2021 signifies a new chapter for us, as it may do for many after the turbulence that 2020 threw into the mix. Before I go on however, I should probably warn that this post may be longer than usual, I feel like there's a bit of ground to cover so it might be best enjoyed with your feet up and a cool beverage in hand...🥤
We've officially been living in Northland for over six years now, crazy to think really but the last couple have been mainly about dealing with the fallout of the premature closure of our local food business, Down the Road Eatery & Deli. The financial hole has been at the forefront, we've had to be nimble and maneuver through, seeking work opportunities wherever they present and generally hunkering down to pay our debts, keeping the wolves from the door.
Personally though, I was not prepared for the emotional fallout. While the Eatery was only trading for a mere seven months, the project was years in the planning, and many months of hustling, building, renovating, conceptualising and straight-up hard graft before the doors opened. From that point, I barely had a moments break and poured my entire life source into making it work. Grappling with the decision to close was torture and for a long time afterwards I lived with an enormous self-imposed darkness. I could not shift the guilt. I felt that I had led almost everyone I cared about down this pathway which culminated in what I could only see as being just another failed hospo business statistic.
I went through the motions work-wise, taking on a number of contracts in marketing and communications. It was a good distraction as I could be in the background of other people's businesses, helping them to tell their unique stories and see them grow as a result. Even though I had many conversations with myself and others about rationalising the local food business experience, reminding myself that behind every success there are always multiple false starts, mistakes and u-turns, it took over eighteen months before I felt I could step back into my own light.
I distinctly remember the day, in fact it was almost exactly one year ago now. On a day like any other, I woke up and the darkness had lifted. Nothing significant had happened but a change in me had occurred, somehow I was able to accept the outcomes of that venture, see the accomplishments for what they were, and forgive myself.
I worked with some awesome local businesses during this time and one project in particular, took me further down the local food track, where I was able to have a hand in helping shine some light on Northland's bountiful food and beverage offering. This was always the vision for Down the Road Eatery & Deli, I hoped we could create a celebration of Northland culinary products everyday (the business concept is briefly described in this blog post), so it was pretty cool to continue learning more about the many farmers, artisan producers, makers and chefs that contribute to the uniquely Northland food experience here.
In April 2019 I had registered to attend a Savour!NORTHLAND event. It was an open invitation for anyone involved in the Northland food and beverage industry, to come together and start a conversation about the Northland food story - what it is and where it may be heading.
Although I was still flying under the radar at the time, I was excited to get in a room with this community and discuss one of my favourite topics. I had done some contracting for the host organisation Northland Inc in the past, but when I received a phone call from David, the event organiser three days ahead of it, I was a bit surprised. "We have a great programme lined-up and are overwhelmed by the number of people registered to attend" he said, "we think it would be great to have someone to facilitate and MC the on the day, and I was wondering if you might be interested?" He asked. Given the timing, I had all of about an hour to think it through before he needed a response. Playing the role of MC was new to me but being in the mode of saying yes to work opportunities, I put my hat in the ring.
Two days later I was sharing the drive with Eat New Zealand CEO, Angela Clifford from Kerikeri to Russell, we were on our way to the gala dinner that would open the event at the Duke of Marlborough. I had been following the Eat New Zealand journey online and attended one of their annual food huis prior to opening the Eatery in 2017. Angela was hosting a workshop as part of the Savour!NORTHLAND programme and Eat New Zealand Founder, Giulio Sturla was speaking and was also the gala dinner guest chef. The car ride conversation was animated and lively as Angela quickly updated me on how far Eat New Zealand was progressing in terms of a national movement to elevate New Zealand's food story. I also spoke fast answering Angela's questions and condensing our own local food ventures into a nutshell. As we walked at pace into The Duke, Angela turned to me and asked "How do you feel about being Northland's local food hero?". I had no idea what this meant, "oh, sure." I enthused, partly joking, but she wasn't.
The dinner and following day's event were nothing short of exhilarating. Filled with passionate discussion, inspirational stories, incredible humans connecting on many levels, ambitious ideas and an enormous amount of pride. The timing was perfect to bring this community together and the motivation to do more to connect people with our region through food, was palpable.
For the following eighteen months I worked (albeit very part time) as the Northland Food & Beverage Ambassador. Engaging further with the industry and business owners, starting to give a public presence to Northland's food and beverage offering through the Savour!NORTHLAND brand, keeping connected with the wider Eat New Zealand work, and even developing Northland's first local flavour celebration in a post-Covid Lockdown whirlwind.
This work sparked a reignition of the local food dream in me, and the upheaval of 2020 bought it's own heightened awareness of just how important our local food systems are to every level of our existence. My thoughts and understanding continued to evolve in this space, far beyond what I could have imagined when I set out with the romantic vision of serving up a regional connection through stories on a plate. The conversations got deeper and before long I was selflessly throwing more energy and hours into it. Grappling with the huge challenges the industry faces, celebrating the many small triumphs that have potential to make big differences, acknowledging an urgent need for countless changes that are rquired if we are to have a better food future... the continuous loop of problem solving became pretty confronting at times.
As the monumentally chaotic year of 2020 drew to a close, I couldn't stop thinking about what the pandemic had bought into crystal focus. A powerful reminder of why we changed up our life and came here in the first place. It was the quest to create an existence where we get to do things we love on a daily basis, to make sure we have space and time to relish in each day, to love and laugh, and make sure we don't turn around in ten years time only to realise we've missed a lot on the account of having our heads buried in work.
So my heart was drawing me back home, this lovely property that had won our hearts and has provided a peaceful retreat for hundreds of happy visitors since creating the Orchard Cottage haven six years ago. What if I turned my attention back here? And rather than it being something I have to fit in around other projects, what if it became my main project again for a while?
It was a prospect that made me happy. This place has given us so much since arriving and it feels like the right time to develop some of the many ideas we've had along the way to give our visitors even more. Down the Road has always been about celebrating local treasures, the idea that the most wonderful things can be right on our doorstep, we just need to remind ourselves to think local. It's just a little bit ironic that this concept has literally blown up since Covid has forced it on us, but I'm pretty sure it's not just a current trend that will soon be out of style.
So here's to doing more of the things that bring us joy, to embracing our role as local tourists and continuing to share our discoveries with others. To eating local, shopping local and being the change we want to see in the world, for us right now, home is where it's at. 🏠