PHOTOS by TAYLOR CHALKER
By ERWIN CHLANDA
Message to the “we’ll all be ruined” brigade: There’s plenty of scope in Alice Springs for growing a business – and quite without government handouts.
Just ask Lisa Perry (at right) who last week launched the swank Star of Alice Function Centre at Palm Circuit, just south of the Gap: A very pleasant indoor – outdoor location, leased from another high achiever, Brendan Heenan, owner of the multi award winning MacDonnell Range tourist park just ’round the corner.
Lisa was briefly in Alice in 1999, went to Darwin, came back “for a couple of months” in 2003 – and stayed.
She combined her gourmet cooking (arancini balls, chilli lime prawns and pulled pork buns were among the opening night delicacies) with great people skills and a love for how a small town works to progress from being a cook in a backpackers lodge to running a company able to provide a finger food function for 500 guests.
Her 10 year climb up the local hospitality ladder was marked by relatively long services to successive employers: Two years at Annie’s Place, another two setting up the Watertank cafe at Blooming Desert, followed a contract with Batchelor Institute and the Desert People’s Centre to manage the Irrarnte Cafe in the Desert Knowledge Precinct for three years.
Her Reality Bites Catering got a very good name around town: “In the first few years, every function I did, half the people were new people and I’d end up getting more work from these functions, and it just grew from there. The community support was huge,” she says.
Lisa now has three full-time staff including two chefs, plus a part-time chef. She calls on “a good pool of young local kids who are enthusiastic and need the experience,” mostly students at CDU’s tourism and hospitality course, to provide part-time work at functions – dressed in smart red aprons.
Her husband, local AFL manager Andy Hood, also helps out and applied a lot of his elbow grease to fitting out the new venue into which they moved last November.
Says Lisa: “I come from a small town in NSW and I just love Alice Springs. It’s very much a word of mouth town.
“If you do things well, and you’re passionate about what you are doing, the word spreads quite quickly and people tend to support you, and there are good things happening.”
When she progressed from sole trader to company status “with my own staff it was quite nerve wracking but I got support through key people at Batchelor Desert Peoples Centre and Desert Knowledge Precinct.
“Ann Davis and Keith Castle were the key people in making that happen, and also Barb Richards.”
The cafe at DK grew to a staff of 12, but when son Oscar was born Lisa scaled back a bit, focusing on functions.
She says the hardest part is finding the balance between work and social and family life. A husband who provides “great support and a fantastic child make my life a lot easier”.
As in most local businesses, Lisa says finding good and loyal workers is difficult: “There is a constant struggle to find great staff and keeping them in the hospitality industry, quality people who are willing to stick around for long periods of time.
“It’s a profession you can do anywhere, so you attract a very transient population in that industry, unfortunately.”
It’s a measure of her people skills that Lisa has found people sticking with her two to three years. One device has been to have a staff house where up to three employees can stay “until they find their feet in the town.
“There is not a huge pool of qualified and talented chefs in the town so you need to cast that wider net to find people.
“It’s a hard transition to a remote area such as Alice Springs. The town doesn’t suit everybody, it’s remote, it’s quite expensive to get elsewhere. For those who do stay Alice Springs gets under their skin.
“I like to build quite a nice environment for them to work in, listen to their needs.”
It’s a recipe well worth sharing.