Mimi Gilmour is a creative dynamo who’s on her way to building a hospitality empire, and Jaguar New Zealand has just named her its official ambassador. She talks to FQ about food, fashion and life in the fast lane.
“I never really understood being a car person before,” says Mimi Gilmour, restaurateur, entrepreneur, and proud owner of the just-launched Jaguar XE. “Now I get it. I feel powerful and sexy when I drive my Jag and I’m the envy of most men at traffic lights, which I secretly love.”
If it was Mimi’s reputation as a hospitality industry trailblazer that caught Jaguar’s attention in the first instance, it was the brand’s own business savvy that convinced her the partnership was the right fit. “I think what Jaguar has done really well is rebrand themselves, which is what businesses need to do to evolve,” she says.
Talk about brand cohesion. Mimi is, after all, a queen of reinvention. While completing a fine arts degree at Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, she worked at designer boutiques Zambesi and Scotties, started her own small-scale catering business, and ran Ponsonby restaurant Rocco (now Moochowchow), owned by Masterchef NZ judge, Mark Wallbank. After university she moved between a handful of Wallbank’s restaurants in Auckland before relocating to Sydney to work in advertising.
Her heart was always in hospitality, though, which isn’t surprising given the impact that her mother, Emerald Gilmour, had on the Auckland hospitality scene throughout the 1970s and 80s with her restaurant, Clichy, and nightclub, Club Mirage. But Mimi is no hospitality heiress. She built her own businesses from the ground up, made mistakes that almost cost her the lot, and then dug deep and clawed her way back.
One of the best pieces of business advice she ever received came at the beginning of 2014. Following the dissolution of the business ventures she had come home to run during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Mimi co-founded the Mexico chain of restaurants. Two years later, Mexico was going from strength to strength, and Mimi was beginning to feel like her work there was done. “Someone said to me ‘you’re a start-up girl and the sooner you realise that the better’. So I left Mexico and five weeks later opened Burger Burger.”
From the day it opened in Auckland’s Ponsonby Central, Burger Burger has been a sensation. “It has been phenomenally successful,” says Mimi. “Super outstanding as far as hospitality companies go.”
The measure of this success is the list of projects that Mimi now has the momentum – and the finances – to realise. This includes restaurant expansions, but also the development of apps to service both customers and employees.
“We want to become the Google of hospitality,” she says. Due to launch is a customer-service streamlining app, while a web-based staff training program with a rewards system is also in the works. Motivating Mimi is her desire to nurture the 15 to 25 year olds who make up a huge number of her staff. By 2025, she wants Burger Burger to be the most extraordinary hospitality company in New Zealand for under-25s.
Mimi believes that hospitality is an industry that can instill confidence in young people. She also believes that teaching her team the importance of a balanced lifestyle and providing them with access to services ranging from counselling to financial advice will build their confidence and benefit the industry, as well as New Zealand. She’s emphatic that we have more to offer than being “this little green country at the bottom of the world”. She thinks it’s hugely promising that fewer young people are buying that ubiquitous one-way ticket to London. It’s time for the hospitality industry to harness this opportunity, she says. “A key problem is that hospitality in New Zealand isn’t regarded as a glamorous or appealing career option. We need to change that perception because if people don’t feel good about working in hospitality, then we won’t provide great service. There’s a flow-on effect.”
For Mimi, great service comes down to an “exchange of trust”; first between herself and her employees, and ultimately between her employees and her customers. As she points out, food is an emotional business, and while she rejects the notion of taking diners on a ‘journey’, it’s clear that she aims to facilitate for them the same kind of dining experience that was so intrinsic to her upbringing. “We always sat down to dinner as a family. I think it’s such an important part of life – that meal, the conversation and the face-to-face time. I want to protect that,” she explains.
Mimi attributes her formidable work ethic to her mother, who always told her to “do something once, and do it properly”. Mimi describes her mother as “a force of nature”. If you ask Mimi how her mother would describe her, it’s “fearless”. Despite this, Mimi says that being a woman in business is both lonely and difficult.
“You still get given the ‘go sit in the corner and be good’ treatment, and it makes you doubt yourself,” she confides, adding that it’s ingrained in women to defer to men. “But you learn to be tougher and to trust your instincts.”
While she’s not afraid to take risks, experience has taught her to take more “calculated risks”. And when her risks pay off, she rewards herself in the wardrobe department. This die-hard power dresser doesn’t do jeans – she only owns one pair and she hasn’t worn them in three years.
Still, she’s not above bargain buys, frequently pairing her Zambesi and Miss Crabb pieces with more wallet-friendly options from ASOS and Zara. She’s also big on costume jewellery, a jaguar cocktail ring being, fortuitously, one of her all-time favourite finds. But she admits that she is increasingly becoming an investment shopper – she’s just learnt the hard way that price is not always an indicator of quality.
Last year she treated herself to a pair of nude Prada pumps and, after one wear, the ‘P’ and the ‘R’ of the Prada emblem snapped off. “I wore them like that for ages,” she laughs. “But then I was like, everyone’s going to think I’m wearing fake Pradas! So they fixed them. I still call them my ‘adas.”
Her shoe obsession aside, Mimi’s latest acquisition is what thrills her most and she’s excited to be partnering with Jaguar, “When you own your own business and are so immersed in it all the time, you do get tunnel vision. Working with another brand is good for your soul and your brain – it forces you to look at other things and think outside the box.”
Words: Phoebe Watt
Photography: Tom Hollow