Traditional Māori cooking with a community heart

For Jenita Marriott (Ngāti Pāoa, Waikato) of Underground Hāngi, making hāngī has always been about more than just following tradition – it’s about delivering beautifully cooked, succulent kai that nourishes and helps her community. 

Noticing a huge gap in the market for high-quality Indigenous foods cooked traditionally (not in a steam-cooker) Jenita and her husband Dion Manuel (Ngāti Kahu ki Whaingaroa, Te Rarawa) decided to embark on their business ownership journey with Māori cuisine. 

We started making hāngī as a fundraiser for a papakāinga building project in the Far North, back in 2014,” shares Jenita. “I’d always wanted to run a business, I even studied towards it, I just didn’t know it would be this.” 

After garnering a strong reputation for their quality kai at fundraisers, they set up Underground Hāngi as a commercial business in 2018. 

On their journey towards establishing a commercial operation, they went from backyard cooking in Māngere, to operating a professional premises in Papatoetoe. 

And while they had the cooking on lock, acquiring a food license to commercialise their operation was an unexpected challenge. 

“We needed a food license, but there was this barrier in my thinking,” says Jenita. “I thought it was impossible to get a food license and a premise to do in-ground hāngi. I thought there was no way we would get that. I realised though, that the challenge was not the license, but myself.” 

A chance meeting in 2019 helped transform Jenita’s mindset. While attending a panel event for The Kitchen Project, a programme set up to support Auckland food entrepreneurs take their business to the next level, she was reassured that it was possible to get the food license and premises she sought. 

“What really got me over the hurdle was going to meetings like that and talking with people in the industry. It turned my thinking around. We received our food license earlier this year and have successfully put a hāngi pit in at our premises, too!” 

As a member of The Kitchen Project, Underground Hāngi can also tap into new networks through the initiative’s driving organisations, Panuku Development Auckland, ATEED, Healthy Families South Auckland and Healthy Families Waitakere. 

Through this partnership Jenita was introduced to He Waka Eke Noa. 

“I was familiar with the kaupapa behind HWEN from a friend in construction who’d been doing well as a supplier member, but I didn’t realise HWEN was opening into other industries. I did a little research, and thought we were a good fit – we could offer something to the council and their clients and hopefully, get the chance to expand and access more corporate opportunities Auckland-wide.” 

A key benefit for small or new businesses becoming supplier members of He Waka Eke Noa is the opportunity to be part of a large, diverse network. Through HWEN, businesses learn from each other, connect with support systems, and ultimately gain business from the wide range of members, enabling them to also grow together. This, in turn, supports and grows the Māori and Pacific economy. 

Kahurangi Malcolm, relationship manager at He Waka Eke Noa explains: “As Jenita has discovered, being part of HWEN can help businesses to fast-track some business learnings, to network with others – especially like-minded businesses that have similar values – and to access business support services and potential funding opportunities, including ways to grow their client base.

“We aren’t an organisation that wins businesses work,” explains Kahurangi. “We connect buyers with suppliers and help develop skill and grow capacity, so businesses have the best opportunity to win the work, themselves.”

Like many Māori and Pasifika businesses, success isn’t always measured by financial outcomes, but instead, by the social outcomes they achieve. Jenita and the team remain strong in their support of papakāinga developments and it is this what drives them to do well in business. 

“I’m a huge believer that business is a way to pull yourself out of your circumstance. We want to support our whānau and other Māori to rise above their situation and move back, out of Auckland, to their traditional land while sustaining their livelihood.” 

Having recently completed their licensing, business plan and financial forecasting, Underground Hāngi are well on their way to success. Like many small businesses, they’re now looking at ways to reopen and operate in the aftermath of Covid-19, adjusting their processes to cater for smaller groups, while retaining their signature succulent taste. 

And while there is a minor pivot in the short term, expanding their operations through the opportunities that He Waka Eke Noa provides is an important part of their business plan moving forward. We’re all excited to get a taste of their success. 

To find out more about Underground Hāngi click here

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