"In my dream, I would get into the car at six-thirty in the morning, and it would be pitch black. And instead of going to work in Te Awamutu, I would take the turn off and drive back to Wellington"
Thea Meredith runs the Waterloo Pub, down by the railway station on Waterloo Quay. She is a Wellingtonian by choice
Originally from Te Awamutu, Thea has experienced the rough with the smooth over the years. At 17 she left home and school to do a hairdressing apprenticeship. At 25 she bought and sold her own house, has part-owned and run two businesses with family, lived in Melbourne, supported herself through study, all while keeping her perfectly cat-flicked-eyeliner and smile intact. After a brief stint back in the Waikato this year, and a return to the pub where she worked through University, Thea has decided Wellington is home.
Thea’s early experiences made her realise she needed to leave her small Waikato town growing up. She remembers Te Awamutu being very family orientated, growing up with cousins, ruling the streets on bikes until “until you hear your mother calling you down the street”. As small towns often are, everyone knew everyone and as a teenager, Thea found it tough.”Mum used to get home from work and go ‘So had a phonecall you were roaming up-town after school’, or ‘What was that car pulling up with so-and-so?’ or ‘Thea, were you wagging’ - just things like that started getting on my nerves big time”.
"Mum used to get home from work and go ‘So had a phone-call you were roaming up-town after school’"
Thea moved out at 17 after finishing school in 6th form. Weekends were about house parties, visits to the local dodgy bar or Hamilton. “If you were lucky enough to get a sober driver, you might go clubbing - the streets just smelt of Red Bull and Impulse and vomit” she remembers.
She started as a hairdressing apprenticeship before opening a business ‘The Empire Espresso’ - a cafe in a local old theatre. After a year, the reality of owning half a business in hospitality at 18 got to her. “I was working 7 days at 18” she says “even if I was watching the TV, I was rolling cutlery or doing the washing, while all my mates were going out and getting on the piss. I was probably just young and dumb.” Thea decided to go it alone, and sold her half of the business and moved to Cheltenham, a suburb in Melbourne, located 19 km southeast of Melbourne's central business district.
Thea worked at a local old-school Italian restaurant, barely having enough to get by. She embraced the experience anyway. “I was so broke” she remembers “I had enough money to pay the bills, and I had like 30 dollars left over at the end week. But it didn’t matter because I was doing my own thing”.
She would buy a ticket for the train into town for $10, get a coffee in the city, and sit for hours in a cafe courtyard, often watching spontaneous live entertainment. “It was just so nice to not see anyone I knew - something so massive when I had come from something so small”. There was also the odd brush with TV and fame, as Cheltenham was the location for filming some scenes of Australian cult comedy classic Kath and Kim. “You could see the city from the mall” she remembers “They filmed some episodes of the series in that mall which is funny because I loved Kath and Kim - I walked in and was like, ‘This looks really familiar’.
“I had a plan - because I thought I knew it all”
Thea fell in love with Melbourne, and the city’s life and activity. She made friends with native Melbourne-ites “I was amazed they went to markets, and surfing and festivals and where I was from no-one did that. They were doing stuff all the time”.
Despite her love, Thea’s father was persistent she move home to get a degree. At 19, she returned to Te Awamutu to study at Waikato University and achieve her university entrance.
She then moved to Wellington to study Art History and English, living at what turned out to be a Christian Hostel, the Helen Lowry Hall of residence in Karori. “I never got handouts from my parents - it was what I could afford” She made new friends outside her hostel - and the people she befriended were quintessentially Wellington “I made friends with people who thought about things differently, extremely philosophical, ‘hippies’ if you will.” she remembers “They knew about current events going on in the world, they would go to protests at the Beehive - I just never grown up with people like that. It was really eye opening for me.”
"Mum had showed me how to make money go further"
To make ends meet, Thea started part-working at a bar called the Waterloo, by the railway station, while studying. Her willingness to put in the work meant her boss came to rely on her. It was a stable job throughout her whole degree, averaging 30 hours a week, with study on top of that.
Flatting was not always easy to manage either “In my first flat had two guys sharing a room sleeping in single beds and a guy and his girlfriend - so we really had 8 people in a 4 bedroom house” she remembers. Thea to moved in with strangers, which worked out well. She continued to work, and get by, running between work and study, getting by on grit, coffee and hard work, going out just once a week. After finishing her degree, Thea returned to Te Awamutu, but when the Waterloo asked her to come back to Wellington and run the bar, Thea agreed.
"There is so much that goes into getting that pint into that pint glass"
“The Bar has afforded me everything I could have wanted in Wellington” Thea notes. “It’s paid for the deposit on my house, it paid me through studying - it’s looked after me. The Waterloo are my second family. At the same time, some days I think “I’ve been wiping these tables for 6 years - I’ve had enough. This is just mundane, and boring, and mediocre.” At other times, when people like the young people come in, it’s just like hanging out with my mates.”
When people ask her what she does, she notes, people can be scathing, “They look at me like - “You’re just going to work here forever” - like I’m not intelligent enough to be doing anything else”. But Thea knows know there is so much that goes into running a bar than people expect. “There is so much that goes into getting the pint in that pint glass. If the beer is frothy, is it a dodgey keg, is the gas out?”
Thea’s biggest challenge is being a female bar manager. “If a fight breaks out, if the bar gets robbed” she says “I want to protect my staff because I have a responsibility to - but there’s only so much I can personally do. They could knock me out with a punch because I’m just a girl”. Dealing with intoxicated people can also be hard too. “You have to stay on this even level - if you escalate, they escalate.”
For instance, Thea remembers, one of Thea’s staff once had an intoxicated person that she couldn’t serve who was challenging her, and Thea had to intervene. “And he was like ‘Cool, sweet’. And as I turned around, he was like “I f**ked your mum” she laughs. “Which is funny now, but it wasn’t funny hearing the panic in my staff members voice.” Thea notes it’s important to have a good team. “Why should you come into the bar if you’re not going to get attention and be looked after. No one wants to be around miserable people.”
Despite the challenges, Thea feels it is all worth it. Wellington’s hospitality industry has networks all around town, and people look out for her. “There’s a camaraderie, even with the competition - every business was someone’s dream”. Personally a big foodie, Thea loves the wide variety of food available in Wellington, from Creole inspired food at Sweet Mother’s Kitchen to Asian broth at Satay Kingdom.
"Everything is figur-out-able"
Thea’s independence has a “I’ll figure it out” attitude which has served her well. She admits she used to dream about coming back to Wellington while she was fixing up her house in the Waikato. “In the dream, I would get into the car at 6:30 in the morning, and it would be pitch black. And instead of going to work, I would take the turn-off and drive back to Wellington”. Wellington is still the same for Thea - the colourful, inviting nature of the city from when she arrived. The difference is now she feels she can go to the places she always wanted to which were difficult to visit as a student working 30 hours - like Good as Gold or Ancestral. “When people come down to visit, and I show them the places I’ve been before.” she notes, “and each time it is like rediscovering it through other peoples eyes”.