Slice of life

21:07, Mar 21 2014
Sue McElhinney
Sue McElhinney

Staff are like family for Blenheim restaurant owner Sue McElhinney.

It is with some hesitation, then, she has listed the popular Dolce Cafe Pizzeria Bar for sale.

A wish to spend more time with her family, husband Phil Parish and her four children - 6-year-old twins, a 3-year-old son and a 1-year-old baby daughter - was the deciding factor, she says.

The twins were just 10-months-old when Sue bought the old Paysanne Cafe in July 2008. She had been managing Paddy Barry's Irish Pub in Blenheim for her parents, Paul and Liz McElhinney, and liked the idea of owning her own business.

She has come to love it but after marrying Phil to become Sue Parish and having two more children, she often found herself contemplating selling up.

Regular customers have told her she shouldn't and this week even her twins begged her not to, she laughs.


Such pleas leave her philosophical.

"If it doesn't sell then I can't use that [sale] option as a way out."

Restaurants rely on cooking meals that will draw customers in to eat them.

Buying the cafe coincided with the economic recession but Sue decided to use its wood-fired pizza oven to create signature meals.

Former Wellington pizza chef Chas Dahms was an invaluable support and showed her how to make traditional Italian pizzas. "He came here ... and was like a mentor. That's what I built my reputation on, my Italian pizzas."

Dolce, which employs five full-time and six part-time staff, is a popular venue for engagement, wedding and birthday parties. Sue never charges for its use when celebrations start after 8.30pm and if other diners are still in the restaurant no-one is asked to leave.

She adopts a similar approach with people who drink too much alcohol.

Under the Liquor Licensing Trust, she is required to have a "strategy" to deal with inebriated guests but she usually follows her own instincts.

"I don't get aggressive with people.

"I just talk to them nice and calmly, telling them: ‘If you want to stay you need to chill out ... have a bit of water and it will be OK."'

And invariably it is.

As a busy, business-owner mum in Blenheim, Sue is grateful to the support of family members who help her keep up with the child-caring responsibilities. Phil has a 48-hours-a-week day job and looks after the children when Sue is working nights at the cafe, and both their parents regularly mind 1-year-old Marlie. Aunties are always helping out with the older children, too. "And one aunty comes to my house on Fridays and does all my washing and looks after Marlie."

Sue admits to being in "a bit of a conundrum" about what she will do if Dolce sells. Study is an option and she might examine her father's long-ago advice to become a teacher.

She did start a Bachelor of Arts degree, and spent another year at Lincoln University with plans to be a surveyor. Then she came back to Blenheim, worked hard for a year and went to London.

"I was always poor because I was always buying tickets to travel. Then I would come [back to London], work again, then buy another ticket and be broke again."

The Marlborough Express