Local Focus: Changes and reopenings as Hawke's Bay country pubs turn corner

By Patrick O'Sullivan

The historic Te Aute Hotel is reopening this summer, hopefully in time for Christmas.

Owner Ian Morse says the Central Hawke's Bay pub is a project for his upcoming retirement, but there is a lot of work to do, including seismic strengthening.

The first pub built on the spot was in 1856. That was razed by fire in 1880 and the second met the same fate in 1935, paving the way for the current Art Deco/Spanish Mission-style building.

The reason his carpark gives the impression the pub is already open is "because I like to collect cars".

The reopening of the Te Aute pub on State Highway 2, a 20-minute drive south of Hastings, reverses the trend of country pubs closing in Hawke's Bay.

The Te Aute Hotel is set to reopen this summer. Photo / Patrick O'Sullivan

Te Aute is one of several that closed in recent years, including watering holes in Te Pohue, Putorino and Ongaonga.

But those that can cater to changing behaviours are reaping rewards, such as the Puketapu Hotel.

Puketapu Hotel owner Mary Danielson says the Hawke's Bay cycle trails have been "amazing" for her business.

"When the council first took me around and showed me I was hesitant – didn't think it would be that great for us, but it has been fantastic," she says.

"We can open the doors in the morning and there can be 70 cyclists there.

"There's a loop for the cyclists coming up here from Taradale and you just go up one side of the river and back the other and this is halfway."

The Puketapu Hotel reports up to 70 cyclists can be waiting for it to open in the morning. Photo / Patrick O'Sullivan

"The Puketapu pub has become very popular as an eating place – and a couple of ales or whatever.

"We have every type of person: obviously the cyclists, the bikies, farmers, lawyers, the orchardists.

"We have everything here and they all mix together. It is just incredible."

While there was a bounce in business after the first Covid-lockdown, the second lockdown bounce was smaller "but I think we are starting to come out and see the other side".

The Puketapu Hotel recently won the Outstanding Regional Establishment award at the Hawke's Bay Hospitality Awards.

Business is also good at Central Hawke's Bay's Patangata Tavern, where former Magpie Aaron Bartlett has a strong rugby theme at his pub on the Tukituki River.

"I think we're riding a bit of a wave after we came out of Covid lockdown," he says.

"A lot of Kiwis can't go around the world, so they stay home and explore paradise."

Patangata Tavern owner Aaron Bartlett says all country pubs are unique. Photo / Patrick O'Sullivan

The pub is popular with weekend motorcyclists, also because it is halfway for a loop journey from a population centre.

"A lot of guys come down Middle Rd and go back Kahuranaki Rd, stop in for a ginger beer and a burger. Or a beer.

"We do a lot of low-alcohol these days, so it sort of caters to anyone that's behind the wheel or handlebars."

He says the Patangata community, less than 15 minutes drive from Waipawa, "is really quite strong in their social life".

"A lot of fundraising and social activities.

"Friday night is a bit of a local night for us. A few legends come down and have a bit of hospitality.

"We've got a couple of guys that played a bit of rugby around the joint.

"An ex-All Black or two sort of pop in to see us now and then.

"There's a bit of a strong rugby following around here."

The pub received international fame in 2015 after a video emerged of Hemi the horse joining patrons for a drink.

At the Tikokino Hotel, also known as The Sawyers Arms, new owners and sisters Colleen and Wendy Morris are looking forward to a busy summer.

"By all accounts, it's a very busy weekend destination," says Wendy Morris.

"We haven't been here for a summer yet. We are just going by what our staff have told us, that it is going to get busy on the weekends.

"We're very new to the area and to the trade."

She says locals have helped made them happy in their new home.

"They've really welcomed us and go out of their way to help us."

She says they bought the pub for lifestyle reasons.

"We're both people persons and this is a great way to meet people.

"It's multi-faceted: it's got the bar, it's got the cafe, it's got the accommodation and it's got a beautiful physical environment."

The sisters, who grew up in Kawakawa near the Bay of Islands, have no plans for a makeover of the hotel, which opened in 1864.

The settlement of Tikokino was founded in 1863 as a sawmilling town, hence the name of the hotel as The Sawyers Arms.

"We want to keep it a country pub. We want to keep it how we remember pubs when we were kids, where the bedrooms and the toilets are down the hall."

Like many country pubs, the Tikokino Hotel features a playground. Photo / Patrick O'Sullivan

They have installed some of their grandmother's furniture into the old-fashioned dining room, ready for visits from family members keen to see their new business venture.

Established pub owners say proximity to a main centre and quality food are important parts of the country-pub formula for success.

"Everything's changed," says Puketapu's Danielson.

"In the old days, it was about coming to the pub and having a few drinks.

"Now it's a lot more about the food side."

Bartlett says he doesn't see a resurgence in country pubs - they have been closing for decades.

"There are a lot of empty buildings around the place."

He says all country pubs are unique.

"You've just got to find your niche and what people are looking for.

"Clientele changes in areas like this, and you just have to adapt.

"A good hearty menu helps, bit of friendly service, playground for the kids, nice beautiful scenery.

"Twenty-five minutes from anywhere, in the middle of paradise. It's not too far really."

With new owners, reopenings and an important community role for Hawke's Bay rural communities, no one is calling time on country pubs.

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