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Celebrating: At Lone Star's 30th birthday party, from left, owner Dave Gardiner, original owners Lucy and James 'Chief' Whelan, legendary waiter Basil 'Oohh' Saula, and the Whelans' daughter, Sophie

Few Queenstown businesses have engendered the same loyalty for the past 30 years from
both locals and visitors as Lone Star. PHILIP CHANDLER, who had his name on a former
menu, talks to the current and past owners to find out the ingredients behind their success

When country-and-western-themed Lone Star opened in Queenstown’s Lower Brecon  Street in 1991, many thought the restaurant/bar was too far out of town to succeed.

But despite starting life in a semi-industrial precinct, it’s been very popular over the years and proudly celebrated its 30th birthday last Saturday.

Remarkably, the tenure of each of its working partners — James ‘Chief’ Whelan and his wife Lucy, followed by Dave Gardiner — has spanned 15 years.

James’ brother Tim and friend Steve Ward opened the first Lone Star in Christchurch in ’88.

James and Lucy worked part-time for them while he studied law and she was a physio.

On a roadie to look at opening their second joint in Dunedin, they stopped by in Queenstown and happened to meet developer John Guthrie.

Convinced of their concept, Guthrie then developed premises designed by local architect Maurice Orr, with Glenorchy sculptor Dan Kelly adding some quirky touches.

It didn’t take long for the second Lone Star to become busy.

Lucy: ‘‘We knew a few locals, and in those very early days we employed some people who were well connected, and, to be fair, a lot of the other restaurants in Queenstown at the  time were very traditional.’’

Such was their success, Guthrie in ’93 added neighbouring premises upstairs, which became Rattlesnake, to take the overflow.

In ’95, James and Lucy employed flamboyant Tongan waiter Pasilio ‘Basil’ Saula, from Christchurch, who all these years later still works the same restaurant section and still amazes diners by remembering all their orders.

In James’ era, he started plastering the walls, even in the loos, with photos of sporting heroes expertly captioned by ‘‘official pen master’’, Andrew ‘Jacko’ Jackson.

‘‘I loved being here and I was very lucky with Lucy who let me be here,’’ he says.

A roll call of celebs have dined there including Hollywood actress Brooke Shields and, much later, her short-lived hubby, tennis star Andre Agassi — Saula showed the latter a Mountain Scene photo of his ex on a wall.

James says it was ‘‘time to go’’ when he, Tim and Ward sold out in ’96, and he and Lucy, with three kids in tow, returned to Christchurch.

By then he and Lucy were also part of the Lone Star franchise company and still are —
there are now 24 Loneys in New Zealand.

Like this pair, Gardiner had also worked at the Christchurch branch when he was at uni, after a mate, Olympic sprinter Mark Keddell, roped him in.

When he told the owners he was going to Queenstown for seven days, they even got him to work for James.

‘‘I worked here for seven nights in a row [in the late ’90s], the earliest I got to sleep was about four in the morning.’’

When Queenstown came up for sale, Gardiner and five Christchurch Loney mates, including Keddell, bought it.

He became GM while the others moved to Auckland to open four branches.

When he arrived, Gardiner recalls Loney regulars, led by realtor Bas Smith, farewelling Lucy and James with a rousing haka.

‘‘One of the first things I did — I didn’t know anyone — I joined the tennis, squash, golf and bowls clubs.’’

He was also thrilled regular customers transferred their loyalty to him.

After six years, he effectively ‘bought’ the business again by buying out the other shareholders.

‘‘Just after, we had a couple of really good years, and I knew I had made the right decision, and never looked back.’’

In his time, he’s continued running the popular Super Rugby tipping comp, started by former restaurant cleaner, Di Burnside, and refurbished the upstairs premises for dining and functions.

Like James and Lucy, he’s been blown away by the calibre of his staff, including GMs, who’ve generally stayed far longer than most other resort hospo staff.

The secret, he says, is creating ‘‘a family-type place where people want to stay’’.

Ever-increasing competition’s never bothered him.

‘‘I come from a sporting background and, for me, competition is something to embrace,  and something to enjoy, and the better they are, the better they make you.’’

You get the feeling Queenstown’s tough times of late are just another challenge he’s embraced.

scoop@scene.co.nz