Colleen and David Hurd’s Central Otago business venture was a late-in-life leap of faith that has proved to be both a challenge and a dream come true.
If anyone can lay claim to be living the dream, it might well be Colleen and David Hurd. These two long-term Auckland residents, in their early 60s, are building a new life for themselves in the tiny Central Otago town of Ophir, permanent population 60.
Colleen, once an Auckland based café owner, and her barrister husband David, have set up Pitches Store, a boutique hotel and restaurant in the picturesque historic village.
Ophir was once a thriving mining centre with a population of 1,000 and the Hebrew name comes from the biblical land where the Queen of Sheba obtained gold for King Solomon. There are apparently a number of mining towns named Ophir dotted around the world.
But the appeal for the Hurds wasn’t riches or gold. It was David’s family’s connections to the area and the rugged, intensely dramatic landscapes (which have been beautifully rendered by Central Otago painter Graeme Sydney).
Ophir is set within the Manuherikia Valley, between Alexandra and Ranfurly and is just a short detour from the hugely popular Central Otago Rail Trail.
Colleen and David’s family visited the region many times over the years and they always felt they’d love to move back south at some stage. In 2005 they took the leap and bought 20 hectares “of rocks, thyme and broom” and started to build a house. A year later the old Pitches Store building in the village came up for sale.
And it was in a bad way. Dating back to the 1880s over the years it had been used as a general store and butchery, and more latterly in the 1950s, as a bus depot and then a garage and leather tanning business.
Colleen prefers not to say what they paid for the dilapidated building but does say at the time they thought it was quite expensive. In hindsight, perhaps not.
While David hails from the region, the couple have lived in Auckland since the 1980s and their children grew up there.
And they still have a foothold in New Zealand’s largest city. For the past nine years David has been spending Tuesday to Friday in Auckland to continue working as a barrister while Colleen stays in Ophir running the Pitches Store accommodation and restaurant.
Despite buying the old store in 2006, the construction didn’t start until 2011 as it took many years to “get all their ducks in a row” and some time to get through all the red tape.
Colleen says the building was so bad that the walls were the only thing they kept. “It was just a shell and we had to replace all the doors, floors, windows and architraves.”
It now boasts six king-sized bedrooms with quality fittings in an elegant, contemporary style with the restaurant serving ‘inventive regional food’.
She will only say they spent “a substantial amount” on the renovation. “But, it’s not about money. It’s about creating something and enjoying the people we meet. It’s a win-win.”
Prior to the move south Colleen had sold her popular café in Belmont on Auckland’s North Shore, so is well used to the logistics of operating a business. She also ran a ‘BnB’ from their Ophir home until the boutique hotel was completed.
In the summer season she works seven days a week, from Labour Weekend until the end of April, while in the shoulder season the hotel opens only on the weekends. They then close in early June until late August and the couple can take a break.
Colleen jokes there is not a lot of foot traffic in the winter but they do get residents from Queenstown and Wanaka for lunch or dinner.
On a day-to-day basis Colleen looks after the front of house, the finances and administration and David, “does the dishes”.
“He is there on the weekend and tends to talk to the guests. He has a lot of local knowledge because of his family connections in the area,” says Colleen.
The business employs two chefs and the rest of the nine staff are locals from the surrounding farms who come in to do part-time jobs. But it’s a full-time job for Colleen as the café and restaurant is busy in the mornings for coffee and throughout lunch time and she often works well into the evening.
Riding the rail trail
While Ophir only boasts a permanent population of about 60 there are a lot of holiday homes and a number of places where those doing the rail trail can stay. Colleen says this creates more local work and “the whole thing creates employment”.
Her guests are 50 percent bikers on the trail and people who come to explore the area. They get a lot of overseas visitors looking to get off the beaten track.
So while it is long hours, seven days a week in the high season, Colleen says in a sense she only works nine months of the year and, of those, six to seven months are really busy.
The challenge she says has been around staffing and the housing of staff. She contacted Queenstown Resort College to see if they could provide them with interns but Ophir’s a bit too remote and lacking in social life for younger workers.
Some of the part time workers live locally on farms, but Colleen also houses some of her permanent staff in the BnB she set up within her own house.
Another challenge, she says, is the fact David commutes – meaning Colleen doesn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off on a day-to-day basis (although they talk on the phone every day and he is there three days a week).
In their downtime they usually go to the northern hemisphere for six weeks. But that doesn’t mean the work stops, as she continues to monitor the business and bookings remotely while away.
NZBusiness met Colleen at TRENZ, the annual tourism showcase organised by Tourism Industry Aotearoa, which is attended by major international and national buyers of travel.
Pitches Store first had a presence at the event in 2017 and, because it was in Dunedin this year, they decided to attend again and are now slowly getting business through these international buyers as recognition of Ophir and the business grows.
As for marketing, they advertise in Air New Zealand’s
Kia Ora magazine and she has had local articles on the business. Slowly, she says she is learning her way around Facebook marketing and Instagram.
It’s a good business, she says, “you work hard, but it’s worth it”. She describes the view out her window of the snow-covered mountain ranges gleaming in the distance as clouds scud across the big open sky.
This, she says, is the real Central Otago.