Celebrating the award-winning success of Central Fire Station

OneMusic’s Melinda Clasper recently connected with Napier’s Central Fire Station Head Chef and Co-Owner Sam Clark to talk outstanding ambience and creating his brand’s unique identity in a crowded hospitality landscape.

Written by: Bex De Prospo

Ever since we opened, I knew that the one thing with music was that, man, it’s got to be right.  It has to reflect everything else; it can’t be out of place.

The atmosphere, menu and service at Napier’s Central Fire Station have been carefully curated, with attention paid to every detail, Sam says.  The success of this approach is clearly reflected in their three wins at the Restaurant Association’s Hawkes Bay Hospitality Awards in October, including the OneMusic-sponsored Outstanding Ambience and Design Award.

With a vast background that includes top-end Auckland restaurant, Clooney, Sam has learned a lot in his two decades in the industry.  “I just turned 37 and have been working in kitchens since I was like 15 so, yeah, it’s been a few years.  As a restaurant owner, things are quite different than when you’re a young chef and you want to be creative and cutting-edge and kinda leading the way.  I don’t really care about those things any more.  I care more now about the welfare of my staff and making sure long-term employment is the thing that keeps our business ticking over.  That’s bums on seats, people coming through the door.  I guess the thing that’s really hammered that home is COVID.”

He puts the award-winning success of Central Fire Station down to a concept and style which is tailored well to what the unique Hawkes Bay customer wants.  “The idea started with the question of how I might design a restaurant space where I am in control.  So I looked at where the kitchen could be and, if it was an open-window kitchen, how we could lay out the space so I could see every single area.  It’s also a two-way thing, being visible to people as the owner/operator.  Because it’s a smallish town, I want people to know who I am, that I am there every night and that I care about every single thing that happens in this restaurant.”

The appropriately named space is situated in a renovated fire station with a second floor which has been converted into luxury art deco apartments.  “My wife [and fellow co-owner], Florencia Menehem, and I came along and met the landlord here when we were in town visiting my brother-in law.  He showed us the space and asked if we would consider doing a restaurant here, and that was it.  I was sold immediately.”

One of the challenges in creating the ambience Sam wanted was the large, open-plan nature of the space.  “Big, open spaces can often be the trickiest to design.  Creating a feeling of intimacy is really critical and the size also dictates the economics: the bigger the restaurant, the more staff you need, whereas a smaller space puts a cap on how much money you can earn.”  Sam and Florencia worked closely with Elemento Design’s Margie Campbell who, he says, is behind a lot of the unseen details, in particular the lighting.  “One of the key concepts we came up with was to highlight those big windows at the front where the fire engines used to drive in and out.  They’re massive arches that we decided to echo with arches in the furniture, creating a real symmetry.  We wanted a mix of retro and refined: no tablecloths, comforting furniture, art deco fabrics, colour and patterns.  It’s got a real, particular feel to it.” 

This unique style was shaped, in part, by a desire to break away from a kit-set design aesthetic which Sam has noted in a number of Auckland restaurant spaces.  “I really noticed it in Auckland restaurant groups which all use the same designers, so they all end up with the same look and feel.  I wanted to be completely removed from that and do something really individual.  I wanted this to be a place where people walk in and they feel like they’re somewhere they’ve never been before.”

Music didn’t always play a central role for Sam, he admits, but he’s really embraced that aspect of the ambience of Central Fire Station.  Since the initial design phase, he has even gone back to invest in improvements to the overall sound design of the space including dampening soft furnishings, fabrics and flooring.  “We have an awesome sound system and I usually choose the music.  We go through phases, but I usually choose something that has tickled my fancy recently and make up a playlist.  I’m a big fan of Charles Bradly, Nightmares on Wax, Grey Boy and Thundercat.

Music helps to reinforce our design aesthetic, where customers want it to be a little bit retro, but also modern, funky and fun.  It’s all about making sure that’s how people feel when they come through.

“Since becoming a restaurant owner, I’ve learned that the decor and the space are probably number one in importance, then service, then food.  The ambiance and the service are the things people will actually come back for.  It’s funny how your attitude changes as you get a bit more mature.  You change the whole; everything to do with the business.  My mind is way more open than it was a few years ago.”

Sam’s seen first-hand as restaurant clientele have grown up with him, bringing with them a wealth of travel experiences and more open-minded perspectives than previous generations.  With that shift, he says, has been a departure from the staid, austere, boring restaurant atmospheres of the ‘90s and early 2000s.  “The music is super critical and it just sets the tone when people walk in.  I want it to be loud and funky and feel like you’re having a good time.  I can’t stand going to restaurants that just play the most boring elevator music.  There is no place for that any more.  People want to have a good time at a restaurant.”

To book your next dining experience visit centralfirestation.co.nz.

Learn more about the music licences we have available for your business here.