Challenging times at the local

01:43, Jan 31 2009
STORIED: Takaka's Telegraph Hotel, like many rural pubs, is full of history and character but faces increasing competition and costs in the modern world.

Rural pubs were once the focus of many New Zealand communities, but these days - in the face of widespread competition and ever-tougher rules - many struggle to get by. Hayley Gale takes a look at what life is like for those who run some of the pubs and bars of Golden Bay.

Built more than 100 years ago and located at the entrance to Takaka, Golden Bay's Telegraph Hotel epitomises a traditional rural hotel.

The building oozes character and inside, a roaring fire keeps the cold at bay. The walls are covered with old sepia photographs of Takaka 100 years ago. There's a fair range of beers, pokie machines, a pool table and a big television screen but at 12.30pm on a Friday lunchtime, there are few people propping up the bar. The music video is playing for no one.

Hotel manager Megan Cunningham, formerly a barmaid at the pub, has been leaseholder since February 2007.

"This place has so much history behind it and a huge amount of character. It's a gorgeous old building but business is getting harder and harder. Every year, there are less and less people.

"Cost is a major factor for everyone and it's difficult to compete with cheap beer prices in the supermarket. If someone comes in with $20, that will get them just two jugs of beer, but you could buy a 24-pack for that in the supermarket."


Cunningham says people coming to pubs to drink are a "dying breed".

"Unless they're coming out for a special occasion, people are choosing to drink at home instead.

"We always have a good night when there's a rugby match on but, generally, the pub is not as busy as we used to be and winters are very quiet."

The pub is a stronghold of local hunters and one of its most popular events is the annual Pig of the Bay contest every Queen's Birthday Weekend, when all the wild pigs caught are hung up outside and auctioned off for charity.

The hotel also offers the traditional hot meal and a bed to overnight travellers, with truck drivers and contractors among its main clientele.

But local working people are the pub's bread and butter and Cunningham says "looking after the locals" is her main priority.

"They come here because they always have."

Every pub has to provide at least four different food items under the terms of its licence, a requirement Cunningham says is designed to "slow down drinking" and "sober up intoxication".

The Telegraph offers "traditional country meals" including roast dinners and steaks, which are popular with the local clientele, as well as typical bar snacks such as toasted sandwiches and wedges.

Cunningham does not believe the ban on smoking in pubs, introduced in late 2004 has any bearing on the difficulties some publicans are facing.

"I think it's been a change for the better. We're now able to attract more families and for me, it's been amazing - I enjoy the clean, smoke-free environment."

Just down the road from the Telegraph is the Junction Hotel, which was rebuilt in the 1950s after the original pub burned down.

Owner Nola Drummond, who has been a publican for 45 years, has witnessed many changes in the pub scene.

"The traditional hotel culture is gone. Pubs used to be an integral part of the community but now people are very hard up and they can't afford to come out.

"When we started in the 1960s, the pub was always so full that one of us would take the money and the other would pour the beer.

"And we're taxed to death. More people are drinking at home because you can buy beer at the supermarket cheaper than I can buy it wholesale."

She says her business wouldn't survive if it weren't for her traditional meals and faithful regulars. "They're all over 40. We don't get young people here because I like to close early."

Along Takaka's Commercial St is the Brigand Cafe Bar, formerly Milliways Restaurant. While the building is 100 years old, the bar opened five years ago under its current name.

There are no gaming machines here but there's a warm open fire and a couple of comfy couches. Outside in the tree-fern lined deck garden, there's a gas heater and infrared heating lamps for the smokers who, says owner Chris Levett, make up 70 to 80 percent of the customers.

"We're more of a cocktail-style bar, a crossover between a restaurant and nightclub. We concentrate on having an extensive menu as well as live music and entertainment," he says.

The bar is open from 11.30am until late every night but the quiet Golden Bay winters make operating a financial struggle, Levett admits.

"We spend five months of the year making money and seven months losing it. Tourists are the only thing that allow you to operate in Golden Bay and we're living on the back of tourism."

With a resident population of only 5000 but more than 50,000 visitors a year, cafe-bars depend on the tourist dollar.

If it were not for tourists, there would be fewer licensed premises in the bay.

One of them is the newly named Pohara Sands, formerly Windjammers, opposite the Pohara Beach Top 10 Holiday Park.

Pohara Sands owner Kerry McCarthy says that while large number of visitors to the region make the bar far busier in summer, his priority is the local trade.

"Between us, we work 120 hours a week in the summer and 20 to 30 hours a week in winter, but our aim is to be community focused and we pride ourselves on that," he says. "We've tried to create a pub with a relaxed atmosphere, the way pubs used to be."

Although he'd never run a pub before taking over Pohara Sands a year ago, he's "spent lots of time on the other side of the bar doing research and development".

"Old classic pubs are becoming a rare breed, either knocked down or turned into yuppie bars, and our aim is to try and go back to a traditional Kiwi pub."

The pub offers housie nights every other Tuesday and curry nights "so we don't get bored silly in winter".

There's even a "Bullshit Corner", where the locals get together for a yarn and put the world to rights. It's operated by a president elected at an AGM,

One of the regulars, John Wilkinson, of Takaka, says it is like a "true form of democracy where everyone has a right to their own opinion and the right to express it".

Wilkinson, a former brewer from Britain, says the Pohara Sands has an eclectic mixture of people similar to that of "a good English pub".

"Look around you now there's a retired policeman, a dairy farmer, an engineer, a developer, a truck driver, a winemaker and a fisherman."

Fellow member of Bullshit Corner Peter Wood, of Pohara, says the pub has a friendly, family atmosphere and a "good mix of beer".

"It's no problem if someone orders a coffee or comes in with their children. I've never once seen any animosity in the place.

"The pub is a good place to be."