Down from 37 at its peak, there are now just eight Cobb & Co branches in New Zealand. With plans afoot to return the chain to its former glory, Georgia Munn swings open the red saloon doors to see if the childhood favourite has still got it.
Whatever happened to Cobb & Co? Its hallowed red saloon doors still loom large in our collective memories. As a nation, we’ve spent many joyful evenings mainlining pure food colouring in the form of the ahead-of-its-time traffic light mocktail, putting Cobb crunchies on every finger, and being grossed out by Mum’s shrimp cocktail.
In the dining landscape of my 90s childhood, it stood head and shoulders above other family-friendly chains – it was more fun than the rootin’ tootin’ Lone Star, and food was less likely to have been sneezed on than at the Pizza Hut buffet.
The first Cobb & Co’s was opened at the South Pacific Hotel in 1973 by New Zealand Breweries (now Lion), back when hotels had a monopoly on on-premise drinking. The family-friendly restaurant serving beer and affordable meals took off, and at its height there were 37 around the country, mainly in hotels and motor inns.
Listen: Remember when deciding between a traffic light, a pink panther or a blue lagoon at Cobb & Co. was one of life’s toughest decisions?
Bring back Cobb
Spotting a Cobb & Co is rarer now, the endangered chain mainly sighted from car windows on regional road trips.
The chain was bought in 2012, and the owners recognised the huge potential for a revival. In 2016, a Cobb & Co rep told Stuff they’d have 30 restaurants within the next few years. It’s clear this hasn’t materialised – while there’s been some growth in the chain, with new restaurants opening in Papanui and Porirua, there are now just eight in the country.
Dylan Frewin heads up training and hospitality for the group. He says Cobb’s expansion is still in the works, but has been sluggish because the chain has pivoted to using high-tech kitchen gear and a prep model inspired by fast food chains.
“We’ve taken inspiration from McDonald’s and the idea of food cooked at the push of a button. We have no pots, no pans, and no paper dockets,” he says.
Frewin says their systems mean meals are identical, regardless of whether you’re eating at Cobb & Co in Dunedin or Whakatāne, and fostering this sense of the familiar is essential to Cobb’s success.
“A lot of New Zealanders just don’t feel comfortable at a restaurant when they see quail breast with guava reduction and mushroom ice cubes on a menu,” says Frewin. “But we find if you treat someone like a VIP, they start acting like one. There are a whole lot of people in this country who feel at home at Cobb & Co. They want a nice meal and to be treated with dignity, and they come to us in significant numbers.”
(It was about here that I started to reflect with some discomfort on the attitude I’d had going into this conversation. I thought this whole thing would be quite tragic and funny, that the food would be shit and we’d all have a jolly great laugh about it. Was I really so eager to laud the fact that I’m a quail-breast-with-guava-reduction kind of gal over the folk who just want a nice, familiar meal?)
Frewin and I reminisced about childhood meals at Cobb, but he says the brand’s significant nostalgia value also presents a challenge.
“They say nostalgia’s got to be as good, and then better. It’s a double-edged sword. We do address this and we have some legacy products on the menu, like the schnitzel and our Cobb burger, but we’re more focused on the product and experience we’re selling today.”
Frewin told me that all Cobb & Co staff are trained to greet diners with a “welcome back”, neatly addressing the brand’s reputation while bringing customers into the present.
Behind the crunchies
Wellington-based policy adviser Delia Cormack has insight into how Cobb magic is made, having worked at the Northwood branch in Christchurch for four years as a teenager. She fondly remembers the never-ending hot chips, and surprisingly good pay.
However, “most things kid-related at Cobb & Co were kinda gross. There was a kids’ playroom down the back of the restaurant and everything in it was so sticky and smeared in kid spit, grease from hot chips and salt,” says Cormack.
She says she’ll never forget the smell of “pink vomit” after witnessing a kid power chuck a pink panther – made from lemonade, cream and raspberry cordial – all over a table. Frewin too had called the pink panther “disgusting”, and said that drinks like the traffic light are less about actual flavour and more about the experience. For the record, Dylan says the team isn’t sure if the traffic light was invented at Cobb, but says they certainly popularised it.
Cormack also enjoyed special occasion meals at Cobb as a kid, and thinks the chain’s enduring appeal comes down to its status as a site of celebration.
“There was such a huge amount of excitement being able to go and eat at a restaurant, order a fried meal that came out in a little paper cart, order a traffic light, take home a tiny plastic giraffe and paper umbrella to treasure, and sit squished in a tiny booth seat with the rest of your family. It was pretty much the pinnacle of dining experiences as a child.”
The actual dining experience
While my conversations with Cormack and Frewin had offered me a bit of optimism, I still thought that actually visiting Cobb & Co was going to be bad and sad. But we were warmly greeted at the New Plymouth branch with the fabled “welcome back”, setting the tone for a meal that put me in my place.
Nestled into a cosy booth in a dark corner, we worked our way through Cobb’s most iconic dishes. There is no doubt that the food is good. Our group of five all unashamedly loved our meals, even the token vegetarian. Everything tasted like your mum’s very best home cooking, if your mum wasn’t so conscious of the butter and salt, and had Monteith’s Black on tap.
The pork roast came with a mountain of roast veg and plenty of gravy, with extra crackling on the side. I hear this dish is particularly popular with pensioners, to which I say “hand me my gold card”. The legendary Cobb schnitzel was truly delicious, crispy and crackly and salty and oozing with molten cheese. And the Cobb burger was as good as any cheeseburger, formulaic and familiar and unremarkable in the best way.
The traffic jam cocktail was a bargain at $15.90. A lurid fishbowl of colourful slushies was topped with a vodka shooter and some of those plastic animals, plus an inverted vodka RTD. It took all five of us over an hour to finish it.
The restaurant, a tad dated but certainly cosy, was filled with framed menus and ads from Cobb’s rich history, as well as a games area for kids (a few PlayStations in a corner) and a games area for adults (somewhat awkwardly, a TAB lounge).
Cobb & Comeback
Cobb & Co’s Dylan Frewin left me on a hopeful note: the chain’s comeback is still in the works. In fact, he says they have more people interested in franchises than they could possibly handle. Frewin says the company has some strategies in place to lower the barrier of entry for potential franchisees, adding that people are desperate to open them in Auckland and Hamilton.
“The power of the brand is absolutely absurd. When we open new restaurants, there are lines down the street.”
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