Passionate about industry and community

Oamaru publican and restaurateur Sally-Ann Donnelly, behind the bar at Fat Sally's,  reflects on...
Oamaru publican and restaurateur Sally-Ann Donnelly, behind the bar at Fat Sally's, reflects on a long career in the hospitality industry. Photo by Sally Rae.

Oamaru publican, restaurateur and community stalwart Sally-Ann Donnelly is passionate about the hospitality industry. But as a girl growing up in Oamaru, such a career was the last thing on her mind, as business reporter Sally Rae reports.

When Sally-Ann Donnelly was awarded a Waitaki district Citizens Award last year, the applause reverberated throughout the community.

For while the popular publican and restaurateur is well known for running three Oamaru pubs and restaurants - Fat Sally's, Portside and, most latterly, the Criterion Hotel - she is also a tireless supporter of many organisations and causes.

While never one to seek plaudits or acclaim for her efforts - ''I love our community; you just help ... don't you?'' - it was well-deserved recognition.

Citizens Awards are presented annually to people who have made a significant contribution to the wellbeing of the district and its citizens. The citation for Mrs Donnelly's award said she had used her professional knowledge, skills and expertise within the hospitality and service industry to help provide practical support for many organisations, from North Otago Rugby to Special Olympics North Otago and the North Otago Child Cancer Foundation, local sports people and teams, and the likes of the Movember cause, ''to name only a few''.

Those who nominated Mrs Donnelly and the accompanying letters of support all mentioned her compassion and empathy for others, generosity with her time, her energy, the sharing of her expertise and skills and her encouragement of others. All agreed she was a ''true community person''.

Mrs Donnelly (42) has known no other industry but the hospitality trade since leaving Waitaki Girls' High School halfway through her sixth form (year 12) year.

But rather than being a passion back then, her long-standing involvement in hospitality came about ''by fluke'', she acknowledged.

She could not wait to leave school and she spied an advertisement in the back of a newspaper for a hospitality course starting at Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru and thought: ''that'll do''.

She had always previously thought she might head down the agricultural path but that advertisement provided ''a means to get out of school''.

That year spent at polytechnic was a basic introduction to both tourism and hospitality and the skills she acquired ranged from restaurant service to cookery.

After a ''great time'' in Timaru, she headed to Haast, where she worked as a general hand at a hotel and did everything from waitressing and bar work to cleaning motels, and it was a fantastic experience.

''People over there were amazing and there was only one pub so you knew most people, so it was great,'' she said.

After several years, she returned to Oamaru and spent a few years working in various restaurants and bars. She also did some further training at polytechnic and ended up managing the Armada complex in north Oamaru.

The arrival of son Grant (now 16) followed and she later started tutoring hospitality at Otago Polytechnic's Oamaru campus, which was ''great fun''. She still has some of the students she tutored working for her.

It was on Mrs Donnelly's way to the polytechnic one day that she saw the sign being taken down from the former Annie Flanagans Irish bar in lower Thames St.

''I thought, I quite like that place,'' she recalled.

She made some inquiries, talked it through with husband Kevin and bought it, opening the doors to Fat Sally's pub and restaurant in 2004.

''I'd always joked one day I'd have a pub and call it Fat Sally's even when I was slim. I didn't know I would do such a good job of growing into the name,'' she quipped.

Fat Sally's has developed into a busy, popular venue, which had seen continual growth. Since it was opened, it had enjoyed a lot of community support, she said.

While Mrs Donnelly could have been content with just overseeing Fat Sally's, she was always keen for a challenge.

She took over the harbourside restaurant Portside in January, 2008, having fallen in love with its location.

''I thought, 'we can do something here; I'm just not sure what'. We had to try a few things before we got that one right.''

Last year, Mrs Donnelly signed the lease for the historic Criterion Hotel, the cornerstone of the town's historic precinct. It was a ''unique, little place'' that had a lot to offer, she said.

She was fortunate all three of her businesses were ''completely different'', catering for different markets. There was a common theme, however, and that was the ''wonderful team'' of people working with her in all three premises. Consistency was also a key factor in the success, she said. Despite the long hours, which she said was ''karma'' getting her back for not liking school and not listening, Mrs Donnelly remained passionate about the industry and the North Otago community.

Such devotion was important - ''you either are the industry or you're not'' - although she stopped counting her hours a few years ago, saying it was ''a bit depressing''.

It involved weekend and night work, meaning that she missed out on a lot of things, but she believed it was important to ''show your face''.

''I did think this year I could get a hobby. The thought passed,'' she said.

While Mrs Donnelly said she never begrudged training up young people who then moved on - ''they need to go see the world'' - many young people in New Zealand did not want to work nights or weekends. They wanted ''everything given to them''.

She was very grateful for the ''amazing'' support of her husband Kevin, a truck driver. The family lives above Fat Sally's, which had both advantages and disadvantages.

She was also grateful for her great friends who helped her out when she had a ''hare-brained scheme''.

That included catering for 650 people attending a Golden Oldies rugby festival in Oamaru in 2011 in a gymnasium without a kitchen, and serving a three-course plated meal.

''It's support from friends that helps me do crazy things like that,'' she said.

She admitted she probably thrived under pressure, she liked being busy and there were ''a few things in the pipeline'' she would like to do for the town this year.

Mrs Donnelly enjoyed taking a much-needed break over the Christmas-New Year period, although she reckoned she usually needed another one by March.

Asked whether there were any further plans for expanding her business, she said: ''I don't know where the end is actually.

''You can never say never.''


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