It's two years since former TVNZ news director and editor Nic Roland and Manuela Fuhrimann, a Swiss-trained chef with more than 10 years' experience, reopened The Playhouse near Mapua.
The Mail asked Nic Roland about their experiences to date and what the future might hold.
It seems a bit of a gamble, owning and running a performance venue and cafe out in the wop-wops. How have the past two years been?
We knew that taking on the Playhouse was going to be a challenge. The goal was to create a "destination" that people wanted to come out to. Having a stage in your restaurant and an amazing outside area plus the goodwill from the community certainly helped that goal.
At the start we hardly slept, there was so much to organise and figure out . . . After two years we have a lot of the systems in place to make the business run more smoothly.
Knowing the seasonal trends and patterns is very important. Realising when to push ourselves and the business and when to take the foot off the pedal is a must, or you will burn out. Having a community focus is important to us. High schools often hold plays and music performances at The Playhouse and we have also had some amazing fundraising events for the Mapua Hall and Christchurch earthquake.
On Sunday, February 10 we are holding a free fundraiser for the SPCA called Musos for Mammals with around 10 local bands taking part. Weddings and corporate functions are also a big part of the business which we have pushed with a lot of success.
As for the risk factor, I feel the television industry is just as risky to negotiate at the moment as the restaurant business. Over the last two years I have seen many of my colleagues lose their jobs with the closure of TVNZ7 and Close Up, not to mention constant "restructuring" of the newsroom. Overall, after two years, Manu and I feel we have made the right move.
Auckland people would think nothing of driving 20 minutes to get to a national-level show. Do you think Nelsonians are a bit too complacent?
I don't think that is the case. If the quality of product on the stage is good people will come out. That is not an issue. Nelsonians are a wee bit complacent when it comes to booking, however. Some shows will look like flops leading up, but on the night it's a full house . . . that can be a real challenge at times, but it's all part of the job. We are not in the business of turning people away, that's for sure.
What's been the high point of the past two years?
The realisation that the business was going to fly was a good moment. This is our first business venture and restaurants have a very high failure rate. We have made it to a safe plateau now so we can rest a bit easier on slow winter days. The two-year birthday was a nice moment too . . . Manu and I are looking forward to our first break after the summer; that will be a real high point for us. We can look back, take a deep breath and have a rest.
And the low point?
The slow winter months were very hard to deal with in our first year, but after a while we figured out it was a regional trend. Now we use the time to do bits and pieces around the building that get neglected during the summer - lots of gardening, painting, bits and pieces like that. You have to turn negatives into positives or you will go crazy.
How do you arrange your gigs - are bands coming to you, do you chase them, or is there an informal smaller-venue "circuit" that you are a part of?
For the most part, bands come to us when they are setting up a tour or just looking for a show in the Nelson area. In some ways there is an informal tour circuit for mid-level bands looking for a venue our size.
Bands are actually quite lucky around the top of the south; they can play Le Cafe in Picton, The Dharma Bums Club in Blenheim, The Playhouse in the Tasman and of course the Mussel Inn over the Bay, plus a few other venues around.
This can work very well for mid-level bands in the summer, when the number of people in the area is up and people are ready to party. I think what appeals to many of the bands playing here is the fact that we can offer them a great stage to play on, accommodation for the night and a good time.
The audiences here at The Playhouse are always attentive and appreciative. People come here to see the entertainment not to get drunk and be seen . . . It's all about the music or play. Word of mouth among musicians is very important. According to the bands who came through this summer, there is great buzz around the country towards this venue, which we hope to build on.
What are some of the innovations you are most proud of in the past two years?
Our snowboarding competition is something that no-one else does. We now have a 3-metre high ramp designed for the event so each year it will grow bigger and better. I also love our backyard cricket pitch.
Other people have told me they are impressed with the variety and consistency of the events at The Playhouse. Personally, I have been quietly happy about the way we market ourselves, using a good blend of all media forms and realising that certain events are more successful on certain marketing platforms. Adding the kids' area which doubles as our backyard cricket pitch is great too.
What other changes can we expect to see at the Playhouse?
We already have quite a number of weddings booked for this season and that is a market we will focus on. Private functions are also a market we will be pushing in 2013. Beyond the business, we have spent the winter planting over 100 fruit trees so I really hope to one day create a schnapps or kirsch distillery on site using the fruit we planted. It may take a few years to get the product to a sellable state, but until then I can always test the latest creations on the bands coming through . . . They will love it!
Where would you like/expect to be in five years?
Still here at the Playhouse showing people the time of their lives in the form of a great night of music or theatre, their wedding or birthday or just a nice cup of coffee in the garden. I would love to get back into some more film-making again over the quieter period. That is something that I have had to put on the backburner over the last two years.
Who would be the performer you would most like to see back at the Playhouse in the next year?
The Eastern from Christchurch played here on our first Easter Friday in 2011. I am stoked that they are coming to play here again at the end of February. Paul Ubana Jones is recording a new album this year; he is an amazing person on all levels. Left or Right from Dunedin and Taos from Christchurch are always fun - last time they were here we played backyard cricket under the lights till the sun came up. Nelson's own Doors experience band The Lizard Kings put on a real multimedia experience with dual projectors and a great stage show; those boys are always welcome around here.
What's been the worst experience you can tell us about?
Any time the technology you rely on fails. Recently, we had a power cut right in the middle of a busy dinner service. That was a real hassle but luckily most of our kitchen runs on gas so we could still cook. A till system failure during a busy evening can cause you all sorts of strife.
Technology is fantastic when it works but can really be horrible when it fails. The key is to have backup plans and to be able to roll with the punches. This business can throw you some strange curve balls but you learn to love them.
Is it disappointing if more people turn up just for the show and opt not to have a meal?
I don't mind that at all. It adds atmosphere to the joint with more people and it is great for the performers to play to a good crowd.
More often than not people will say they are not eating, but once they see the food come out they are at least tempted into a dessert. Heads through the door, eating or not eating, is important to any entertainment venue, so the more the merrier.
What are your favourite items that are currently on the menu?
Definitely the blue cheese caramelised apple and walnut salad . . . It's magic. I love pan-fried butter fish when we can source it, and Manu can cook a mean steak, that's for sure.
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