Mexicali Fresh | Riding the Mexican Wave

Mexicali Fresh | Riding the Mexican Wave

Serving up a taste of Mexico in the art deco streets of Napier has been a winning move for Mexicali Fresh franchisee Maggie Donnelly.

Maggie bought licences to operate the franchises in Napier, Hastings, and Gisborne two and a half years ago, and opened the Napier restaurant about six months later after a major renovation of the Hastings St building.

Maggie already had business experience under her belt – she and her former husband established and ran Levin outdoor clothing company Swazi Apparel for 30 years.

“When I got bought out of that I wanted to find another business that had a good brand, was a quality business and had good support systems. Mexicali Fresh ticked all those boxes.”

The franchise was established by brothers Tyler and Conor Kerlin, originally from California and now living in Auckland.

They saw a gap in the restaurant market for quality Mexican food and opened their first restaurant in Auckland in 2005. There was little interest in the cuisine at the time, Maggie says, but that has changed dramatically and it’s now a firm favourite for Kiwi taste buds.

“Our food is a blend of fresh Californian and traditional Mexican flavours – it has broad appeal so there’s something there for everyone. It’s cooked fresh every day and it doesn’t have to be spicy – you have it as spicy as you want.”

Mexicali Fresh is proactive in providing vegan and vegetarian food, serves up only free-range meat and uses sustainable packaging. Maggie hires locally and buys locally as much as she can. 

The company’s internal advisory group, which includes Maggie, meets monthly to consider how to keep their offering exciting. “We are constantly looking at refreshing the menu, and recently introduced a vegan mince.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic closed the restaurant for five weeks, it was also an opportunity to develop its online ordering and delivery offerings, says Maggie. By the time the country eased down to Level 3 restrictions, they were ready to go. “The people of Napier embraced it.”

As restrictions loosened, customers returned to Mexicali Fresh and sales for June and July were tracking on par with those for last year.

Enlisting a great team, including online marketers and Moore Markhams, has been key to her restaurant’s success, Maggie says.

She and her bookkeeper meet monthly with Markhams senior manager Sarah Vautier. “Every time we meet, she is fully informed of how we are going, and she’s got everything ready for where we’re going next.”

The restaurant reduced its hours slightly over the quieter winter months at Sarah’s suggestion, and has been tracking sales closely to identify slower patches in the week. “If I notice we’re not busy on one night of the week, I can offer some specials or promotions.

“She’s enabled me to look into the business and be part of how it’s run, rather than just react to how it’s ran.”

Throughout the five-week lockdown period Sarah also kept Maggie up to speed with the government’s policies and wage subsidies, so her 12 staff could be looked after, she says.

Maggie says staff development is a passion and priority for her, to ensure that customers enjoy consistent high-quality service every day of the week.

She has put the franchise licences for Hastings and Gisborne up for sale. “I have found the Napier store keeps me very busy and I’m hoping other people will see the opportunity here. I have already developed the brand and the name in Hawke’s Bay, and I’m quite happy to work with whoever picks up the franchises in those areas.”

Maggie is looking forward to a busy summer serving nachos and taco bowl salads. “It’s great, there’s a real buzz in Napier. I really love it here. It’s great to be able to introduce people to something different and then see them come back and try new things.”