Pouring new life into country boozers

FRESH EYES: Stephen and Paula Pepperell revitalised the Riverhead Tavern.
FRESH EYES: Stephen and Paula Pepperell revitalised the Riverhead Tavern.

Country pubs hit by a changing rural scene are taking drastic measures to survive - and the ones that are blooming are doing it by becoming less like country pubs.

Malcolm Gordon knows pubs. One of the most experienced pub brokers in the business, he's been trading them for years. He can reel off, without pause, a list of those he knows have closed - and not sold - in recent years, across a string of North Island towns; Paeroa, Whakatane, Otorohonga, Parakai, Waharoa and Kerepehi.

The traditional country boozer - lino floors, leaners, Lion Red in quart bottles, a sports bar and a lounge bar, a few bedrooms out back, stitched deep into its local community - seems under threat. Those who prosper are having to invent a completely new approach to this most traditional of businesses.

About 10 per cent of country pubs are closing their doors each year, reckons Hospitality New Zealand chief executive Bruce Robertson.

"In essence, the ones that have got sufficient capital to invest and do up the property, do good food and all that sort of stuff tend to become a destination, and do OK; the ones that have not got that capital are struggling.

"It's about that reinvestment - in today's world, you need to appeal to the whole market. You can't just rely on the guys who do the haymaking, you need the whole family."

There are plenty of factors: the dent in traditional rural industries, ageing farmers, the switch from sheep to dairy (creating longer, less sociable work hours), ever-tighter drink-drive rules, changes in family life and, most crucially, the disparity between prices in the bottlestore and at the tap.

"If you're just going to be a straightforward working-man's pub, it's not going to work," observes one former publican. "Your customers are all in their garage, drinking 8 per cents at half the price."

That appears to have dissuaded newcomers from pub ownership. "In good times," says Robertson, "buyers were keen to buy and have a crack."

Gordon agrees. "People wanted to catch the dream of owning their own pub - they would cash out of their home in Auckland to buy their dream - but there are less of those people out there."

He's currently marketing the well-known Marlin Hotel, overlooking the Whangaroa Harbour in the Far North, which has bar, bottlestore, restaurant, hotel and backpackers. It's $250,000 for the business, or $2.255m for the business and freehold. "Pubs have been hard to sell the last couple of years and [often] banks won't lend on them."

The story is the same in the South Island, a prominent southern pub identity confirms. "There are pubs which have closed their doors and are trying to sell when they're not trading at all . . . you would need to have escaped from an institution to want to pick them up again."

Right now, Russell Kemp is also trying to sell his pub, the Three Furlongs, in Kaiwaka, a sprawling single-storey place that anyone who has driven from Auckland to Whangarei will recognise.

With a big expanse of asphalt outside, two bars, bottleshop, pokies and pool room, eight bedrooms for truckies, and posters for the town's fishing and rugby clubs, this is the quintessential country pub. Kemp has a potential buyer he hopes will complete the deal early this year. "It's been fairly tough to sell," he admits.

He'd been a commercial fisherman and farmer before he bought the place 10 years ago; his wife's parents had both worked there, he'd drunk there, and he fancied something different. In that decade, he's noticed a change. "The economy isn't as robust as it used to be round here - roadworks, shearing, forestry, they're all much tighter now. People just don't have the income now."

When the Three Furlongs opened in the mid-1950s, it was the only licensed premises in town. With a population of just 537 at the 2006 census, there are now two bottlestores and Kemp says he doesn't even bother trying to compete on price.

His prospective successor wants to spend some money on the place, he thinks - and Kemp reckons turning it into a bit of a rest-stop, with shops and takeaways, would be a good idea.

The answer to the flagging fortunes of pub ownership seems to be, almost, to not be a pub. Those that succeed say that with the profit margin on a pint of beer now so thin, booze has become secondary to everything else.

Our southern expert says: "There has to be a point of difference. The ordinary bloke in there waiting for someone to walk through the door and buy a jug is probably going to get awfully lonely."

The most northerly pub on the summer circuit, Northland's Mangawhai Tavern, which sits prettily by a deep blue estuary, doesn't really see itself as a pub.

When the Star-Times called by, owner Gillian Hauser was overseeing deliveries for her busiest fortnight of the year, over Christmas and New Year, when there's a gig almost every night. In a former life, she ran the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington and Auckland's Bruce Mason Centre.

"I had 30-odd years of promoting and touring, being involved in the entertainment business and venue management and that's what I really do: you can't call it a pub, it's got to be a venue," she says. So as well as the gigs, there are weddings, car clubs, senior citizens' groups.

"I market as a venue, because if you just open the doors and say you're a tavern, it doesn't happen. You have to keep creating new events, constant new ideas and ways to bring people in."

This holiday period there's Guy Sebastian, Katchafire, a Rod Stewart impersonator, a wet T-shirt competition and on New Year's Eve, 1200 turned up for the Feelers. "People start talking about the next New Year's Eve straight after the last one . . . the expectations of people have risen," she says. "I've done it to myself here because the more we've done, the more they expect."

After five years, Hauser is ready to sell up - it was originally planned as a family business, but the family are in Tauranga and she's ready for a change. "If I wasn't perhaps at this stage of my career and life I would stay - it's not that it's not a good life, if you were young and had fresh ideas."

Even when beer may appear to be the major attraction, it isn't. Andrew Cole bought the Moutere Inn, near Nelson, five years ago and has turned it into a specialist craft-beer pub. But that's not the real appeal - it's the age of the place, which has strong, if disputed, claims to being New Zealand's oldest pub (there are rivals in Russell and Wellington). "It was a tired country pub at that stage," says Cole. "But we were lucky that it was in the original building and that has been a hook. We've been able to turn the pub into a destination."

He's heard that in the 1980s, when it was the only pub on the stretch between Richmond and Motueka and the apple-picking industry was busy, it was heaving. "Without being unfair to the previous owner, it was a pretty horrible place to come into. I am not too sure what happens to older pubs in the country that haven't got a drawcard. I don't know how you turn them into a destination: we knew we had an angle with the oldest pub."

Further south, pubs lucky enough to be on the Otago Rail bicycle route have prospered when some would have otherwise been close to extinction.

On the surface, the 137-year-old Puhoi pub, north of Auckland, is an old-school exception. Regular Denis Beatson, drinking here for four decades, rolls past with another quart of Lion Red and says: "This has been a magic little place. I hope it never changes." An uncompromising attitude - a sign above the bar warns visitors that if the service doesn't meet their standards, "please lower your standards" - contributes to this pub's unique appeal.

"This is old-school," says manager Amego Joseph. "There's nothing made up about this, you either come here and take it as it

is, or go to town and look for something that looks like this, but you won't get the same atmosphere."

Joseph has been there 18 years: "I'm part of the furniture; you'll see me hanging on the walls next time". To do that they'd have to find room among the guns, stuffed birds, undies, old rugby league photos, rocks, saddles, helmets and a full-sized mangle.

This detritus, the original kauri fittings, the Bohemian history and the eclectic crowd of tourists, locals, bikers and kayakers from the neighbouring Puhoi River all contribute. So by not trying to be different, they are. "We hear the pubs are struggling the further north you go," says a concerned Joseph. "I don't know if they are hitting the right market: I think you have to do it as a tourist stop."

When Stephen Pepperell and his wife Paula set out to buy a pub, they did their research. They visited every establishment within a 15km radius of their intended location, taking friends and instructing them to complete a scorecard. They ran a leaflet-drop of the neighbourhood, asking them what they wanted. They studied demographics, household incomes and real-estate prices. Given the end result is a pub which expects to turn over close to $6 million this year, it's worth listening to what they found out.

Pepperell, who had never been in hospitality before ( the couple had spent the previous nine years sailing around the world), reckons the ideal country pub is within half an hour of a big population. It has plenty of space to create a "nice environment". Preferably it has something unique to market. And then it becomes, yes, a destination.

His pub, the Riverhead Tavern, in a small town north-west of Auckland, was once owned by the Headhunters gang. It was badly run down, and needed renovation - including a new roof, sewage, plumbing and kitchens. The police, says Paula, "were scared of going into a lot of taverns, but feared for their lives in the Riverhead. Considering people were scared to come here, the turnaround has been phenomenal."

Her husband adds: "It was probably the roughest pub in west Auckland and had the worst reputation, so we couldn't just re-open - we had to do something different."

They ripped out the TAB and pokies, banned work clothes after 7pm, and instead traded heavily off the pub's history (it dates to 1875), its food (the Sunday before Christmas, their busiest ever, they sold 1500 food items) and functions. Plans are afoot for a hotel, function centre and shop. Three years ago, the Riverhead Tavern turned over $7000 a week. "We do that by lunchtime Monday now. It's a whole different ballgame," Stephen Pepperell says. "We've surprised even the breweries: we are doing way more than we thought they would. The valuer said our budgets were reasonably realistic but he thought year three was getting bullish: we opened on double that and I never let him forget it." In year one, business grew 40 per cent.

The Pepperells say they didn't want a flash city-centre bar and have embraced the locals, but were determined not to offer an old-style country pub. "People don't want to go hang out with rough guys and feel intimidated in a room full of sticky leaners."

At the Three Furlongs, Russell Kemp says if he was starting again, he'd concentrate on the wholesale business and on food - bring chefs from Auckland, revitalise the menu, serve proper coffee. But he hasn't the energy. Both he and his wife Barbara are over 65 and ready to relax. "We've been here 10 years and that's long enough in the pub trade . . . we want to kick back a bit."

Sunday Star Times