They’re raising their salt-rimmed glasses in Queenstown to a vibrant new, high-energy Mexican restaurant and bar, successfully launched by local hospitality group Future Bars, against all post-Covid odds.
Future Bars partners James Ace, Bert Haines and Bradley Iles had already spent six months and about $80,000 working on architectural drawings for their new Mexican restaurant and bar, Margo’s, when Covid-19 shut down the country in March.
“We got our building consent two weeks prior to lockdown and had the build all quoted for at just over $1.5 million,” says James. They’d been hoping to do the Margo’s rebuild on their Britannia Restaurant site off Queenstown Mall for $900,000 to $1 million.
“Then the Covid crisis hit and we had to tear it all up, all the architectural drawings we’d spent so much on,” he says.
A resourceful bunch, the boys got their heads together and decided they had no choice but to try and make the rebuild happen somehow with so much at stake. The minute they could regain access to the site, post-lockdown, they donned some Kiwi ingenuity and headed for Mitre 10 Mega, says James. “We just got resourceful. We bought some demolition tools and did the demolition ourselves and upgraded the kitchen, doing nothing that tripped the building consent we’d been granted,” he says. “It was all cosmetic. We used furniture from the previous restaurant, sanding down the old tabletops until 2am and lacquering them every morning.”
Owners of several other Queenstown venues, Little Blackwood, Minus 5 degrees ICE BAR and Rhino’s Ski Shack, they had the vision for what they wanted. “We pride ourselves on our food, our menu, cooking it well, and we knew we could make cocktails,” says James. The problem was transforming the space into what they wanted with not much more than 10 percent of their original budget. They were right out of their depth on the building front too. “We’d paint a whole wall and look at it and go, ‘oh my, that looks terrible,” says James. “We’d have to change the colour.”
Thankfully a whole bunch of local tradie mates pitched in working after hours to help them pull it off. “We had plumbers, builders, painters and electricians asking how they could help, working at a reduced hourly rate and supplying materials at cost for us.”
“Painter lads would be finishing work in their day job and coming in at night to help a mate out. It was so awesome,” says James.
They made it, but only just on time. They were still hanging the last speaker at five to five on opening night, August 19, five minutes before the guests arrived.
And the support hasn’t waned. “We’ve been blown away by the numbers. People are loving it,” he says. “Queenstown was ready for some good epic Mexican food and great margaritas.”
“We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved. It’s amazing what you can do when you have to,” he says. “We had half a business open. We’ve got families and mortgages to pay. It was a fight for survival, working 80 hours a week but we weren’t afraid of making it happen.”
The three partners are still hands on at Margo’s, when they would normally have taken a back step now and they’ve obviously taken a massive pay cut, but they got the job done.
While it’s been devastating for so many local hospitality workers to lose jobs, James says they’ve had an amazing pool of talent to handpick an incredibly experienced team from.
American head chef Matt Tobin, with almost 20 years in the kitchen, learned Mexican cooking from the best. He grew up among strong Latin American roots in an integrated neighbourhood in Indianapolis before heading to culinary school in Chicago.
Colorado was where he first learned true Mexican cooking before travelling and cooking widely in Mexico. Pork green chili is pretty much staple there, says Matt, who has put his own original spin on Mexican favourites like that for the Margo’s menu. “Margo’s has really knocked it out of the park with its offering of authentic Mexican food.”
So far the Duck Tlayuda – a delicious marriage between classic Tlayuda and Mexican street food, has been hugely popular, as has Matt’s own take on ceviche. “I call the fish market every morning and ask what the freshest fish is available that day, so I use everything from blue cod and gurnard to tuna and salmon, marinated in fresh lime and garnished with crispy, golden kumara. Matt also makes his own escabeche pickle mix.
His churros served with hot chocolate and dulce de leche have also been a hit and Margo’s has been careful to cater to the vegans. A hot favourite on the Vegan Vibes section is Cashew Queso – roasted cashews, braised down with onions, garlic, chipotle, green tomatoes and almond milk pureed into the consistency of a melted cheese dip.
And Matt assures Margo’s is definitely not just for those who like it hot. “Nothing on the menu is over spicy.”