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The notice on the door of Cotto
The notice on the door of Cotto

KaiDecember 1, 2023

What’s going on at Cotto and the Leigh Sawmill Cafe?

The notice on the door of Cotto
The notice on the door of Cotto

Cancelled bookings, ‘temporary’ closures, ‘unforeseen circumstances’ and yet no official announcement from anyone linked to the popular Auckland businesses. What’s going on?

Two high-profile Auckland eateries linked to a prolific hospitality figure have closed unexpectedly, leaving customers in the dark as to why and for how long.

A notice has been pinned to the door of Karangahape Rd pasta bar Cotto since last week, apologising to “valued customers” and blaming “unforeseen circumstances” for being unable to open. “We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused,” the note reads.

Meanwhile, in Leigh, the coastal community north of the city, the much-loved Leigh Sawmill Cafe (not to be confused with the nearby Sawmill Brewery) has also closed its doors, with staff being told to hand in their keys to the venue on Friday last week.

The link between the two is Craig Anderson, an Auckland businessman involved in a number of hospitality businesses in the region. According to the Companies Register, Anderson is a current director and/or shareholder of 32 different companies, including Cotto Karangahape Road Ltd, which covers the bar side of Cotto, and Sawmill Holdings Ltd, trading as Leigh Sawmill. Another company, Speakeasy Holdings Ltd, covers the restaurant operations of Cotto.

An application by Inland Revenue for the liquidation of Speakeasy was submitted to the High Court in July. This was set down to be heard in September, according to a gazette notice. Inland Revenue applies to liquidate businesses over unpaid taxes. It’s not clear what the current status of the liquidation application is. 

Leigh Sawmill Cafe in easier times (Photo: RNZ)

Cotto, noted for its handmade pasta and intimate setting, quickly became a firm favourite in Auckland after opening its doors in 2018. A 2022 review by Jesse Mulligan in Viva described it as a “trusty old friend”, while Metro celebrated its sharing plates and vegetarian options in its 2019 restaurant awards.

Would-be diners at Cotto have posted on social media this week about being having their bookings cancelled with little to no notice. A number of Facebook posts show people reporting their group bookings had been cancelled, with one customer saying the restaurant had closed “unexpectedly”.

In an email shared on Reddit, a diner was told that Cotto would not be “operational” this week. “The owner is doing everything to get us back up and running ASAP,” said the message. “I know this is last minute and the inconvenience it will undoubtedly cause you [sic].”

While Cotto’s website is still online, bookings are currently unavailable. “We are working to have this situation rectified as soon as possible,” a message on the booking page reads.

A source with knowledge of the situation told The Spinoff that staff arrived at work as normal last Tuesday, but by 5pm the notice had been put on the door confirming the closure. They described the sudden shutdown as “heartbreaking”, especially given Cotto’s popularity and perceived financial success.

One of Anderson’s other businesses is Anthology bar, next door to Cotto. Anthology is understood to be cancelling event bookings with short notice.

Attempts by email to reach Anderson were unsuccessful. Approaches were also made to Cotto’s head chef, John Pountney, who did not want to speak.

Fresh pasta sheets at Cotto (Photo: Supplied)

As The Spinoff reported in 2020, Anderson was also running Leigh Sawmill Cafe north of Auckland, having leased it from the long-running venue’s owners five years ago. 

The venue, once famous for its ability to lure Auckland’s gig-goers beyond Karangahape Road, had “slowly turned to shit” since Anderson took over, according to one former regular. They complained that the quality of food had become unpredictable and that staff turnover was high, along with something harder to put a finger on – “bad vibes”.

A staffer told The Spinoff that they were told to hand in their keys to the venue last Friday, but there was little clarity on what would happen next. “I love that place. I spent a lot of time there. And I feel a lot has to do with the money.” There was a sense that the closure at least ends a difficult time, they said.

“It’s good that Craig is out because unfortunately, he didn’t care about the community, and the place, and unfortunately, that started reflecting on the business.”

It’s understood that Anderson stepped away from the Leigh Sawmill Cafe several months ago, returning it to the previous managers Benjamin and Edward Guinness, the sons of the venue’s founder Gratton Guinness, who died in 2018. On August 23, 2023, Leigh Sawmill Cafe Ltd, which has the Guinness brothers listed as directors, was removed from the Companies Register. Anderson’s company, Sawmill Holdings Ltd, remains.

The Spinoff approached both Guinness brothers for comment via email but received no response. A call to the company listed as the registered office of the Leigh Sawmill Cafe was not answered.

The venue had been struggling to maintain its opening hours for some months, with posts on Facebook referencing bookings having to be cancelled, “complications with the business” and a “business restructure”. There had been phone and internet problems, and on October 19, Leigh Sawmill posted in a local Facebook group to say “we are scrambling to get the business up for the long weekend”. One commenter on the post noted that it was “pretty hard to open when the beer has run out”.

On November 18, a Facebook post said Sawmill would be open for a gig that weekend, advising people to have dinner sorted before going, and to bring cash due to internet problems. Last weekend, the doors remained closed. The three times The Spinoff called this week, no one answered the landline. On social media, there have been reports of recent gig cancellations at the venue.

The sudden closures of Cotto and the Leigh Sawmill are not without precedent. Earlier this year, high-end Auckland restaurant Pasture closed similarly without warning. While Pasture’s demise was permanent, it’s possible Cotto and Leigh Sawmill will return, The Spinoff understands. Cotto’s venue and events manager, Nadia Coombes, told Stuff that Cotto was undergoing a “change in ownership process” and would not reopen “any time within the next two weeks at least”, while it’s understood the owners of Leigh Sawmill hope to reopen too.

For now, K Rd will be without Cotto at least for the busy pre-Christmas period, and as the summer gig season approaches, all eyes will be on the doors of Leigh Sawmill. 

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