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The rise and fall of Cotto (Image: Tina Tiller)
The rise and fall of Cotto (Image: Tina Tiller)

KaiFebruary 8, 2024

Inside the fast rise and faster collapse of the acclaimed K Road restaurant Cotto

The rise and fall of Cotto (Image: Tina Tiller)
The rise and fall of Cotto (Image: Tina Tiller)

The Auckland eatery closed its doors with no warning in late 2023, prompting concerned customers to ask the simple question: what went wrong? Stewart Sowman-Lund finds out.

There was no official announcement that Auckland restaurant Cotto had closed after five years. The hugely popular, and critically lauded, Karangahape Road pasta bar had been heading into the busy pre-Christmas period when its doors suddenly shut.

Speculation first started to spread on Facebook and Reddit, with concerned patrons questioning why their group bookings had been cancelled at such short notice. Then, a note was seen pinned to the outside of the restaurant blaming “unforeseen circumstances”, though the precise details of this were not made public. There was no indication if the closure would be permanent and it’s understood staff weren’t even aware the restaurant wouldn’t be opening when they turned up for work on November 21. A few days later, the locks were changed. 

As of today, the restaurant remains closed and The Spinoff has seen dozens of messages sent to Cotto’s Facebook page that have been only auto-responded to with a generic message. 

In early December, The Spinoff published a report piecing together what was known about Cotto’s unexpected closure at the time. The restaurant’s owner Craig Anderson was also connected to other hospitality businesses that mysteriously closed in the same week, including Anthology Bar, Curfew and the since reopened Leigh Sawmill Cafe. 

The Spinoff has since spoken to 10 people linked to Cotto and these affiliated businesses. Some were only willing to speak on background, or on the condition of anonymity, and were mostly employed in the restaurant’s early years. They painted a picture of a tumultuous behind-the-scenes work environment, one at odds with Cotto’s successful and award-winning public image. At least one staff member said he was unable to speak about the situation for legal reasons.  

There are allegations of unpaid tips to staff, overdue bills, a confusing managerial structure and high staff turnover at Cotto. Former workers from other businesses linked to Anderson have made similar claims. Anderson told The Spinoff via text that he was “away” and so could not speak directly with us, but was “happy to help” with our inquiries and directed us to contact his Cotto email address. In a written statement, he confirmed that Cotto had closed, blaming the “unprecedented challenges faced by the hospitality industry over the last three years”. However, he did not address many of the The Spinoff’s questions. “We do not comment on purported comments by unattributed sources,” he said.

Several former staff expressed surprise that Cotto lasted as long as it did given the issues behind the scenes, many of which first presented in the restaurant’s early days. It was a “house of cards”, one said, and it could have come tumbling down at any moment. And on a Tuesday in November 2023, it did. 

It’s May 2017 and Cotto, a small pop-up pasta store, has opened within Karangahape Road’s Bar 69.

“Terrible name, I know,” said Jack, who did not want his last name used. He had been the venue’s general manager at the time. “The bar was basically getting driven into the ground… so we came up with the idea to do the pop-up,” he explained to The Spinoff last month. Highly regarded chefs Hayden Phiskie and John Pountney, who had been running the Refreshment Room in Titirangi at the time, had been brought in to launch the new venture. Pountney remained with Cotto until its closure, while Phiskie left after three years to launch the similarly acclaimed Ada in Grey Lynn, and later Bianca in Ellerslie.

“We knew that they were good chefs, they just weren’t getting the recognition that they deserved because they were so far out [of the city]. So we decided to have them in – they walked in and saw the space and loved the industrial look,” Jack said. “We decided then and there we’d do a two-week pop-up.” 

That “industrial” look meant exposed pipes on the ceiling, with dark metallic colours contrasting with the warmth of wooden tables, intimate booths, mood lighting. In the evenings, there was a perfect view of the sun setting over Auckland. “The space is warm and welcoming without being fussy,” is how a Cuisine review summarised it. In short: Cotto had a “vibe” that felt fancier than the price of the food suggested. 

Cotto’s industrial interior (Photo: Facebook)

The menu changed from day to day, offering the likes of fermented chips with feta and oregano, maltagliati with beef cheek ragu and gnocchi with kūmara. At the start, prices were surprisingly affordable, especially when compared with similar establishments – plates ranged from $5 to just $20.

Jack told The Spinoff it was clear from day one that Cotto was something special. “We opened with the idea of two [weeks] and then it went up and up and up and we decided it would be stupid to close,” he said. On the first night, the waitlist was nearly two hours long.

The pop-up was soon extended for three months and then until the end of 2017. Not long after, Bar 69 was gone completely, with Cotto taking over the whole space. Craig Anderson, who was Bar 69’s owner, became the owner of Cotto when it took over the venue. 

A Viva review by Jesse Mulligan in 2018 helped bolster awareness for the fledgling restaurant. “I think we were the first restaurant in a few years to get 19 out of 20 and from there it just never stopped. It was packed every night,” Jack said. 

It was actually an 18 out of 20, still a hugely commendable review. In it, Mulligan wrote about the “bad taste” that had been left after a previous visit to Bar 69. “I reviewed it so badly that I used to dread biking past the place each day, and it was a great relief when I saw that the kitchen had been closed down and taken over a few months later,” wrote Mulligan. 

Reflecting on this to The Spinoff, Mulligan described Cotto as a “rare” thing in hospitality. “A restaurant that was full from the word go, with everybody who ate there immediately telling everybody they knew to visit,” he said. “It was buzzy… at the time I reviewed it, the two biggest stars in the country [Lorde and Jacinda Ardern] had tables there the same week.”

The restaurant would go on to win Metro’s best new restaurant award. The year after, in 2019, it placed second in the best casual restaurant category. “We’ll happily take our spot on its waitlist for chefs Hayden Phiskie and John Pountney’s takes on fresh Italian pasta, which changes so often, their religious following on Instagram is no doubt born from wanting to see what they’ve come up with next,” Metro wrote. 

It wasn’t just a hit with critics either. One former staff member told The Spinoff that for a restaurant comparable in size to Cotto, bringing in $30,000 a week would be “really good”. According to two former workers, Cotto was making twice as much. “We’d turned it around dramatically,” one said, comparing Cotto with Bar 69. “We were doing revenue of $5,000 to $6,000 on a Wednesday night; before that they were doing like $200.”

Publicly, Cotto was a huge success. It was known as much for its food as it was for the long wait times for a table during peak hours. “Everything was going so well, we were on such a high and making everyone so much money… we were the talk of the town,” one former staff member told The Spinoff. 

But behind the scenes, former staff close to Cotto’s leadership have alleged an unpleasant work environment. “From the outside, it looked like the best place ever, like a really functional place,” one worker, who was there in Cotto’s early days, said. “On the inside, it was just mad. It would be so interesting when people would come in and think it was this wonderful place, which it was, but I was like ‘if only you could see the shambles’.” 

Red flags started to present “very early on”, said another former staffer. “We almost had our blinders on just because of how well the restaurant was doing.”

In the early days of the business, issues with tips not being shared among workers was the most consistent concern raised by former staff members. “We were in control of the cash tips so they were there with the staff on the night. But the electronic ones, a lot of it we didn’t see,” one told The Spinoff. 

As the issues persisted, they recall telling regular patrons not to tip unless they had physical cash. “It got to a point where I was like, ‘fuck it’. I would say don’t bother tipping us cause we won’t get it,” they said.

Other former workers, also at Cotto from the beginning, said there were times when cash for the till would disappear overnight from the safe. “That happened a lot,” one said. “We’d come in any given morning and there’d be no float for the day and so someone would have to walk down to the bank and try and get money out,” another said, adding that this would be “absolutely” unusual at any other hospitality business.

Anderson told The Spinoff that tips were paid “on a weekly basis and distributed by the general manager”. However, The Spinoff has seen an email sent to Anderson and the general manager, Ed Hurrell, complaining of a “lack of transparency and effort” in addressing unpaid tips. “We have been patiently inquiring about these tips for well over five months now,” read the email, sent in July 2020. For a restaurant as successful as Cotto, this would have amounted to “hundreds of dollars” for each front-of-house worker, The Spinoff was told. Hurrell declined to comment for this story. A Facebook message to a different manager raising similar concerns was also seen by The Spinoff. 

Two staff members recalled that money issues got “so bad” that on one weekend, workers decided not to turn up in protest. “Our entire staff did not come to work on I think a Friday and/or a Saturday night – our busiest nights of service – because we hadn’t been paid [our tips]. The restaurant was shut,” one worker said. It’s understood this happened less than two years after Cotto first launched. The Cotto team was small at the time, so there was no penalty for walking off the job, the worker said. But they’re not completely confident they received their tips as a result, either. “It was a fucking circus behind the scenes,” they said.

Anderson rejected this description of the business. “Things have not always worked like clockwork, however we do not agree with the characterisation that behind the scenes the business was a ‘circus’ or a ‘shambles’,” he said.

Those spoken to by The Spinoff described a confusing managerial structure at Cotto that didn’t help with resolving problems. Some couldn’t even explain who was meant to be in charge of whom. As owner, Anderson had no direct involvement with the day-to-day operation of the business but was often on the premises and operated, according to one worker, as Cotto’s “accountant”. 

Below him were managers, along with kitchen staff and front-of-house workers. Anderson, in responding to claims that the business was chaotic behind the scenes, told The Spinoff: “We engaged a very experienced general manager to effectively run the business and this contract was terminated in mid-November which was a factor in closing the business.” 

In the email raising concerns about unpaid tips, which was also sent to the general manager, the staff member complained of the issue being “passed around in circles with nobody taking initiative” and urged for somebody “to take [on] the responsibility” of sorting it. 

As a result, staff turnover was reportedly high and, according to one worker, the front-of-house staff would sometimes be forced to “take over the restaurant” for more senior staff members who just “didn’t come in for whatever reason”. Many of Cotto’s original team – such as co-founder Phiskie – had been and gone by the time Covid-19 hit in 2020.

It wasn’t just staff members being left out of pocket, it’s been alleged. There were issues with suppliers not being paid on time, sometimes resulting in ingredient shortages, The Spinoff was told. “[I’d] come to work and there would be no produce there,” one worker said. 

All of this contributed to what one staffer referred to as the “house of cards”, a phrase they recalled using during a meeting with Cotto management. “That was the way I put it: ‘You’re building a house of cards, it’s going to fall at some stage’,” the former staff member said. “I didn’t want to be right… I’m surprised it lasted this long.”

Having already been in charge of Bar 69 when it evolved into Cotto, staff said it wasn’t unusual that Anderson became owner of the new venture. “Because we were under the assumption it was going to be a pop-up, we didn’t really care,” one former staff member said. “We thought we’d be there for X amount of time and then it’ll all be over so he can have what he wants.”

Several staff members spoken to by The Spinoff referred to Anderson as “the money man”. They said his actual role with the business was confusing, given he didn’t have any role in the day-to-day operations but would spend a lot of time at Cotto, particularly in the evenings, and appeared to wield a significant amount of control – especially when it came to finances. “He had no decision-making on the business, but he was the accountant for the business… He owned the business outright, which was wild,” one worker said.

According to the Companies Register, Anderson is or has been a director and/or shareholder of 32 different companies. That includes Cotto Karangahape Road Ltd, which is classified in the Companies Register as the bar operations of Cotto, and Speakeasy Holdings Ltd, which is classified as the restaurant operations of Cotto. Other hospitality companies he remains a director of include those trading as Auckland bar Anthology, which was downstairs from Cotto and shut its doors at the same time, and nearby bars Thirsty Dog and Curfew, the latter of which was formerly Pitt Street Pub.

In July last year, the Inland Revenue Department applied for the liquidation of Speakeasy Holdings Ltd, which trades as the restaurant operations of Cotto. An application for liquidation is usually an indication that attempts to recover a debt have been unsuccessful. The hearing was expected to take place last September, but was adjourned until yesterday. It was since been delayed for a final time until next month, though Inland Revenue confirmed in the Auckland High Court that it is still proceeding with the liquidation claim.

Fresh pasta sheets at Cotto (Photo: Supplied)

Cotto wasn’t the only establishment linked to Anderson that closed abruptly last November. A former staff member of Curfew told The Spinoff that rumours of the venue’s impending closure circulated the entire time he worked there, which was only a few months. However, on the day the business was finally shuttered, in the same week as Cotto, staff were left in the dark as to why.

“The first week I started, staff were talking around me about not getting paid. I was like ‘holy shit, what have I signed up for’? My first paycheck was late by two or three days and I had to keep chasing [it],” they said.

The Spinoff has also seen texts sent from a worker at Anthology addressed to Anderson asking about unpaid wages from the weeks before the venue closed in November. “It’s been 16 days since my last payment… and unfortunately it’s now impacting my life,” one of the texts read. There was no response. The staffer said they never received their final paycheck. 

The Curfew worker said he was first alerted to the venue’s closure by a colleague over text. “Don’t bother coming in, the locks have been changed, no one has a job,” the message read. The staffer had never received a contract, meaning he never formally lost the job. “We had no warning,” he said.

Curfew was allegedly plagued with similar issues to Cotto. Suppliers weren’t being paid on time, the worker said, meaning drinks were often unavailable behind the bar. “There was no stock in the fridge, we were taking money out of the till to buy stock at liquor stores,” they claimed. “The right amount of cash in the safe for the gaming machines wasn’t there. I was eating the food [from the kitchen] cause we weren’t being paid on time, the right amount of food in the freezer wasn’t there to do substantial meal items for the after hours food service.” 

The staffer said they thought Anderson must be “pretty OK” given his business credentials. “He had eight businesses and he seemed pretty solid and knew what he was doing,” they said.

Anderson said he would not address questions related to “unattributed claims and commercially sensitive topics” saying it was best that they were handled privately. “Please be assured that we are managing these concerns responsibly and through the appropriate channels and are committed to resolving them responsibly and as quickly as possible,” he told The Spinoff.

Until the end of 2023, Anderson also ran the popular Leigh Sawmill Cafe north of Auckland, having leased it from the long-running venue’s owners five years ago. It also closed its doors suddenly in late November, though it reopened after Christmas. The lease was signed by Anderson in 2018 and was meant to be in place for a decade.

The Leigh Sawmill has since returned to the hands of previous managers Benjamin and Edward Guinness, sons of the venue’s founder Gratton Guinness, who died in 2018. In a post in a public Facebook group, one of the Guinness family shared that the business had returned to their family’s control “after years of mismanagement at the hands of a certain Auckland businessman”. 

Saffron Guinness, the granddaughter of Grattan Guinness, said that Anderson’s time in charge of the venue had ruined “a lot of the amazing work and name that the Sawmill had”. She told The Spinoff that Anderson “wasn’t paying rent for quite some time” which led to legal proceedings. “Basically the option was for him to surrender the lease and that’s what happened,” said Guinness. 

“He could have continued the lease and kept racking up rent and found someone else to come run it… or just surrender it and be not obliged to pay any further rent.”

Leigh Sawmill Cafe (Photo: RNZ)

For the Guinness family, the decision to take back control of the Sawmill was initially a difficult one. None of the family wanted to run the restaurant again, “particularly my uncles,” Guinness said. “They’ve done that their whole lives, and they didn’t want to do a hospitality business any more. They were pretty over it and had been even more burnt by this failing lease situation. But… the Sawmill makes its whole year’s worth of revenue in the summer, to pay for the bills through the winter, [so] they really had no choice but to just open the doors again.” 

However, the last few weeks had proven to be a positive experience, she said. The Sawmill’s reopening had been welcomed by locals. “We’ve had a couple of sold out gigs and the vibe and the energy in the place feels like how it was – but also better because we’ve been able to adapt the business,” Guinness said. “It felt almost like a relief because the ship would stop sinking and even though none of us wanted to come and run the restaurant again… the quickest way to get the doors open was just to rally a team ourselves.”

Anderson – who would not answer questions over unpaid rent – said he wished the best for the Leigh Sawmill Cafe, noting that it had returned to family ownership. “Living in the area and being part of the local community appears to be a necessary factor for this business,” he said, before citing the “significant challenges” of Covid restrictions and tourism during the pandemic.

While the Sawmill was able to reopen relatively soon after it closed, other businesses linked to Anderson remain shuttered. There is still no mention of Cotto’s closure on its website and Google shows the restaurant as being just “temporarily closed”. 

What exactly transpired on November 21, the day Cotto’s doors closed, is at this point still unknown. 

While those who spoke to The Spinoff expressed frustration at the way the business was operated, they remained hopeful it could return in the future. “I think with better management it would have lasted for years,” one former staff member said. “It’s sad, it was so cool.”

All spoke highly of the brand, the chefs and the vision of Cotto. “I loved it… I was so invested in it. That’s why this whole thing is so crazy,” one worker said. Another added: “It was our baby… we were all slaving away to make it popular and as good as possible.”

In recent days, Cotto has quietly hinted that it will be reopening in the near future. The notice on the restaurant’s door has been updated, promising that Cotto will be “back up and running shortly”. A statement co-signed by chef and co-founder John Pountney and general manager Ed Hurrell was also shared to the restaurant’s Instagram and on its Google page on January 31 – more than two months after it closed. In it, they apologised to customers who were “totally let down” by Cotto’s abrupt closure at the end of last year and hinted at the precise reasons for it. 

“What was shaping up to be a fantastic end to 2023 took an abrupt turn as the owner/investor failed to fulfill his financial obligations [sic]. This resulted in Cotto staff being locked out, suppliers not being paid, our staff not being paid and our inability to accommodate all of you,” read the statement. 

The Spinoff approached Icon Group, owners of the building in which Cotto was located, but received no response. The site’s landlord, prominent K Road property figure Murray Rose, said he had “no comment” to make.

The Cotto statement ended: “For all those missing their dumplings, focaccia, or pasta fix fear not. John, Ed, and the Cotto team have something in the pipeline, coming soon.”

Know more? Contact stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

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