When Ugly Is Beautiful

Posted on Posted in Design

Right in the heart of Auckland is a little oasis of innovation in retail, paradoxically housed in and around a complex of renovated industrial buildings that once serviced the Auckland City Council.

Back in the 60’s, sparks flew at CityWorks Depot as buses, trucks and road-building equipment were worked on. Now in the second decade of the 21st century, creative sparks are flying instead as inventive businesses of all kinds find a common home.

Paying tribute to its foundry-style setting is “Best Ugly Bagels” – a bagel “factory” and just about my all-time favourite name for a store.

Why Best Ugly? Well these bagels are delicious but they ain’t pretty. NZ celebrity chef Al Brown spent two years in Montreal in the 1980’s, and fell in love with the local wood-fired bagel.  He set out to recreate its distinctive crisp-on-the-outside-chewy-in-the-middle texture, and so trained in Canada last year before setting up Best Ugly.

The retail environment is more workshop than shop. A custom-made stone oven dominates the bakery, and you see the product “deliberately manhandled – hand rolled and cut”, then thrust into the kiln fired by “New Zealand’s greatest natural fuel – Manuka hard wood” and finally emerging on a mini-conveyor belt into a stainless-steel trough. It’s rough, it’s ready and ugly is beautiful.

Across the way from Best Ugly is an equally magnetic food retail concept – Food Truck Garage. It’s a concept from another of NZ’s celebrity chefs – Mike Van de Elzen. The proposition is plain and simple: healthy fast food.

Van de Elzen made his name via a TV show called “The Food Truck”, where he drives around NZ in a vintage 1970’s Bedford truck with a kitchen in the back, cooking up and serving up wholesome reinventions of junk food classics such as burgers, fries and fish and chips.

The Food Truck Garage is just that – a parking spot for the Bedford with a restaurant attached. This is a fast food joint with no deep fryer and a mission to cook healthy, tasty fare to order in under ten minutes. Both the idea and the execution are as fresh as the food. We’ve all seen Food Trucks, that’s not new, but a Food Truck Garage?

CityWorks Depot is also home to a brewery, a bakery, plus a host of creative businesses (including IdeaWorks NZ).  But it was Best Ugly Bagels and Food Truck Garage that really captured my imagination.

For me, food is the most exciting and innovative category for retail in the world. And New Zealand is one of the most exciting and innovative places on the planet for food retail. It’s worth a trip across the ditch just for the inspiration.

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