Accidental Hero

Zookeepers is a Southern institution – the place media ring for advice on cheese roll creation and the place to visit in the south – and it’s also Invercargill’s first freehouse.

The last was something of an accident; the inner city café was simply too insignificant for anyone to want to tie it into a contract.

In 1991 owner Paul Clark was a farmer, working full time off-farm to support a rural holding which had become uneconomic.

“What would you do if you won lotto?” was a common question in the 90s. In rural circles the answer was: “keep farming until the money is all gone.”

Clark hadn’t won lotto, his wife refused to countenance buying a bigger farm, so he bought Boulevard Café in Tay Street.

“I was naïve. I had no budget. I thought it would take $60,000 to convert – it ended up costing $200,000 but I had to carry on – I had sold half my farm to do this and borrowed a bit as well.”

Horrified at the pretension of the customers his gourmet menu attracted, Paul rapidly changed tack. Both chefs quit at the mere mention of the Turtle Toastie, which is still on the menu today.

(While the menu may have changed, the commitment to whole fresh foods remained. Stick around long enough on any given day and you’ll see suppliers delivering local produce direct to the kitchen and bar.)

In aiming for middle-of-the-road clientele, however, the pendulum swung too far; and the patrons suddenly had too much in common with a gang-affiliate waitress.

“If I had called it Paul’s Place and done the décor in tartan it might have been different.”

Brightly painted in yellow with purple highlights, a $6,000 Geoff Thomson Elephant on the veranda (“I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what I’d paid for it”) … run by a guy with a giraffe ear-ring – word quickly went around the conservative town that Zookeepers was a gay bar.

“My kids were being bullied at school because their dad had a gay bar,” Clark says.

For 18 months the bar haemorrhaged a $1000 a week.

“I went to see my bank manager who said ‘sell it straight away.’ My accountant said ‘if you are going to make a decision don’t make it under duress – go on a bit of a holiday’.”

He took the latter’s advice, going away for a week, sacking the waitress on return and barring the gang.

Enter the local business reporter.

“Mark Peart wrote a story saying Paul Clark had tried and failed … that Invercargill simply wasn’t ready for Zookeepers.”

That accusation proved a red rag to the café-going public of the south, which was about to begin a love affair with Zookeepers that has floated on the changing hospitality tides ever since.

And there has been a massive sea change.

In 1991, Zookeepers opened at 10am and closed late. It spirits bill was $10,000 a month. Twenty-five years later it opens before 7am, its spirits bill is just $1,000 a month, while the weekly coffee grind has gone from 3kg to 27kg, and the four taps are pouring craft beers.

The yellow zoo decor has been augmented over the years.

A young Glen Thomson (1999 NZ Cyclist of the Year) was propping up the bar on a Tour of Southland and ran up a $1500 bar tab mid-tour. Next day his team came second, and he came in and paid the tab.

The following year Zookeepers put in its own team of talented riders … again there was the $1500 bar tab, Clark was unconcerned. Team Zookeepers won the stage … then they bombed.

The publicity however was brilliant.

Next thing Clark had a mountain bike. Then a road bike. Then another bike.

Artists also became friends and he was able to invest in pieces.

The opening day on Friday September 13 1991 is one owner Paul Clark will never forget.

“It was a horrible day, in one of the most challenging weeks of my life,” he recalls.

Twenty five years on its all worked out.

“It has been a lot of fun. I would not say I have made a fortune but I think if I had the choice I would do it again. If I had stayed on the farm and my marriage had worked I would be a multi-millionaire by now – I have surprised myself to discover I am not actually upset about that.

“Because when you get to the bit where you are reflecting on your life, either because you’re old, you’re sick, or depressed, you want to be able to remember what you did.”