Hospitality Business Magazine

Iconic Queenstown institution keeps flame alight

The owners of Queenstown’s iconic Flame Bar and Grill weren’t about to let the Covid-19 lockdown crisis get in the way of a substantial reinvestment and expansion plan.

Owners Jonathan Bisley and Lou McDowell were seven months into a major refit in a property across Beach Street from their original premises on Queenstown’s prime, lakefront Steamer Wharf when lockdown occurred in late March. “We were so far in that we decided we had to proceed and we’re so glad we did,” says Jonathan.

It was the culmination of a three-year project as the hugely popular steakhouse and grill, a regular staple for locals, had outgrown its Beach Street premises.

Founded 11 years ago by a Queenstown South African couple, Grant and Dawn Sneddon, Jonathan and Lou took over the restaurant in 2016 and began their dream plans for expansion the following year.

“We were really confident that we’d done as much as we could in the existing premises. We were constrained physically,” says Jonathan. “Flame is an institution in Queenstown and we didn’t want to frighten people away by changing locations, so we googled how to safely relocate and couldn’t find any successful relocations,” he says.

They decided the most important thing was to retain critical touch points and maintain as much of the old atmosphere as possible.  “So we changed out some of our existing table tops with the new ones and hung up new artwork well in advance,” he says. “We bought all of the new crockery for the relocation two years ago and started using that and also incorporated our new branding photography at least two years ago to take people on the journey to the new Flame.

The late Grant, and Dawn who still lives locally, are very much part of the new restaurant and that original South African heritage has been carried through. “Grant’s nickname was ‘Sunny’ so we still have our ‘Sunny Burger’ in pride of place on the menu and a story about Grant and how the Flame journey began in Africa on the menu and hanging on the wall,” says Jonathan. “The end result has been a transition into this wonderful new space and not one of our regular customers has said that they miss the old Flame.”

There’s even a celebration of the staff, the ‘Wall of Flame’, featuring photos gathered of them during the past two or three years that now hang proudly at the top of the staircase.

The new venue sports 120 seats, with another 30 bar seats, something there just wasn’t space for in the old building, only a 70-seater.

“Our aim was to ensure it retained its original vibe and was comfortable and accessible to everybody, because we have locals, chief executives of public companies, young people in beanies and tradesmen all coming in,” says Jonathan. “We’ve worked hard to ensure it’s not intimidating.”

Rough-sawn black timber teams up perfectly with aged-copper bar fronts and steel liquor displays, and the restaurant and bar now encompass three different zones. A huge skylight opens over the new large garden room and large windows open over neighbouring lakefront Earnslaw Park with fantastic views of the Remarkables.

The expansive, new open plan, theatre-style kitchen incorporates plenty of capacity for storage and there’s been a strong emphasis on sustainability. “We’ve done a lot of work to improve emissions as we do a lot of chargrilling and sell large volumes, including a tonne of ribs a week and 300 to 400 kilos of steak, so it’s a busy place generating lots of smoke,” says Jonathan. The latest technology has been installed in the form of electrostatic precipitators that capture smoke and reduce smoke emissions by upto 90 percent. “It was expensive to buy but provides a wonderful environmental benefit,” he says.

Even in the post-Covid environment Jonathan and Lou are constantly trying to hire staff and with opening hours extending from five to six nights a week from mid-August, Jonathan says they’re hoping to get the new venue opened for seven nights soon. He now has a baker on board and nine chefs, but needs more. “Interestingly, there have not been many Kiwis applying. We have 12 front of house staff on the floor and none are Kiwis.”