8 Mar 2021

Cobb & Co: A Napier institution

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:19 pm on 8 March 2021
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Napier's Cobb & Co restaurant at what is now the Art Deco Masonic Hotel. Photo: Michael Fowler

Are you old enough to remember walking through the red saloon-style doors of Cobb & Co?

Aotearoa was a 'hospitality desert' back in 1973 when New Zealand's first themed restaurant chain opened its first branch in Auckland's South Pacific Hotel.

Cobb & Co, with its affordable menu and stagecoach theme, was an instant hit with New Zealanders. At its peak in the 1980s, there were 37 restaurants around the country.

The arrival of Cobb & Co in Napier in 1980 was a huge local event, Hawke's Bay social historian Michael Fowler tells Jesse Mulligan.

"[Up until the 1970s] it was pretty bland in regional New Zealand, you had your pie carts, your fish and chips. The only way you could get liquor was through a hotel because we were so tied up with prohibition-type arrangements. It was very restrictive."

The Cobb & Co chain – which takes its name from a 19th-century Australasian stagecoach firm – was originally owned by New Zealand Breweries (which became Lion Breweries in 1977).

On the advice of the American National Restaurant Association, the beer company launched Cobb & Co as a family-friendly restaurant chain where they could sell beer, Fowler says.

As such, the only beer on tap was Lion, while kids went crazy for Traffic Lights (made with lemonade and food colouring and Pink Panthers (made with raspberry soda and ice-cream).

Cobb & Co menu

Cobb & Co menu Photo: Supplied

Food-wise, Cobb & Co restaurants offered "really basic fare", Fowler says, in rooms furnished with a stagecoach theme.

The menu focused on American diner-style food like hamburgers and steaks, with the "height of sophistication" being the shrimp cocktail.

In 1980, Cobb & Co opened its 16th restaurant in Napier's Masonic Establishment, now the Art Deco Masonic Hotel.

People queued down Marine Parade to join one of four nightly dinner sittings.

Servers of the time told nicknamed it 'Gobble & Go' as their job was to get people in and out within an hour, Fowler says.

There are still nine Cobb & Co restaurants operating in New Zealand.

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