The challenges of running a pub in one of NZ's most isolated locations

by Rob O'Neill / 24 April, 2018

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 Catherine Olsson outside the Port Fitzroy Boat Club. Photo / Rob O'NeillOne of the most isolated pubs in New Zealand found a saviour in Catherine Olsson.

Necessity is the unrecognised driver of much business activity in New Zealand.

For long-time sales representative Catherine Olsson, two years without work in Matakana was proving to be an expensive enforced holiday.

Olsson had worked for 14 years for a security business that was taken over by a rival firm. That prompted a lifestyle shift from Auckland to Matakana, on the coast near Warkworth.

While there were jobs available, nothing offered more than the bare minimum wage.

Meanwhile, on a spur with impressive views of Great Barrier Island's Rarohara Bay and beyond, the Port Fitzroy Boat Club, the local pub, had closed. The pub’s owners, the North Barrier Residents and Ratepayers Association, were advertising on Trade Me for someone to buy the lease and reopen the business.

Olsson never saw that ad. Instead it was a chance launch trip to Fitzroy that put her in the frame.

We came out here and we were just at the shop, you know because the locals gather there,” Olsson explains. “And they said it was up for lease.”

She had worked in hospitality years before, at Auckland icons such as the Bronze Goat on Ponsonby Road and at The Birdcage.

“I did it for long enough to know how to look after customers,” she says. “I had lots of fun but I was young then as well.”

The pub – and the island – sparked her interest. She also had access to a vital hospitality business asset – a chef friend who was prepared to take the plunge and move offshore.

“I signed a three-year lease and she said she'd help me out. So she's given us a good name for food on the island.”

But after two years lying vacant, the place was a mess.

“There was no one here, nothing here. It was... it was not tidy. It was terrible.”

Much of the vital equipment, such as the beer compressor, had also seen better days.

The pub’s license had also expired and relicensing, which is quite a process, had to start from scratch. That proved to be a benefit – Olsson and her team focused on the food and getting the place up to scratch for the coming summer season. One of the first events hosted was an annual school fundraiser – the snail race.

A new dishwasher was installed behind the bar and the kitchen reconfigured amongst a lot of cleaning, painting, and sanding.

Whatever was needed - plates, knives and forks, salt and pepper grinders, dishwashers, washing machines, and fridges - all had to come from off the island via a fickle ferry service.

The locals, of course, were ecstatic that their local was back in business, but to survive, the Boat Club had to wow the visitors – the thousands who flock to the island during its brief summer season.

So we got open and last summer we were flat out,” Olsson says. “We were absolutely flat out. We were doing about 90 meals day.”

Mother nature can be fickle too. Boatie numbers have fallen this summer, possibly due to a series of peak summer storms, one of which caused numbers at the pub’s keynote Mussel Festival plunge.

“When we did the Mussel Festival, that storm hit the two days before. On the Saturday it was a beautiful day and we had a lovely day here.”

A lot of people had already gone home, however, and boats didn't start coming back until the Sunday.

Luckily, the pub hosts other events, bands and fishing competitions, as well.

Everyone chips in

 

Olsson is getting used to the tyranny of distance and enjoying the spirit of self-help and cooperation of the island community.

Sometimes ferries don’t run or land at the southern port of Tryphena instead of the more isolated Fitzroy. That can take hours out of a day to collect goods shipped from the mainland and bring them back north by land.

But if worst comes to worst and the pub runs out of chips, other businesses on the island are quick to help – and the Boat Club quick to reciprocate.

“We live on an island so everybody needs everybody else. You can't survive by yourself and you’ve got to support each other”,  says Olsson.

The only supplies that are not imported are vegetables, which come fresh from local organic producers Okiwi Passion.

There is always something to deal with. The deep fryer decided to go on strike during the new pub’s first New Year’s Eve. This month the old compressor failed so the pub will serve bottled beer only until that is sorted out. Olsson is hopeful one of the breweries might help out with that problem.

“If you explain things to people they're all pretty understanding,” Olsson says.

Olsson’s shift to Port Fitzroy was a lifestyle choice as well as a business decision. The pub is only open one day a week in winter, mainly to offer a social place for the locals.

“I tried doing more days but it just doesn't work. You’re better to get them all in one day so that you've got that atmosphere going.”

In spring and summer it is all about the boaties and the tourists, many of whom come to stay at nearby spiritual and adventure retreat Orama Oasis.

“There's sometimes 200 people there and they all love to get out and come and have lunch here,” says Olsson.

One year at a time

Pubs in New Zealand are struggling. Many shutting their doors due to crackdowns on smoking and drink driving and in the face of changing consumer tastes.

But Olsson is in her second summer of a three-year lease and has no regrets about taking on the challenge. Managing the business is getting easier with a stable crew of quality staff.

“I love living here,” she says. “I really do love living here. What would I be doing back in Matakana? No, I'm pleased I've done it.”

Decision time comes when the lease is renewed. Olsson is pondering taking that one year-by-year in the future.

 

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