For more than 30 years I was involved in a business that supplied equipment to hotels so I have seen the beer-selling industry change, moving from the big beer barns operated by two corporate brewers to much smaller community pubs, very much in the style of the old English local pub but updated and the number of these has been growing significantly.
My time associated with this industry also convinced me it takes a special person to be successful in what can be a challenging part of the entertainment scene, Lee Fern is one of those people and I caught up with him to talk about the hospitality industry and changes he has seen.
When Fern bought the Hardy St Sprig & Fern the surname was pure coincidence, Lee Fern hails from the UK while the Sprig & Fern group was set up by Dave Barrett & Craig Harrington who wanted to have a chain of small community bars, bars people could walk to and where you could have a chat without a TV, juke box or pool table and where they sold great beer not RTD’s.
Fern is from Leicester and is a sign writer by trade but he lost interest in that particular trade when everything became computer-cut lettering, he was used to sign writing the old fashioned way using brushes and paint and he says “while modern sign writing can produce all sorts of fantastic graphics I prefer the art of using brushes and paint.
“My last job in the UK was with a company where about 90% of the business was working in gold leaf application, one of my last signs produced was for Buckingham Palace.”
Fern came to New Zealand in 1991 and found himself in Nelson; while working around London he got together with a New Zealand woman who worked in London, she brought him home to meet the family and he never left.
He lived in Paraparaumu for the first year and loved Wellington however he wanted to move to Nelson so he found a job in a signwriting business here but found he was working more in the quoting and management side of the business rather than with brushes so he gave up signwriting and turned to his true love, music.
“I have always loved music, singing and played guitar in bands in the UK and here so thought I would do something I really love and for a number of years made a living playing in bands around Nelson and NZ.
“Music is something that has been a really important part of helping me manage my life-long battle with depression, I can immerse myself in music and it gives me a real focus.”
Fern was a regular musician at the Vic Rose and the owner at the time, Mike Thomas, taught him a lot about the industry and he ended up working behind the bar at the Vic including as the general manager for a while.
While Fern was playing music for a living he also spent a few years rehabilitating injured native falcons, his aviaries were the original South Island half of Wingspan, a trust based in Rotorua, and he was one of the few people licensed to keep and raise falcons in New Zealand.
“I just love the native Falcon, they are an amazing bird and being able to help them recover from injury was a real privilege.”
After the Vic Rose the Theatre Royal was reopening after a major restoration and rebuild and Fern had a short-term contract to set up the bar there and run it for about nine months before moving to the Sprig & Fern in Hardy Street where he was a night manager for almost 12 months; “my first shift was New Year’s Eve 2010 so it was a bit of a crazy introduction but at the end of the day it was just another busy inner city bar that night.”
The next move was ownership of the Sprig (as it is fondly known) which he took over on December 12th 2011, “once the lawyers got involved it took a few months to negotiate the sale even though we had agreed a deal in principle but it was important we had the paper work right and it turned out to be a great time to buy the business.”
Today the Sprig & Fern brewery and master franchise is owned by Tracey & Ken Banner, Tracey was former brewer for Macs before Lion bought it and probably knows as much about beer and brewing as anyone in New Zealand.
All of the Sprig & Fern bars are independently owned and Fern says “the key with the Sprigs is we are community focussed and last year our venue alone put over $30,000 back in to the community by running quiz nights, we run the quizzes every Wednesday for ten months of the year and each month we choose a different cause or group and they get to run raffles as well as getting the quiz entry fee, we run the quiz and they can do other fundraising around the quiz night.”
These very popular quiz nights started almost eight years ago. “A local lady came in looking for a venue for an after party for her fundraiser. I figured we could help her with the fundraising too and since then we try to identify people in real need who are otherwise struggling to get help as opposed to only helping groups and registered charities”.
“I am a big believer that if people come in to listen to the live music we have but don’t want to buy a meal or a drink it is reasonable for us to ask for a voluntary donation to support another cause I like, Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“We welcome everyone here, they don’t need to drink every time they come in but if they are taking advantage of live music I feel they should make a donation of some sort and most people are very happy to do so.”
Another thing that contributes to the success of the Sprig & Fern group is they have a good range of session beers that are packed with flavour but not big monsters that can be too heavy on the palate or stomach.
The way people are drinking has changed too, “I think there is more money being spent in hospitality venues but there is a lot more choice than 20 years ago so the money is being spread around more, people are more discerning.
“In the old days if you weren’t in the pub by 6pm there was something wrong, today the kids don’t come out until midnight, we don’t sell RTD’s, tequila or similar drinks and some people don’t like it but that is our point of difference, there will always be someone who doesn’t like what we offer.”
“People are more informed and make better choices these days and that is a good thing, suppliers are reacting to it as well with lower alcohol options and drinks like cider and our alcoholic lemonade that tend to be closer to beer strength at around 4-5% alcohol rather than wine or spirit strength and then there are plenty of mid-strength, low and non-alcohol options.”
“I also think young people are becoming more responsible, I see less pre-loading than I did three or four years ago and it is far better to have people drinking where there are sober people looking after them.”
You can help celebrate the success of the Sprig & Fern in Hardy St on its 8th birthday, Fern is planning a party on the 28th October so put that date in your diary now.