When the owner of my restaurant in Christchurch heard about the supermarket job I’d lined up in Queenstown, he asked me why I didn’t want a “hospo” job instead (short for hospitality in this corner of the world). It’s not that I didn’t want one, I explained, but more that hospo jobs in Queenstown weren’t exactly yours for the taking this time of year. But then that phrase you always love to hear when you’re keen for a connection or two – “Let me make a few calls,” he says. A few calls later, I had the number of a guy to contact once I got down to Queenstown. Turned out my connection was more of a real estate mogul than restaurateur, but he offered the same mysterious promise of phone calls on my behalf. I actually couldn’t believe the effort he made for me, just a random girl he’d never met and knowing about my hospo experience only through hear-say. Not only did he pass my details on, but kept calling and emailing the next couple of days to make sure I’d been contacted by someone, had somewhere to live, needed any more help, and so on. It was such a reassurance during the slow start of my time in Queenstown.
I eventually get a call from a guy named Brett, manager of Wattie’s Gourmet Pizza Bar, a restaurant and bar I knew nothing about except from a place with the same name in Christchurch. He had me come in the next day for a chat, where he told me he’d already filled all the restaurant positions but that they still needed some part-time help behind the bar. Bar work was something I’d been interested in for a while, ever since my flatmate/bar supervisor in Christchurch had mentioned trying to switch me from floor to bar staff at our restaurant. But the head manager would have nothing of it, so I hadn’t had the chance. Even with my lack of bar experience, though, Brett lined me up for a trial the following night.
The following night just happened to be a Friday night, and as if that – a Friday night in Queenstown – wasn’t daunting enough, it also happened to be their Michael Jackson tribute party, given his death a couple weeks before. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. My one and only attempt to pour a beer for fun one night after work in Christchurch was nothing short of disastrous – the amount of head was embarrassing in front of just a few friends…and now I’d have to attempt it a second time with a packed crowd all singing “I’m starting with the man in the mirror” as an audience? You could safely say I was nervous.
But, wearing a black shirt with THRILLER in bold white across the front, I was amazed at how okay it actually was, at how much better it was than I was expecting. Although the amount of people lined up to serve was daunting at first, I took a deep breath and took them one by one. The beer thankfully gave me no trouble at all and you can’t get much more basic than pouring a glass of wine. And when it came to mixed drinks, all the bottles of house spirits have special stops on them that cut off automatically after you’ve poured the standard amount. At the end of the night, the bar manager offered me the job – even said he was really impressed! – and put me on the schedule for the coming week. Bartending, here I come.
A few days ago, I pulled out that article I’ve mentioned before about the lack of employment opportunities in Queenstown. I couldn’t believe it. The second paragraph began:
“Many businesses have stopped accepting CVs and backpackers are full of new arrivals who are desperate for employment. Wattie’s Gourmet Pizza Bar general manager Brett Ames said the number of job-seekers coming in each day was ‘just mayhem.’ About 15 to 20 people, but sometimes as many as 50, visited the restaurant each day asking for work. ‘On some days, when everyone arrives in town, they just pile in.’ The business employed about 35 people normally but up to 60 in the busiest periods.”
How I managed to beat the “mayhem” and get offered a job there is astounding. More and more I see the power of connections and of knowing someone who knows someone. It’s all about having people “who have people.” The more I talked to other bartenders at Wattie’s, the more I realized my story wasn’t the only one of its kind. It’s like there’s some sort of twisted mafia governing the hospo world of Queenstown, an underground network controlling who’s in and who’s out.
The restaurant part of Wattie’s stays open every night until ten or eleven, meaning the earlier hours of your bar shift are spent filling drink orders for the tables and doing prep work for the night to come, whether it be slicing up thirty-odd lemons in the kitchen or scrubbing down the back bar. Once the restaurant starts to empty out, tables are rolled away, chairs are folded down, couches are pushed to the side. The music grows in volume and changes tone, going gradually from the likes of “Brown-Eyed Girl” and the Friends theme song (which, coincidentally, is disconcerting to hear without watching Jennifer Anniston and Matthew Perry dance around in a fountain) to the beat-driven songs of Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas, and MGMT. It takes an hour or two to switch mentalities from family-oriented restaurant to night club, but come midnight, it’s go-time.
But being that the bar doesn’t close til 2.30, cleanup takes at least until 4am. Getting the place back into some state of respectability is split between cleaning the bar and the floor. I typically get assigned to the bar portion, meaning I have the joy of putting hundreds of glasses through the dishwasher and sorting them out into their appropriate trays for the night. Those on the floor sweep, scour and scrub every surface imaginable, putting tables and chairs back in place for the transformation back to a restaurant. Come four o’ clock, it’s time to sit around a booth, have a staff drink, count and divide our tips and – fingers crossed – have a freshly baked pizza that didn’t get sold from the fridge earlier that night. Not that eating pizza at four in the morning is the healthiest thing in the world – or anywhere close to it – but it’s definitely one of the biggest perks of the job.
What’s not a perk is my newfound nocturnal lifestyle. By the time we finish up our drinks and pizza, it can be anywhere between 4 and 5, and we often head down to another bar called Bardeaux that stays open ‘til 5. It’s one of the standard port of calls on a night out in Queenstown – from Wattie’s ‘til 2.30 to World Bar ‘til 4 to Bardeaux, a rather chilled-out place with an amazingly huge wood-burning fireplace and oversized leather couches. It’s the perfect place to wind down after a long shift. After the lights come on at Bardeaux, it’s usually to the 2-4, a – go figure – twenty-four hour convenience store for chips (fries, of course) or a chicken cordon bleu, and then – finally – to home. The bizarreness of my new schedule didn’t hit me until walking home the other night, when the newspaper man drove past me. The newspaper guy? Really? And then one of my flatmates who works up on the mountain told me how she saw my light on when she got up for work one morning. This can’t be natural…
But while sleeping the day away only to get up to work through the night has made for a weird adjustment here in Queenstown, it’s also made for some great friends so far. Everyone I work with is in the same situation as myself – young and traveling, far from home – England, Ireland, Canada, Georgia, and even another Virginian, we hail from every corner of the Northern Hemisphere. Even my first weekend at Wattie’s, management paid for all the bar staff to go paintballing. It was my first such experience so I won’t lie and say I didn’t offer to “guard our base” in hopes of just hiding out behind a tree the whole time and avoiding the much-feared welts. And while the game taught me how truly horrible my aim is, it was still a chance to out of my little world in Queenstown and have a shot and – more likely – be shot by new friends.
And when you get down to it, you really can’t beat a job where going to work means dancing around to songs you love with good friends, getting to meet and talk to interesting people, in a place where everyone’s happy to be here.
…It’s just that whole trying-to-see-the-sun thing that gets to you after a while!