No.1 Pancake Bids Farewell to City Centre
By Justin Hu (he/him) and Nam Woon Kim (he/him)
The family owners of the business say they are heartened, but bittersweet, over the long lines of customers that capped off 17 years as a uni student stalwart. They say the effects of Covid and getting a better work-life balance played a big role in their move up north.
With nostalgia clearly in the air, No.1 Pancake’s last day began with a queue that started long and only got longer by the hour. For the couple behind the city centre’s favourite hole-in-the-wall eatery, their last day open was an experience they couldn’t quite believe.
"We’ve received so much love while we were here and we didn't think we would be missed this much. We thought we were just an ordinary shop,” says owner Abigail Park.
For Park and her husband, SK Lim, flipping and frying pancakes on Lorne Street has been their life for more than 11 years. Debate spoke with the couple earlier this month, alongside their son Jonathan, to learn more about the family business’ history and where they’re headed.
(Lim and Park spoke in Korean and their answers have been translated.)
Prior to becoming Auckland’s pre-eminent pancake proprietors, Jonathan recalls his parents holding down many different jobs after the family emigrated from South Korea in 1994. His father worked in radio broadcasting, managed a duty-free store, became a tour guide, and later took a real estate exam right before the 2008 financial crisis.
Meanwhile, in 2004, a family friend in their church community began selling the Korean pancake known as hotteok (호떡) from the now-familiar corner on Lorne and Wellesley Streets. ‘Corner Pancake’, as it was originally known, focused on replicating the traditional form of the street food, with a glutinous, sticky rice flour base. After six years, the original owners decided to move to Australia and handed the business over to Lim and Park.Along with their sons, the shop has been family-run ever since. In that time, the eatery has become a mainstay of guide books and annual name-drops in Metro Magazine, with the shop even nominated as one of Auckland’s top 100 most iconic eats last year.
Once they took over, one of the first things Lim and Park did was evaluate the pancakes themselves. Then came a careful refinement process.“I have no formal culinary background. I’d often read that baking is like a science — lots of hours were spent researching and trialling,” Park says.
Even though they’re leaving the city centre, Lim and Park want their customers to know that they’re not leaving for good.
She adds that the recipes that the family uses today are completely different to the originals that she inherited from the previous owners. Instead of replicating a traditional Korean pancake recipe, Park says she switched to a dough that was more bread-like and “closer to a Kiwi style”.
“We had a litmus test of whether I’d be happy to feed this to my kids. There are endless, enticing options and lots of different foods people enjoy, but at the end of the day, I made the menu based on that. Their tastes were the baseline,” Park explains.
Jonathan adds: “There were a lot of taste tests, being a family business. My brother and my palate were the standards, apparently — we didn’t know!”
Aside from its pancakes, a defining feature of the family business has been its almost-comically narrow kitchen. Bringing up the topic immediately elicits laughter from SK, Abigail, and Jonathan.
“It was like a food truck that couldn’t move,” Lim exclaims. “The only benefit of it was that we all got along very quickly as a result because we’d bump into each other!” He pinpoints the exact size of the working area itself: 5.3 square metres.
Park adds: “It felt like working as a flight attendant. It did make us feel sorry for our workers because they couldn’t even sit down.” She went on to explain that all lunch breaks had to be taken outside as there wasn’t enough space inside to do so.
Kitchen size aside, the family says the journey to where they’re at now has been far from easy, in more ways than one. Throughout the years, the most pressing issue has been their father’s heart problems, Jonathan says.
“That was about four or five years ago, when it was just Mum, Dad, and myself when we usually had five people in the shop. Back then you might’ve seen a lot of abrupt closures. Those were times when we weren’t feeling well enough to open — especially when sometimes the ambulance had to come to our house.”
He adds that this was a turning point for when his brother, David, paused his studies in Australia to return and help his parents run No.1 Pancake.
“It’s only been two or three years since [my father’s health scares] and they got back into the old rhythm after, but then Covid happened, so not really the old rhythm. People were coming back to the CBD, but that’s when the lease expired and when Mum and Dad took a step back to take another look at their work-life balance.”
I think definitely for them, there was a mental toll about [Covid]. Just worrying about paying the rent and about not enough people coming in.” Jonathan adds that less foot traffic from tourists was also a contributing factor to the couple’s decision to take a break.
Even though they’re leaving the city centre, Lim and Park want their customers to know that they’re not leaving for good. The family currently lives in Rosedale and has a commercial kitchen there, where they’ve managed daily ingredient prep work for the city shopfront.
“We didn’t want to sell the business because we’re still motivated and enthusiastic to continue. Even if we run something at a smaller scale and slow down — we still want to continue providing our pancakes to people”, Park says.
In the near future, hungry patrons may be able to order online and pick up their pancakes from a new store in Rosedale. But Jonathan says they’re considering all kinds of options, including partnering with other eateries to get their pancakes into the hands of as many Aucklanders as possible.
“We’re looking at all kinds of options [...] if we can find the right people. I think it’ll eternally be Mum and Dad’s job to be in charge of quality control, so they would still be supplying the dough and ingredients. But who knows.”
Reflecting on their time, Park says that she finds that the city centre has changed a lot since they first started — for the better. “Lorne Street mostly has places to eat now. Back when we started, it was only the dumpling spot next door and Sierra Coffee.”
Lim adds: “It’s more lively now. We feel that our shop has really grown and changed with the city.”Throughout their time, the couple agreed that the number one thing they valued the most was the relationships they built with their pancake patrons.
“Lots of students who enjoyed us back in their uni days loved to see that we were still here and still tasted the same. That’s when it clicked for me that we weren’t just another place to eat — that we had really built relationships with our customers.”
For SK Lim, he says it clicked for him when he saw former uni students returning to eat with their children or seeing regular customers come in with special orders.
“Before Covid, there was the challenge of feeling like work never ended, but we learnt that doing this for a long time can be fun because the customer reactions gave us a lot of strength to keep going.”
“Lots of students who enjoyed us back in their uni days loved to see that we were still here and still tasted the same. That’s when it clicked for me that we weren’t just another place to eat — that we had really built relationships with our customers,” Lim says.
“We had a list of customers and their usual orders, and we thrived off their reactions,” Jonathan added.Jonathan says his mum especially treasured the relationships with her employees, some of which returned to help out with the final days of the eatery.
“One of our old workers offered and they came in from Christchurch on leave. One person came in on leave from their job as an early childhood educator in Auckland. That kind of close relationship is something that Mum is proud of.”
From all of this, Debate asked the family whether they had anything to say to their customers.
“We received lots of love while we were here and we’re going to miss everyone. If we could have stayed, we would have."