Justin Lester and James Irvine, owners of the Kapai salad bar franchise

Justin Lester and James Irvine, owners of the Kapai salad bar franchise

Photo: Mike Heydon

The description is enough to make you wish you were in Wellington for lunch: “My favourite is a puku with smoked salmon, avocado, roast kumara …” James picks his creation of choice from the Kapai menu. Justin butts in; he’ll take the same but with pine nuts.

James Irvine and Justin Lester are the creators and owners of Kapai, a home-grown salad bar with a zero-waste policy and a delectable menu.

The pair met at high school in Invercargill and their paths kept crossing over the years. It was on a Croatian beach, after a few beers, that they decided they weren’t cut out for the corporate world and the idea for Kapai was born.

“New Zealand has some of the best produce in the world but you come back here and the takeaway options are not great,” says Justin.

Neither of them had a particularly foodie past, though James says he always thought owning a cafe would be cool—and Justin likes to eat. They chose Wellington for its cosmopolitan feel, its size and its good healthy vibe, and opened their first store on Lambton Quay in 2006.

The friends say they were winging it to begin with. “At the start we tried to deal with a qualified chef but we didn’t like his ideas and came up with a menu ourselves,” says James. He describes their first day as a shock. “We didn’t anticipate how busy we would be. We stood there waiting, wondering if anyone was going to arrive. At 10:30am people started trickling in, and then by lunch we ran out of product and had to close at 2pm.”

Things just got busier. “Word got out that it was a good place,” says Justin. “The key point is flexibility. The customer decides exactly what goes in and we don’t compromise on quality.”

Kapai’s menu has evolved to include over 40 ingredients, allowing people to design their own ‘puku’ (filled pide bread), wrap, baked potato or salad. We’re talking the freshest of fresh New Zealand ingredients, sourced directly from the growers. Kapai salads have been voted Wellington’s best two years in a row.

Now there are three Kapais in Wellington and a fourth will open in March. James and Justin are currently seeking the right location and manager for a store planned to open in Auckland this year.

“It’s great having your own business and doing something you’re passionate about,” says James, Kapai’s operations manager. “I do the day-to-day stuff, managing the stores, organising staff and talking with suppliers.” Justin is the strategy manager. “I’m the general odd-bod, taking care of the financial side and accounting. I talk about things and James does them.”

Kapai aims to produce zero waste and the duo are well on the way to achieving it, with soup served in bread bowls, compost bins for organic waste, recycling for plastic cutlery, and biodegradable Potatopak and corn starch packaging. “We’ve introduced indoor dining too, so people can use our cutlery and we wash it,” says Justin. “We’re trying to contribute to the New Zealand food scene and have a restaurant we can all be proud of.”

James puts their success down to good food at a good price. “But it’s got a story behind it too. We’re New Zealand-oriented, using Maori in our menus, supporting the environment, buying local and going against the mainstream, fast-food offerings.”

Ka pai guys.

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