The Recipe for a Neighbourhood Institution with Sarah Freeman of The Birdwood

A blonde woman sitting at a bar smiling to camera.

Is there much better than a great neighbourhood local? A place where everyone knows your name, usual order and favourite seat. A place you’ve frequented so often that it feels like an extension of your living room. Wellington and Auckland have endless ‘locals’, but here in Ōtautahi Christchurch, they’re a little harder to uncover.

For residents of Beckenham, however, they’re blessed with The Birdwood. A prominent character building perfectly positioned in the heart of the community. A café by day in one space and a restaurant come evening in another, and now thanks to some renovations, there’s more connection between the two and a new bar to familiarise yourself with.

Words by: Johnny Gibson

Photos by: Ashleigh Vermaak 

We chatted with the creator and owner of The Birdwood, Sarah Freeman, about their learnings of 17+ years of running hospitality, including her much missed Lyttelton restaurant Freemans Dining Room, and what it takes to build a neighbourhood institution.

The bar at Freemans in Christchurch.

Tell us a bit about your journey to now. 

My husband, Nick, and I worked in hospitality before we started Freemans in 2006. We loved Freemans, but it was a rollercoaster. We were the chef, cleaner, accountant and delivery driver, and we had an eight-month-old. We were the business, which isn’t sustainable. There were massive learning curves, one being to stay in your lane and not try to offer everything to everyone. 

Then this building in Beckenham became available. It was a family owned picture framer for 37 years. We loved the building, and this is our community. Thankfully our family was able to buy it. We gutted it and started planning. We are foodies first and foremost, so it was all built around that and our philosophy of community, connection and belonging. 

Why do you think The Birdwood has resonated so well with locals? 

It’s in the heart of the community. We’re very family oriented and big on children feeling welcome.  We love tables talking to each other and people making friends here. We want customers to feel welcomed and loved. It’s not unusual for a staff customer to hug to happen—a place to improve your day. The food is amazing too! 

What’s the recipe to running a large hospitality site day and night? 

The key is good leadership across the team; that was a hard lesson I learnt at Freemans. Recruit good people and give allegiance to the team first. We have a day team and a night team, and no one here works over 40 hours a week, as it’s important that everyone has balance and is rested. We’re lucky to work with a team of hugely talented, great humans. They give me goosebumps! 

What’s your go-to dish to sit down and enjoy?  

On the day menu, it’s corn beef hash. It’s been on our menu for 15 years since Freemans days. Come nighttime, it’s mushroom pizza and the Claymore Shiraz Grenache. For our customers, it’s the gnocchi. It has always been a big seller. All our pasta is made fresh onsite daily. 

Where do you seek inspiration outside of work? 

That’s one of my goals, to provide more space for this. I’m trying not to be here too much at night—another lesson from Freemans. Exercise is crucial for me. I go to a small gym; there, I’m not a mum or owner. I can be vulnerable. It really fills my cup. Spending time with the family is also essential. But I’m lucky, as The Birdwood gives me so much joy. 

Tell us about the new improvements to The Birdwood. 

We’ve just had a beautiful bar installed, perfect for people just to turn up and have a beer and pizza. We’ve also used the bar to unify both spaces and teams better, so there’s more flow between the two.

What are the things you’ll be looking to improve on going forward? 

Technology is vital and plays a significant role. We must stay connected with it. 

People are still the most important; nothing compares to feeling welcome. One thing we’re always working on is the balance between regulars and new customers and welcoming them to the family. 

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