Jack Cooper plans to write an autobiography about his life in the Cook Islands and he intends to call it Forty Years Behind Bars, a title that undeniably sums up the life and work of the man perfectly.
Jacks signature business Trader Jacks has been in existence for most of Jack’s time in the Cooks. Often described as an ‘institution’, Trader Jacks influence on the business, social and political scene of Rarotonga, especially in the early days, caused it once to be entered into Hansard, and be described by the prime minister of the day, Sir Geoffrey Henry, as ‘Cook Islands’ other parliament’ due to the routine patronage of members of the political, business, and legal fraternities.
To many Jack Cooper is a rock star of Cook Islands tourism. As testament to that sentiment he was handed a special individual award at this year’s Air New Zealand Cook Islands Tourism Awards for his outstanding contribution to tourism.
Jack said he was ‘blown away’ on the night, and had not prepared a speech. The response from the audience of Cook Islands tourism industry leaders and operatives clearly indicated that he was a popular choice for this esteemed award.
The Gordon Ramsay of the Rarotonga hospitality ecosphere, Jack Cooper is well known for his colourful language and irreverent deliberations.
“I have put my money where my mouth is; I live here because I want to live here, and I have had this wonderful journey like a roller coaster with the good times and the really bad times, including being wiped out by three cyclones. The last cyclone, Cyclone Meena cost me $1m”.
Trader Jacks it situated on the waterfront at Avarua Harbour (Jack is self-appointed harbourmaster). The premises have been damaged and closed down by cyclones on three occasions since opening in 1986. Much of the building today can be dissembled at short notice if there is a serious threat of an approaching cyclone.
At 73 this year, Jack remains true to himself: an unapologetic symbol of rebellious success. His irreverent humour is still intact, his bearing self-assured, and his smile infectious.
Jack has dedicated half his life to his businesses and tourism in the Cook Islands. Locally, he is respectfully known as Tiaki Kupa. Tiaki translates as Jack, Kupa as Cooper.
First arriving on the shores of Rarotonga in 1983, Jack’s destiny in the hospitality industry was shaped in New Zealand in the 60s and 70s.
Born and bred in Wellington with one sister, Jack’s parents were from Auckland.
“My father was a boiler maker – one of those essential tradesmen who worked on the floating dock in Wellington during the war.
“I started off in hospitality at the age of 18, then I travelled the world working in different places. I even worked on a oil rig in the middle of the Gibson Desert – I remember that well, because that’s when Hey Jude came out.
“I was a surfer in New Zealand with a 10’2” long board. I also surfed along the east coast of Australia from Bateman’s Bay to Noosa and Crescent Head, all the time working in hospitality. I worked in Australia a couple of times.
“When I lost Trader Jacks in Cyclone Sally, I ended up working at Expo 88 in Brisbane managing food and beverage for staff. I need to get some money together to help build Trader Jacks.
The years before he came to Rarotonga Jack worked for Lion Breweries Hotel Division starting off as a trainee, then being sent to hotel management school, and at the age of 24 taking up his first management position as manager of the Royal Tiger Tavern in Wellington.
A few years later he was appointed general manager of the Hotel St George in Wellington.
“Then I got disillusioned with the business and did some world travelling.”
When he returned Jack was invited to manage The Rarotongan Resort.
“I only lasted eight weeks!”
Jack said it was complicated. The resort was set up with the Cook Islands Government owning 60%, and four travel companies having 10% each. He claims one of the shareholders who had the management contract made sure it didn’t work out.
Then he turned down a golden opportunity to return to New Zealand as general manager of a prestigious Rotorua hotel property.
“I liked it here, so I ended up staying!”
Jack bought the lease on Vaima Restaurant with a partner. He ran Vaima for a couple years, whilst working on his future plans.
“I figured the Cook Islands was surrounded by water, but there was no place to sit and watch the ocean, everything was set back from the water”.
So Trader Jacks restaurant and bar was conceived and built by a company called Lighters Ltd.
“Some friends from Wellington originally put up the funding for Trader Jacks. The name Lighters came about because Avarua Harbour use to have lighters that went out to move cargo to and from ships.
“Lighter Ltd had the lease on the land. Lighters traded as Trader Jacks.
“Just before we opened they took the lighters away, so it made sense to use Trader Jacks. Today Trader Jacks is a company, in which I have the majority shareholding (75%). Lighters still have the lease on the land.
“We had only been open for six months before Cyclone Sally came along in 86-7 and wiped us out. It took a couple of years to rebuild.
“I ended up going to The Hibiscus in town, which is now The New Place.”
Always looking for more money to help the rebuilding process, Jack then took up an offer to work at Expo 88 in Brisbane as the manager of F&B for event staff.
“We reopened Trader Jacks in ‘89.
“When I came back from Expo 88 there were five businessmen who put ten grand in each, and that got us going with part of the building. As we built up the business again, we rebuilt further”.
The next time Trader Jacks was hit by a cyclone was in December 1997; it was Cyclone Pam.
“Not as bad as Sally. We got away with only $80,000 worth of damage. Then there was Cyclone Meena in 2005.”
After each cyclone people would say: ‘Jack’s back!’ Through three cyclones Jack Cooper was resilient, and the ‘punters’ kept coming for the Trader Jack harbourside experience. Jack is thankful for the continuing patronage of locals and visitors, and the support of his staff.
“It has to be emphasised that my success is not just Jack; it’s my ability to surround myself with good people. Amongst them my partner and flat mate (ha-ha) Rosa is one of my managers, Myra has been with me a long time, Metua in the kitchen has been with me for 24 years; I have been fortunate in having so many excellent staff members over the years”.
This year Trader Jacks is going to have a big facelift.
“A new roof! And, I’m extending the bar downstairs to go out towards the sea. There will be new colour schemes throughout”.
Sitting with Jack in his Ruatonga house overlooking the ocean in the distance, Jack began reflecting on the past and the future.
“I am endeavoring to write a book entitled Forty Years Behind Bars. It’s only about my time in the Cook Islands, which is not quite forty years. I want to be factual, but with humour.
“I enjoy the people of the Cook Islands, and their culture. They are blessed to be able to live here. They have their culture and they maintain it. And, they have a very good attitude towards life”.
One thing that perturbs Jack is the migration of Cook Islanders.
“The easy access to New Zealand and Australia for Cook Islanders is taking away ‘the employables’, so more and more foreign workers are taking up the jobs”.
Jack’s two daughters went to school here. Melanie lives in Rarotonga operating a successful photography business, and Vanessa works for the New Zealand government in Wellington.
So far as the future of tourism Jack would like Rarotonga to have a proper 18-hole golf course with accommodation to attract higher end visitors. He said their is a site around near the old Sheraton that would be ideal.
When asked what he likes to do in his spare time, his answer is unsurprising: Drink!
After all he is the self-appointed President of the Bombay Gin Society. Jack’s long time friend and drinking pal John Kenning aka JK, who sadly died in 2016, was Vice President.
“JK was a very, very good friend of mine, and a great contributor to our nation. It emotionally upset me when he died.”
Together Jack, JK and friends would drink Bombay Sapphire Gin, often on the verandah of Jack’s Ruatonga home. Up here it is ‘home pour’.
There’s a feature wall of Bombay Sapphire Gin bottles at Bamboo Jack’s Restaurant in Tupapa that is testament to the Bombay Gin Society’s success.
“The wall at Bamboo Jacks had to stop because there is not enough room for more bottles now!”
Jack bought Portofino Restaurant six years ago, changing the name to Bamboo Jacks.
“I wanted to go pan-Asian. I couldn’t get Asian food here.
“I have Trader Jacks, Bamboo Jacks and Blue Pacific Foods. Blue Pacific Foods started primarily to be fish processing. At one point we were exporting tonnes of fresh fish to Japan and LA every week.
Costs rose bringing in the fish, especially from the northern islands, so today Pacific Foods buy and process fish locally, and only for Trader Jacks and Bamboo Jacks.
In 2009 Rarotonga hosted the Pacific Mini Games and Jack organised the catering.
“An amazing international event! We produced 78,000 meals in 17 days”.
When it comes to local events though, none get much bigger than Cook Islands’ major annual paddling event, Vaka Eiva, an event Jack sponsored for 12 years. He’s having a break from sponsorship right now, but that doesn’t stop Trader Jacks being pivotal to the event as dozens of vakas are housed adjacent to his premises, and they are put in the water at the harbour, with hundreds competing in, and supporting the event.
Jack’s high profile and the popularity of Trader Jacks as a tourism icon, led to him being invited on the board of the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation for two years.
“I was also a board member of the Liquor Licensing Authority – I was sacked.”
But that’s a long story best told over a drink with Jack!
Traders Jacks has attracted many interesting patrons over the years, none the least being Hillary Clinton who visited the Cook Islands as US Secretary of State for a Pacific Islands Forum in 2012.
“Hillary Clinton and her entourage came for breakfast. They took over upstairs. Forget about her politics, what presence that woman had. Her entourage was enormous.
“I am downstairs smoking and drinking coffee, and both Myra and Rosa came down and said: ‘now don’t start drinking until they’ve gone.’ I tipped the coffee out of the mug and said ‘give me a Bombay’. I was drinking and smoking and having a good time when they started to leave. Then, to my surprise, I’m summoned upstairs to meet Hillary Clinton. It’s only a shame we didn’t have a photographer handy.”
Another pleasant surprise for Jack was when New Zealand singer-songwriters Tim and Neil Finn turned up with Dave Dobbyn (the Slice of Heavenman).
Cutting a long story short, a soundman that Jack knew asked it he would like the boys to perform at Traders. They agreed as long as the gig was not advertised.
“We had a yacht on a cradle beside Trader Jacks with a companionway where the boys went to amuse themselves before the show. The place was chockers with females; the boys were supposed to start at 8pm, but didn’t come out until ten. Apparently that was the first time the three had ever played together. It was a great night!”
Another regular visitor from New Zealand, and a good friend of Jack, is the Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters.
“Winston likes it here. I don’t agree with his politics, but he is a good drinking mate.”
Yes, Jack is quite the lad! He still manages Trader Jacks and turns up at Trader Jacks most days and some nights.
“I feel honoured to have been recognised by the Cook Islands tourism industry at this year’s awards. It has been a wonderful journey; but I would very much like to retire!”