Karen Kemp needs to get out of the kitchen and back into marketing Murrumburrah’s Lighthorse Hotel which she has leased since late last year.
On weekends when events like the recent Harden Picnic races are held, the hotel’s 12 rooms and restaurant are booked out. But to keep the momentum going, she desperately needs a second chef so she can focus on business strategy. It’s also a necessity for the little town of Murrumburrah which adjoins Harden, north-west of Canberra.
The pub’s chef, Craig Slater from Wollongong, has travelled the world, cooked for a Jamie Oliver sous chef and later married a local girl, Hanna Martin from Martin’s orchards at nearby Kingsvale. He makes his own pasta, excels with Italian seafood and has helped create an opportunity for an off-sider in the kitchen.
“We will sponsor a chef from overseas, or one from Sydney or another metropolitan area who is happy to relocate to a beautiful country town,” says Karen, who employs eight full-time and part-time staff. “We have a four-bedroom home we are happy to package for a chef.”
She jumped her first hurdle in less than a day last September when the Lighthorse, which had been closed for several months, came onto the market. Friends of Karen and her husband Michael Tobin contacted them, knowing they had always wanted to own it. “They gave us 24 hours to come up with the finance to buy it, otherwise they would sell to someone who was going to convert it into a bed-and-breakfast, and take the licence and shut down the pub,” she says. “That would have destroyed Murrumburrah.”
Karen turned to another friend, Wollongong orthopaedic surgeon and district property owner Dr Rhys Gray, best known in Murrumburrah for fundraising to bronze a statue of the famous light horse Bill the Bastard.
“You don’t want to buy a pub, do you Rhys?’’ she asked.
“Of course. I have always wanted to buy a pub,” Dr Gray replied.
The pub’s poker machine licenses had long been sold. Karen, who had worked elsewhere in business management, education and training for not-for-profit organisations nationally, had a plan. If the pub was to be viable it had to trade successfully on good food and refreshments to consistently lure local families and weary travellers on the 478-kilometre trek between Sydney and Griffith. Born and raised in Harden-Murrumburrah, she knew community engagement was critical.
With two builders in the family, they got cracking stripping back walls, pulled out hastily-installed conduit, repaired butchered timber architraves, lifted layers of stained, stale carpets, scraped old newspapers glued to floorboards, repaired and refreshed flooring in keeping with the 1861 landmark, previously known as the Commercial Hotel. A new bar replaced the old one, new cool rooms were installed upstairs, bathrooms were re-tiled or replaced. They uncovered fireplaces long hidden behind previous renovations and scraped off old render to expose original bricks. They painted and hung artefacts discovered in the bowels of the pub on picture rails.
“I own the Muddy Duck, a café homewares retail store and I have Heggaton arthouse apartments,” Karen says. “Both are old historic buildings which we have brought back to life and sunk considerable capital into to bring them into today’s environment within this little precinct,” she says.
The apartments are named after Dr Heggaton, the first doctor for Murrumburrah in the early 1900s. Dr Heggaton lost two sons at war and a daughter who was burned to death in an explosion in the backyard medicine shed. The home is now three serviced apartments for short-term and long-term accommodation. Karen also has the old Murrumburrah Post Office across the road.
Karen’s dream, held by many local people, is to turn Murrumburrah into a tourist hotspot on the back of the light horse legend. A recently unveiled statue of the legend’s remarkable creator, Major General James Kenneth Mackay, stands opposite the hotel. Next year the bronzed Bill the Bastard statue will be unveiled. Coming from the west into Murrumburrah, the road draws the eye in a straight line through the twin towns.
“We need to slow the traffic. We need to announce this long corridor is leading to something significant because if we can stop tourists here in Murrumburrah, they will stop, look and notice there is more to our twin towns,” Karen says. “The fact we are twin-towns is significant to the attraction, I think there are not many in Australia.”
The hotel itself is also set to become an attraction in its own right, and draw attention to the produce and products of the region.
The pub’s craft beers include Canberra’s BentSpoke, and Young Henry’s, which sources apples for its cider from Orange. The Lighthorse’s wine list is only from the Hilltops region. “We don’t do breakfast here, we refer people to the Barnstore Café across the road, P&D Store and café and Terracotta Restaurant. If we have overflows we refer to other businesses, so the money stays in this precinct.”
Another great reason to stop off at the Lighthorse.