For a guy who was rejected from hospo jobs in Canada because he was told he “wasn’t really a people person”, Chris Dickson’s done alright for himself. He talks to TRACEY ROXBURGH about his plans to support Queenstown
Chris Dickson knows all too well what it feels like to not have a roof over his head, or money in his back pocket for food.
It might explain why he’s hell-bent on doing what he can to support the locals during what’s shaping up to be the toughest period in Queenstown’s modern history.
Dickson was born in Scotland but moved with his family to Ontario, Canada, as a tiny tot where he stayed till he was about 20, until he went on an adventure with two mates.
“We decided to buy an old, beat-up car and just drive west as far as we could get, and our car broke down in Whistler and that was it, we were stuck.
“It was a funny time for us there, living in a car for a while … you’d take turns in the ‘good seat’, which was the passenger seat.
“We scraped together whatever we could and eventually found a spot and the three of us moved from a car into a studio, so obviously not much bigger than the car, but it gave us a little bit more room.”
Work wasn’t easy to come by, either – he had a background in labour and agriculture, but most of the jobs going were in hospo, where Dickson had no experience.
One person told him, based on his CV, “you’re really not a people person”.
Eventually, though, he got a job as a dishwasher and worked his way through the hospo ranks, falling in love with the industry.
Later, a two-week holiday in Revelstoke turned into a two-year stint, after he met a Kiwi, before 12 years ago he moved to Queenstown, where he largely worked in events, at Skyline, and as the food and beverage manager for the Rydges.
But when a mutual friend put Dickson in touch with Pascal Fillion and Jen Ernst, who wanted to set up a bar in Queenstown, it was “a match made in heaven”.
“Looking back now, it was perfect – they offered me everything I ever needed; a chance to build another bar, at the time to run it and manage it as my own, with a future to get shares.
“So, that’s what happened.
“Here we are five years later, I have a good chunk of the bar, still run it as my own and, obviously, it means a lot more to me now than all those years ago.”
The concept of Smiths Craft Beer House was “an extension of what we wanted our garage/living rooms to be”.
“We’re those ultimate kitchen party guys – you always hang out in the kitchen and socialise that’s exactly what we wanted to create here … where everybody just feels comfortable.”
And, with a town feeling anything but at the moment, Dickson and his team are doing everything they can to help.
As soon as the country entered Alert Level 3, Smiths started selling a chilli bowl, at a “fairly low price” – a percentage of every sale went back to help feed someone else.
They also hosted another charity bingo event a couple of weeks ago – one before Christmas raised about $800 for Happiness House.
Proceeds from the more recent one will be used to buy food vouchers from Pak’nSave, which will then be dropped to Happiness House for distribution.
“I really did want to make sure that the money we raised went back into the community … I wanted to make sure we were able to give back to the people that needed it the most now.”
And, at the end of winter, he’s hoping to start a nationwide tour, in conjunction with five of the largest breweries in NZ, to celebrate beer and raise money and awareness for I Am Hope, a charity linked to Mike King, which focuses on depression and suicide.
The idea came after he lost a friend to suicide a year ago.
He’s hoping the event series, to be named after his friend’s son, Charlie, will raise thousands of dollars for I Am Hope and, importantly, get people talking.
Dickson’s also keen to get some basic training for bar staff around mental health support for customers who might need it.
Despite feeling “somewhat conflicted at times [because] alcohol isn’t necessarily held in the highest of [regards]”, the team at I Am Hope have been supportive of that idea.
“It’s about us reaching in as opposed to asking those people to reach out … a real old-school approach.
“You look back at some of the old TV programmes, bartenders were like quick-witted counsellors, they were the ears that people wanted to talk to.
“If one person can save one person, that would be awesome.”
● Need to Talk? 1737, free 24/7 phone and text number
● Healthline: 0800 611 116
● Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800 543 354
● Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865
● Samaritans: 0800 726 666
● Alcohol and Drug Helpline: 0800 787 797
● General mental health inquiries: 0800 443 366
● The Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757