Turn up to the Inveresk Tavern most days of the week, and you can order standard pub fare: the place prides itself on serving burgers, fish and chips, a seafood platter and steak – timeless, no-nonsense classics at good value prices, served with very cold beers or a glass of local wine. Nothing fancy or exotic. Yet on some Sundays, it’s a different story.
Historically a working class suburb on the fringe of Launceston, where rail yards, factories and industrial workshops once predominated, today Inveresk attracts young families in search of affordable housing and a laid-back lifestyle, away from the now premium hub of Hobart – where mainlanders have snapped up their little bit of Georgian heritage architecture and waterfront views, with price tags to match. But don’t say the word “gentrification” to tavern owner Charles Rayner. It makes him bristle.
Averse to all forms of pretension, Rayner bought the tavern in 2015 and wants to keep it as authentically true to the suburb’s working class roots as possible despite the changing demographics.
The son of two Hobart librarians, Rayner is a veteran of the hospitality industry. After attending Hutchins, a well-regarded private school, he failed to graduate from a commerce and law degree. Never one to call on the old boy network , he fell into the restaurant trade, enjoying the camaraderie of the kitchen despite the punishing hours.
But he didn’t like the ethos of the investor-owned businesses that employed him. “I’m not a social justice warrior, but I just got sick of the arseholes who earned money at the expense of everyone else. I didn’t like their dog-in-the-manger attitude and the way they never contributed to anything. I don’t fit in with corporate structures or values.”
When the opportunity came to buy the tavern, he leapt at the chance. “It was struggling, which meant I could afford it,” he says.
Right from the start, Rayner was clear about his aims. “I knew I wanted to be a good employer, where staff received all their entitlements, decent wages and had time off with their families. I employed two people in the kitchen for four days a week each (there wasn’t demand for more back then) so they had reasonable hours. I did it by the book.”
“Then I asked myself what I could do with the three days a week that the pub was closed. I decided that I would offer the Sunday lunch trade to any charity that might want to use the kitchen. I put out an expression of interest to see who would apply. At about the same time I met Ella Dixon, the CEO of the Migrant Resource Centre. After talking to her, I offered the pub to specific cultural communities to prepare their traditional food as a way to fundraise.”
The response was overwhelming.
Over the last 10 years, Launceston has become home to several refugee communities from the Congo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal and the Sudan. More than 3,000 humanitarian entrants and refugees have settled in and around the city’s northern suburbs: the place’s small scale makes resettlement less traumatic.
Word soon got around and within weeks the tavern kitchen was being booked – one week it was Korean students, the next it was Filipino women. And the public embraced it: 100 locals made a beeline for the pub, keen to taste unfamiliar national dishes. “It went off with a bang, completely troppo”, says Rayner, who has a laconic manner that is not prone to exaggeration.
“It was always home cooking, nothing was ever too hot or spicy or strange, although I do remember one pepper soup that had quite a kick to it,” he says, adding that the Sundays got so popular, he had to lend a hand washing dishes when demand was at its peak.
It reminded him of his early days. “When I started working in kitchens and spending time with the guys who chopped veggies and washed the floors, I got to know them and understood they were not there to steal our jobs. I know that they have come away from situations of trauma and on top of that, suffered a lot of stigma.”
Still, he was not confident that local residents would share his views from the start. “There was the risk of pushback from customers that come to drink there. I can’t pretend that some of them are not casual racists. But I’m pleased to report that we have not received one complaint and there has been no rudeness or hostility towards anyone in the community kitchen.”
All the money raised goes directly back to the community that cooks on Sundays. This year, two new communities will join the tavern roster, bringing the total to eight. Rayner is surprised that others have not copied the idea. “I ask myself why not, but it’s probably just due to a failure of imagination or a fear of risks.”
He admits that the venture has taken up a lot of his supposedly free time. “It does depend on my being there,” he says, adding wryly that the tavern cost him one relationship but that he has a new partner who has nothing to do with it. The couple have no children, but two dogs.
“We haven’t had a holiday for a bit,” he concedes.
The attention the community kitchen scheme has attracted from outside, including stories in national media, makes Rayner uncomfortable. “Last year I got nominated for the Tassie of the Year award,” he says and you can almost hear him squirm with embarrassment. “I was so relieved not to win. If I had been picked, I would have felt ashamed compared to people who have spent years making a real difference. All I’ve done is put a few bums on seats.”