Invercargill engineer Chris Ellenden spent so much time on brew house equipment, it was probably inevitable that one day the hospitality industry lure would prove too strong.
Ellenden, whose day job was food grade engineering in dairy and meat works industries, is also the engineering nous behind Invercargill Brewery and Victoria Store Brewery at Clyde, as well as supplying fermenters and bright beer tanks to breweries throughout the South Island for the best part of a decade.
In October, he and partner Nicola McGilvray became the proud new owners of an inner city Invercargill backpackers – known simply as Tuatara for the giant Tuatara mural on the exterior wall.
With teenage children about to leave school, the couple felt they needed a new challenge – and the inner city business was just the thing.
Purchased from the estate of colourful and polarising Invercargill philanthropist Louis Crimp, the 118 bed hostel at 32 Dee Street has a chequered history as a back packer hostel, a night club (Saints and Sinners), a brewery (The Office), a coffee shop – going right back to its original purpose as a bank.
By 2016 all of that had faded into a building with dark, dated décor with anachronisms including a 1990s-era computer alcove (harking to the days when people moved independent of hardwired computers).
Their first step on taking over was to close the café to transform the dated décor and tiny kitchen into a new look Art Hotel.
“We could have danced around making small changes for months but decided it was better to close shop, get stuck in, and do the big reveal,” Nicola said.
“The décor was tired, and everything was a little bit run down, but the bones of the building were excellent,” Chris said.
Chris’s engineering expertise came in handy, getting the building up to code for earthquake strengthening.
“Some of the work had already been done – when we did track down the building file it was about three feet thick,” he said.
For her part, Nicola concentrated on décor, with the keen eye of the artist.
A talented multimedia artist, Nicola has work included in the Invercargill City collection, was a national finalist in the New Zealand House and Garden room of the year in 2014, and arguably the best of all her works are now on public display at their cafe.
Fresh, funky and arty, the new café which reopened in November is a breath of fresh air – quite literally. The huge potted plants which formerly made an indoor forest of Nicola’s art studio, have been re-purposed into verdant space dividers in the cafe.
Just as the décor demands a second, and sometimes third look (check out the little men in the wall behind the counter), the deceptively simple menu calls for closer inspection.
Lots of fresh local produce and salads – inspired by a southern farm kitchen waste-not-want-not mentality – the menu includes house made preserves from the orchard of the couple’s Central Otago holiday home, and even the bread is made in-house.
Open from 7am to 7pm-ish, it’s now in the management of Nicola while Chris returns to his day job.
And of course, it wouldn’t be complete without a series of Weldtech taps pouring a selection of local and excellent craft beers.
Will there be a house beer one day?
Chris’s eyes twinkle. There is that old media room still crying out for a new purpose. We will just have to wait and see.