At the age of 12, Tara Senam finished her first shift at a local café and went home to tell her parents that she was going to buy her own café or restaurant as soon as she was old enough. Their response? “Well, we think you could aim higher than that.”
Fast-forward to 2023 and Tara is the co-owner of five restaurants on the Coast and looking to expand. “I have never understood why working in the hospitality industry isn’t generally respected as a career option and it’s an attitude I’m striving to change,” she says.
“Everyone loves going out for lunch or dinner or coffee and if we don’t create opportunities for young people to get into hospitality and find a pathway that works for them, we won’t have any wonderful places to eat and drink.” As a teenager growing up in Norah Head, Tara worked in numerous cafés and restaurants. “Hospitality was definitely my thing,” she says. “Between the ages of 17 and 19 I tried various other jobs – childcare, motorbike mechanics, receptionist – but I kept returning to hospitality. When I was 19 and managing a café in the Jimmy G’s group, I met owner James Nouri and then knew that I was seriously committed to the industry.”
Tara and James shared similar visions to change the dining scene on the Central Coast and quickly became business partners. Together, they opened Tommy’s on the Gosford waterfront in 2014, followed by the Italian-flavoured Pinocchio’s Wine & Pizza in 2016 and then Motel Mezza in Wyong, featuring Middle-Eastern cuisine, in 2018.
As we all know, the unwelcome arrival of covid in 2020 wrought havoc on the hospitality industry. By then, James and Tara had sold Tommy’s and when James decided to change direction, Tara took the opportunity to buy him out of Pinocchio’s and Motel Mezza.
“It was a huge change for me, too,” Tara says. “I was a bit nervous but knew I could do it. However, we were hearing all the stories about covid spreading in Italy and I realised my whole livelihood could crash. I just had to pull on my big-girl pants and get on with it.”
Takeaway became the most viable option. After intense discussions, staff hours were reduced, the front of house team (including Tara) turned into delivery drivers but amazingly, almost all the 26 staff members stayed on. “It was fight or flight but we got through it,” says Tara. “Believe it or not, we actually had fun with it – it made us stronger.”
In 2021, just before covid restrictions were imposed once again, Tara “crazily” took on another venture – The Pantry at The Quarters in Forresters Beach. “I never say no to any opportunity,” Tara says. “I look at everything, meet the people and with The Pantry, once I’d seen the space it was ‘Oh damn, I’m opening a café.’
“My co-owner at The Pantry, Nick Waldon-Howe, is my best friend. We’d worked together at Jimmy G’s and I knew that to grow the Meraki Group I needed like-minded people to grow it with, even though he was unsure about his future career at the time. We looked at a couple of options and now we have a fantastic business partnership. One of my favourite mantras is, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’.”
Creating opportunities for growth is key to the success of the Meraki Group. There are now more than 55 members in the group and one of the co-owners alongside Tara and Nick of the newest restaurant, Little Miss Mezza in West Gosford, is executive chef Joshua Grant. It’s another shining example of how Tara is mentoring young adults, encouraging them to explore their potential and future-proofing the local hospitality industry.
As for Tara’s next venture, you can be sure it will be everything that Meraki means in Greek: ‘doing something with soul, creativity or love … putting a piece of yourself into your work’.