|She opened the doors days later, with a desk from Freedom and broom handles for rails. “I needed to sell three sweaters a week to cover costs. From day one we were selling three a day. I thought I was a millionaire!” Graeme joined the staff and shops in Cairns, Surfers and Queenstown followed.Bonnie’s market instinct was proved right. High-end visitors (with jumpers selling at around $500 each this isn’t the tourist tat market) want to buy something particularly New Zealand or Australian to show off when they get home, hence the surprising figures for woolly sales in the likes of Cairns. “Our turnover in summer is 75 percent higher than in winter. Tourists like to go home with something they can wear straight away.”The concept has evolved over the years. Bonnie still designs most of the jumpers (the biggest seller is the strangely trans-Tasman-sounding ‘Dreamtime Sheep’), mapping each on a grid system she developed herself. She stopped selling to other retailer’s years ago and today has seven shops of her own: Queenstown, Queenstown Airport, Christchurch, Auckland, Auckland Airport, Surfers and Cairns.But hand-knitting is a dying art, at least on this scale, so other Kiwi materials – leather, possum and slink skin (the very soft pelts of stillborn lambs) – are made into coats and jackets. At the peak of jersey production Bonnie had 2000 knitters in Australia and New Zealand; these days it is around 700. Local art and crafts also feature in the shops as do New Zealand-made cosmetics and gift items.
“It is not a clever thing, it has been hard work. But I believe in karma. I know I will succeed in what I do because I’m fair and I’m good. I’m tough – the people who don’t like working for me are the people who can’t do it my way. But I do have a really loyal team and great family support. I’ve worked for years just to prove I’m good enough. Now I’ve realized I am good and I’m moving ahead, working towards things I really believe in, without any constraints, without anything at the back of my mind saying this isn’t right.” Bonnie credits this to “finally taking responsibility for myself, not blaming things on others or on things outside my control”, a realization that has come about with the help of a spiritual mentor. Bonnie isn’t a fan of organized religion and describes herself as a survivor of a Catholic girls’ school, but is interested in different spiritual paths, specifically Buddhism, and in the power of meditation.
Which is where the new business venture comes into it. In 2004 she bought Songbirds, a resort set in 50 acres of rainforest atop Mt Tamborine, 40 minutes inland from Surfers Paradise. “For years I was too busy to take time out. If at 25 I’d had a mentor to tell me the importance of stopping, of putting time into myself, it would have been invaluable. Songbirds is about helping other people to realize that. I thought I didn’t have time to meditate until I realized meditation gives you more time. Now I’m running BONZ and Songbirds – but between meditation and red wine, I don’t have stress.”
It isn’t all serenity and spirituality. Having sunk a couple of million into the venture already, it is all hands to the pump. Bonnie has redesigned the existing villas, brought in a new chef and completely overhauled the restaurant which, after just seven months in operation, was named Restaurant of the Year on the Gold Coast.
And she is everywhere. Chatting to customers, answering the phone, organizing tradesmen, chasing up the champagne. Just as she worked seven days a week for three months after opening her first shop (“I didn’t trust anyone else to maximize sales”), now she’s out on the floor in the restaurant. It wasn’t planned that way – “a 50-year-old waitress isn’t a good look” she laughs – but just try to stop her. When away visiting her son in Christchurch, she admits to texting hourly to check how many were in for lunch.
Her goal is an holistic retreat “where people will be drawn to learn new skills”. A new spa building, 20 treatment rooms and 14 new villas are proposed … yoga, pilates, qigong, massage, beauty and mind therapies … two restaurants (one 95 percent organic, 75 percent raw) and a cooking centre. And different spiritual masters will spend time on site.
But nothing too worthy or earnest – one-time Wellingtonian Bonnie is a Gold Coast girl these days (very Veuve and Versace, darling). “Even luxury spas can be a bit boot camp-ish. Songbirds will be about choice. There won’t be a prescribed programme. A naturopathic consultation will be included in your room rate and
you can choose to follow up on the knowledge you are given from that or not. If I take a break I want luxury combined with serious time out and a range of practitioners who can help me move forward to another level in business or spirituality.”
The venture is combining a lot of interests: business, food, property, organics and the search for mental and physical strength. She’s already planted 3000 lavender bushes at the family property in Queenstown to provide oil for use in the spa and 150 hazelnut and oak trees, complete with truffle spores, in the hopes
there’ll be truffles to use in the restaurant.
As the restaurant is set up for the evening, staff set out hundreds of tea-light candles under the watchful gaze of the kookaburras perched in the trees that surround its wide terrace.
If it is a shopping experience at BONZ, here it is a dining experience – and some time in the next few years it will become a full spa experience. Spirituality will be an optional extra.