The Waihī Beach locals behind New Zealand’s best burgers
Pip and Jo were corporate highflyers in the UK, harbouring dreams of creating a sustainably-minded café in Pip’s home country of New Zealand. After travelling all over Aotearoa, they settled on the Bay of Plenty and created the Surf Shack Eatery at Waihī Beach – now famous for some of New Zealand’s best burgers, friendly faces and outdoor dining in the fresh beach air.
In just four short years the lively eatery has won the NZ Café of the Year Puhoi Valley People’s Choice Award, been featured in Air New Zealand’s Kia Ora magazine, and been dubbed the home of “quite possibly the best burgers in New Zealand” by Lonely Planet.
It’s been a near meteoric rise for the funky little café wedged between the aerodrome and wetlands at Waihī Beach. In the time since they purchased the property in late 2015, owners Pip and Jo Coombes have transformed it from a tired old pancake den into a community-focused cafe that features vibrant décor, an outdoor garden area and an eclectic menu offering everything from belly-busting breakfasts and flavoursome burgers to delicious street food inspired by the tastes of the world.
“We love it here,” says Pip. “We have so many regulars from Waihī Beach, the Bay of Plenty and all over New Zealand who keep coming back. It’s a real family affair. There’s me and Jo running it and then Jo’s son Brad Major as the head of kitchen and his partner Courtney Bettink as our front of house manager.”
“We love it here. We have so many regulars from Waihī Beach, the Bay of Plenty and all over New Zealand who keep coming back.”
- Pip Coombes
Before moving to the Bay of Plenty to open the Surf Shack, Pip and Jo lived in Leeds, UK. Jo worked an office job specialising in anti-money laundering and Pip was an enforcement officer looking at illegal gambling and money laundering across the UK for the Gambling Commission. They are hardly careers you’d expect to find a duo of budding restaurateurs working in, but outside the 9-5 corporate world they dreamed of moving to New Zealand to create a café near the ocean.
“I said I would go back to New Zealand before I turned 40. On my fortieth birthday we sold everything, packed our suitcases, and made the move.”
They travelled all over New Zealand, including to Pip’s hometown of Raumati on the Kapiti Coast, but it was the Bay of Plenty they fell for. They loved the coast and laid-back atmosphere and held fond memories of their 2013 wedding at Hot Water Beach on the neighbouring Coromandel Peninsula.
They originally looked at buying a restaurant in Mount Maunganui but after considering all their options settled on the site of the old Flip ‘n’ Bear pancake den in Waihī Beach.
It took a year or so to find their feet, but after redecorating the cafe and re-designing the menu – including adding a wide range of vegan-friendly and gluten free choices – the secret slowly got out. And when Lonely Planet lauded their burgers in its 2018 travel guide, things really took off.
The burgers are ground on site and, like everything else on the menu, made using only locally or New Zealand sourced ingredients. “There’s a big science to burgers – I’d probably bore you telling you about it but it took me three years to get it right. I’ve always loved a good burger,” says Pip.
“There’s a big science to burgers – I’d probably bore you telling you about it but it took me three years to get it right. I’ve always loved a good burger."
Outside of work, Pip and Jo still find time to enjoy a daily swim and regular fishing. Waihī Beach was voted the world’s best beach by American travel site Fodor’s and the coastal community is packed full of smiling locals who go out of their way to offer a greeting when you pass them by.
The recent COVID-19 outbreak has forced the Surf Shack to focus on deliveries and contactless pickup for at least the next few weeks, but Pip and Jo are confident Bay locals and the Waihī Beach community will continue to support the café and each other. For the past two and a half years Surf Shack has offered free coffees to people working in emergency services and they now plan to extend that offer to Waihī Beach locals who have worked to provide essential services during New Zealand’s lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s our way of giving back to the supermarket workers, doctors, nurses and other locals working in essential services because they were there for us when we needed them most.”
The Surf Shack also supports Canteen’s CanSurf Waihī Beach Summer Camp – an initiative that helps young people from the upper North Island who are living with cancer. CanSurf receives a dollar for every Ha-Waihī Surf Burger the Surf Shack sells and the cafe also feeds the kids for free during their annual CanSurf Waihī Beach Summer Camp visit.
The Surf Shack Eatery
123 Emerton Road, Waihī Beach