Some people inflate their age to join the army. For 16-year-old Darryl Brown, fresh out of school in Grafton, northern NSW, it was to get his first job as a kitchen hand in a local restaurant.
It was an inauspicious beginning to a hospitality career that continues to this day – Darryl is now the owner of the Best Western Zebra Motel in Coffs Harbour, 90km away from where it all started.
Of course, there have been some diversions along the way. “I did what everyone else did and went to Sydney for a few years.”
But Darryl decided he preferred the country life and returned home, running several hospitality businesses in the region.
He loves the work, its variety and unpredictability.
“In the hospitality industry, you get up every morning and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Darryl. “I like that, it keeps you on your toes.”
Darryl bought the Best Western Zebra Motel last November after searching for a hotel or motel to buy and run.
“I kept coming back to it – the property has great bones, it was very well built.”
He and his business partner Simon Chladil have put an enormous amount of effort into improving the Zebra, which is in a cluster of motels on the Pacific Highway at the southern edge of the town centre.
All the rooms have been repainted, the linen replaced and the bathrooms upgraded while there are several other projects on the agenda.
They’ve also re-opened the onsite restaurant and bar, formerly known as Zulu’s, a well-known African themed restaurant featuring Zebra striped furniture and a tiger print carpet.
The carpet remains but the furniture has been replaced and the bar rebuilt.
“Twenty-five years ago, it was the number one restaurant on the coast. We used to drive down for dinner from Grafton and then drive back again,” he says.
“The previous people were doing South African with a bit of Heston Blumenthal.
“We’ve gone back to hearty, well-cooked food, which is what our clients are looking for – they don’t want anything overly fancy.”
To date, Darryl and Simon have been doing most of the cooking but they have just appointed a new chef.
“The restaurant’s slowly getting its recognition back again.”
Darryl says the guest mix is heavy on the corporates and lots of people travelling between Sydney and the Gold Coast.
“We have a lot of older people coming through chasing the warmer weather.”
Their hard work is paying off with occupancy growing month on month and excellent TripAdvisor reviews.