works of art.

Like most people, for my family going to Valentines was reserved for only the most special of occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. Its North Shore branch was a staple for celebratory meals for families like mine, until one day – for no real discernible reason – it wasn’t. By the time the 2010s rolled around, we stopped going altogether. After that, I never went or thought of it again, and judging by its restaurant numbers (just four by the end of 2018), I certainly wasn’t the only one.

The Valentines of old (Photo: Supplied)

In its heyday, Valentines was New Zealand’s leading chain of licensed buffet restaurants. Launched by couple Geoff and Marina MacRae in Pakuranga, Auckland on Valentine’s Day in 1989, the business quickly grew to more than 18 locations across New Zealand and Australia. It dominated the all-you-can-eat buffet industry of the 90s, but by the time the new millennium rolled around, cracks were already starting to appear. 

Internally, the business faced heavy financial losses and fallouts with franchisees, mostly as a result of its rapid trans-Tasman expansion. At the same time, New Zealand’s food scene had started to shift, becoming bigger, more competitive and more diverse than ever before. Diners were also becoming more conscious of their health and the quality of their food, which didn’t bode well for Valentines’ array of roast meats, drenched salads and garish desserts. Finally, coupled with the rise of fast casual dining and the demand from social media platforms for new and aesthetically pleasing dishes, the buffet had slowly yet surely been pushed to the margins, with institutions like Pizza Hut’s all-you-could-eat restaurants failing to survive at all

On its 30th anniversary in 2019, the Valentines empire – once more than two dozen strong – had been whittled down to just four locations, all located in the upper North Island. It had become a shell of its former self, and few would’ve been surprised to witness its eventual demise. But behind the scenes, things were changing: the business was getting a second life. 

The margarine sculptures of years gone by (Photos: Supplied)

In 2017, Valentines came under new ownership, with Auckland-based brothers Ravi and Ron Lal taking the business under their wing. With the former as master franchisor and the latter as marketing manager, the pair realised that while Valentines was an excellent concept, the business had to keep up with the times, pointing out a number of flaws, such as the lack of consistency between the restaurants, the food they offered, and the franchise system itself.

“Coming from a sales and marketing background, I was looking for a chance to really brighten up something that was so iconic,” says Ron Lal. ”We really wanted to help revive the brand and bring its nostalgic feel to the modern era … We couldn’t really be stuck in the old set-up – we needed to move on with the times.”

Lal says the first step in turning the brand around was to reopen its Rotorua branch after it had closed down back in 2015. Under new management, the restaurant launched with an upgraded menu – now standardised across all Valentines restaurants – featuring a mix of classics as well as more dishes from east and south Asian cuisines. According to franchise owner Dinesh Sharma, the restaurant was running at full capacity for its first four months, eventually increasing its seating from 200 people to 240 in an effort to meet the boom in demand.  

Soon after, the team got to work on launching a new, albeit smaller branch in Christchurch, partnering with food display specialists FPG to pilot a more modern look and feel for the brand while incorporating elements like live cooking. Once the pilot store had opened to much success at the end of 2019, Lal says it then took that concept and brought it up to Auckland, applying it on a larger scale for its flagship North Shore branch. 

The new-look Valentines

Curious and intrigued by this supposedly new-look Valentines, a friend and I decided to check things out ourselves, venturing out for a weekday lunch one December afternoon. Neither of us had visited a Valentines for an indiscernible amount of years, and we quickly got to speculating what we might still find: would the ice cream machine be there? Would the chocolate fountain be running? Would they still be putting balloons inked with personalised messages out on tables? Judging from a quick look at its revamped website, photos showed an interior boasting chic lighting, trendy signs, and a wall of modern exposed brick. Was this really the sort of place you’d expect to find a margarine sculpture of a giant majestic eagle in flight

Within minutes, we realised that despite the outward makeover, very little had changed. The Valentines of our childhood was all still there: the desserts, the balloons, the roast meats and salads, even all the classic kids’ “cocktails” that made us feel like grownups when we were young. We decided to order a deep blue sea for old time’s sake and were met with an aquamarine 90s throwback – maraschino cherry, tiny paper umbrella, and a concoction of pineapple juice and blindingly blue liquid food colouring poured on top. 

The classic deep blue sea kids cocktail, and the soft serve (Photos: Jihee Junn)

At the buffet, where a margarine sculpture of a miniature dragon sat perched above the seafood section (fun fact: sculpted by Tim Aspinall using a “special” margarine that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, these sculptures last up to six months, says Lal), we were met with all the usual classics, plus a few new and surprising additions: Korean-style fried chicken, some Indian curries, vegetarian dumplings, and a mushroom and pine nut pizza. In the dessert aisle, where the chocolate fountain still gushed at full throttle, we headed straight to the ice cream machine that oozed out what was, frankly, a grainy, half-melted soft serve mess. We kind of liked it in a sickly sweet sort of way though: like Aptamil baby formula mixed with condensed milk. 

While the food overall was a bit hit-and-miss, I wasn’t exactly expecting to find world-class cuisine at a $30 all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. The important thing was that I still somehow left feeling full and content, knowing that despite some changes, Valentines was, at its core, its playful, kitschy yet comforting self – the same nostalgic fever dream of years gone by where yes, you can still dine free on your birthday.

“Some staples were always going to be part of the buffet, like the chocolate fountain or the ice cream machine – we never really looked at taking those away,” says Lal. “We did consider changing the name at one point, but then we thought no, the Valentines name itself holds a lot of value. When you say Valentines buffet people click on right away and say ‘oh, my parents used to take me’ or ‘I went for my fifth birthday’, and that’s something that’s really invaluable.”

The lineup (Photo: Jihee Junn)

Despite its humble resurgence in recent years, Valentines, like so many hospitality businesses, is still facing an uncertain future. Due to Covid-19, buffets in particular are in a precarious position, and as recently as November, one of Auckland’s most popular and loved buffets, Paradise, announced it would be closing its $20 all-you-could-eat restaurant for good. 

During lockdown, Lal says the business pivoted to takeaway shareboxes customers could order online in an effort to stay afloat. “Obviously Valentines isn’t really known for takeaways, and it’s not like a McDonald’s or KFC, of course, but it was still something that helped keep the tills ticking and people employed,” he says. 

“These were things we had to do because business was shut, but they actually started to become quite popular. Luckily, it’s been a positive outcome for us all.”

While Covid-19 put a dent in Valentines’ plans to refurbish its remaining restaurants in Manukau, Hamilton and Rotorua with its brand new look (as well as opening its sixth branch in Taupō), Lal says the company is still intent on following through on these plans within the next few years. “But again, Covid has taught us a lot, so we’re in the middle of planning something that could be a bit of a spinoff to Valentines buffet as well,” he says. “It’s in its planning stages at the moment, but we have to wait and see what the market really wants and needs at this stage.

“We’re just trying to keep the business alive and ticking by capitalising on this iconic brand,” he says. “We want it to be a staple for every little kid growing up now just like it was for so many of us. We’re just glad we can keep that buffet experience alive.”

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