‘Meat and three veg’ isn’t exactly the most glamorous of cuisines, but for Mia Lloyd and Kate Hughes, it’s turned out to be a winning combination.
We’re talking good, old fashioned cooking. Roasted veggies and pulled pork, creamy shepherd's pie, crunchy salads, and a golden roasted chicken. It’s the type of food that we all grew up with, but really - who’s got time for that anymore?
Mia and Kate found themselves asking that very question whilst juggling high-flying careers in television production. It wasn’t just themselves that they were concerned with: it was the others in their community who really needed good food. The young families, the local labourers, the time-poor professionals who just couldn’t stand the idea of another Lean Cuisine.
So the two talented home cooks started dabbling in catering, and before long, has acquired a loyal - and rapidly growing - fan base for their delicious, simple, home-style food. It didn’t take long for the duo to realise they had found their true passion - and were ready to turn it into a career.
Hammer and Tongs opened its doors in May of 2017. The quirky name comes from the demographic Mia and Kate were cooking for, the hard-working folks of Auckland who were working, as they say, ‘hammer and tong’. There was one group of people in particular, however, that the pair were really cooking for: the 40 - 50 year-old tradesmen who were working the local construction sites, fuelling their hard physical labour with junky snacks like pies, cream buns, and cans of soft drink.
Kate’s husband works in construction, and served as a main source of inspiration for Hammer and Tongs. Sick of hearing, “But there’s nothing else around!” as an excuse for poor eating habits, Kate and Mia worked on creating a cuisine that was blokey enough to attract the tradies, but healthy enough to keep them trim. Don’t tell them I said that, however - ‘healthy’ is a no-go word for Mia and Kate.
“It just has such negative connotations!” laughs Mia. “There’s really loaded language at the moment around fads so we just want to be known as simple, home-cook food. Meat and veg - yep, that’s us! Meat and veg.”
Food fads are of no interest to Hammer and Tongs. We briefly touch on the booming market for vegan and vegetarian food in New Zealand, and the ladies were firm, but positive.
“We don’t advertise ourselves as vegetarian,” says Kate, “but customers are able to come in and fill up a container with all of our veggie side dishes and salads. So at the end of the day, we absolutely cater for vegetarians.”
One of their major draw cards is Hammer and Tongs’ completely gluten-free offering. Kate’s husband is a celiac, and it was mostly by habit that the pair created a gluten-free menu.
“We had a few items that weren’t gluten free like our brekkie rolls,” explains Kate, “but after the positive feedback decided to go completely gluten free.”
For severe celiacs, it’s one of the few places in New Zealand that you can be assured everything on the menu is 100% gluten free, and not prepped or stored near anything containing wheat.
Not that this is a venue that feels lacking in anything, really: the lush menu changes daily, with the girls creating six new dishes a day that will be rotated three times during the month. Want to do the maths? With six items a day, that’s 42 recipes a week, and 168 recipes a month. Impressive stuff.
“What we found is that there are two types of people,” says Mia. “There are those who love variety and want something different every time, and those who have a favourite, and will travel back for it.”
The menu is drool-worthy. Today, for example, you can choose from a feta, mint, and spring onion rosti served with a poached egg, ham hock, and relish; or a Cuban Pork Mojo with eggplant, preserved lemon, and potato. It’s all the stuff you wish you could cook at home - but just don’t have the time...or the money.
And this is where the second pillar of Hammer and Tongs comes in: affordability. For Mia and Kate, it was crucial to keep their food at a low price point that families and the average worker could afford. These were the people who needed their healthy food the most, after all.
All the food prepared and served at their venue is locally and ethically sourced, seasonal, and affordable. A trade scheme is in place where customers can bring in a bag of fruit or veggies they’ve grown, and trade for a coffee or drink. All food scraps are recycled into the compost or sent to the pig farm, and they make all their own stock and other food bases on site using offcuts. When you look at closing the loop on production and waste, Hammer & Tong have it nailed.
With a shared affinity for organisation, Mia and Kate can’t stress enough just how important it is to create watertight processes for the business. Whether it’s cooking recipes or management protocol, they knew that if they were to survive as a smaller business, it was crucial to have the rules laid out in black and white. For this reason, they have been able to install a cook instead of a full time chef, manage a staff team, swap up six recipes a day, and even look forward to potentially opening up a new venue this year.
And yet - despite their military-grade organisational skills, Mia and Kate were served a major curveball before they had even opened the venue’s doors. They weren’t allowed to connect gas to the cafe, meaning no stove and no stovetops. Not to be put off, Mia and Kate went hunting for alternative options, eventually settling on two rational combi ovens. It wasn’t their first option, but it’s actually worked out in their favour as they are able to program in recipes in advance, turning food prep into the touch of a button. See, we told you these girls were organised...
Helping them on this journey has been the Silver Chef New Zealand team. They were able to get Hammer and Tongs set up right away with the ovens, stacked on top of each other in a setup so unique it’s the only one of its kind in New Zealand. When asked if they would use Silver Chef again with their future venues, the girls are in agreeance - “Absolutely!”
For this grass roots ‘real food’ movement, the biggest surprise has come at the hands of the community they have worked so hard to help. In fact, it is their customers who want to help each other - spontaneously setting up a pay-it-forward system whereupon you can pay extra or donate your complimentary VIP card coffee to someone in need. Before long, this was happening with their meals, too. The generosity, says Kate, was mind blowing.
So for a simple, meat-and-three-veg establishment, Hammer and Tongs are proving themselves to be revolutionary in the approach to both healthy cooking, sustainable hospitality, and community engagement. Not so simple after all.