A group of men and women stand on a street corner in front of a large building with the words 'Border Inn'.

Border Inn Hotel’s 23 publicans hand over keys to new owners from Melbourne

It was by chance that Shane Burke had his truck radio on the morning of February 18.

Apsley local Cynthia Watt was giving a sales pitch for the Border Inn, her tiny town’s pub of 170 years on the Victoria-South Australia border.

“I could just tell by her voice and what she was saying, [that it was something special],” Mr Burke says.

For the eight years prior, the hotel was owned and operated by a group of locals — 23 farmers turned publicans for the sake of keeping their community alive.

The Border Inn Hotel had been closed for two years when David and Sally Scott put their hands up to get the place up and running again in 2014.

“The town had fallen into a state of nothing. You drove into Apsley and there was nothing in the main street,” Sally Scott says.

“Now when you come up, there are cars again and people.”

The Border Inn is one of the first buildings you see in Apsley driving in from the Victorian side.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whitham)

After bringing it back to life, the 23 shareholders put the hotel on the market in hope of finding a long-term owner in 2020.

COVID struck and nothing happened — until last month, thanks to Cynthia Watt.

“Our mission was to get the word out and see if we could get anyone possible in this country to find out about how truly magical Apsley is and what they could do with this pub,” Ms Watt says.

“The [shareholders] asked a few of us from the next generation to help market the pub to not only sell it but sell it to the right people.”

They believe Shane Burke and his wife, Catherine Warke, are the right people.

“We’re all just so excited. They seem like such a great fit,” Ms Watt says.

A man in a knit sweater and jeans sits on a park bench with his arm around a woman wearing jeans and a puffer jacket, smiling.
Shane Burke and Catherine Warke love cooking but have no commercial kitchen experience.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whitham)

It’s a responsibility they take seriously.

Keeping the pub going

While never a shareholder, Cynthia Watt has always been committed to the success of the Border Inn.

“It’s gone from a Friday night drinks thing to now an absolute hub for me. It’s a parent group, you know, somewhere to have a cup of tea, we have book club here,” Ms Watt says.

A baby boy wearing a knitted jumper and bib sits on a red carpeted floor.
Apsley local Cliff Watt at the Border Inn.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whitham)

It’s in steep contrast to the “men’s club” Georgina ‘Beanz’ Robinson arrived at in 1988.

Like the Scotts, the Border Inn’s been a point of pride for Ms Robinson and her husband, Simon.

“We all had our different areas that we were interested in as owners. Some people liked spending time in the beer garden, Maureen was interested in the accommodation, I did the flowers,” Ms Robinson says.

“We were always passionate that it went well.”

A man in an Akubra hat sits at a table by a pub window smiling.
David ‘Scotty’ Scott has grown up at the Border Inn.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whitham)

Even if the shareholders could take some getting used to.

“Some of the managers thought 23 publicans was a bit much to handle,” Mr Robinson says.

“But we learned to step back as much as we could.”

For Maureen Reader, taking on the pub brought her even closer to her community.

“We had a good structure in that we had meetings, we had a secretary and a chairman, and we all had our say,” she says.

Three women sit on a couch with two men standing behind them in a beer garden.
Former shareholders (from left) Georgina ‘Beans’ and Simon Robinson, Maureen Reader, and Sally and David Scott.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whitham)

“We really loved coming in here and catching up. We’d pretty much come every week and we used to say we were keeping our own business going.

“We’ve all become a family, really.”

The Border Inn did have one offer before Shane Burke and Catherine Warke stepped in, but as a residential property — an offer the 23 publicans had to refuse.

“We couldn’t bear to see it stop being a pub. We were very grateful when Shane and Catherine came along,” Mr Robinson says.

Several men, women and teenagers gather around a pub bar smiling.
Apsley locals make the Border Inn a great meeting place.(Supplied: Georgina Robinson)

“I think they’ve got the skills to make it a destination pub. They’re obviously good in the kitchen and they’re good, friendly people across the bar.”

A sign post with signs leading to several towns including Kaniva and Fans, all within 70 kilometres.
Apsley is 10 kilometers from the South Australian border.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whitham)

Taking a punt

Mr Burke and Ms Warke were looking for a change when they stumbled on Apsley and sold up their life in Melbourne.

Prior to truck driving around Melbourne, Mr Burke had been in management for many years.

Ms Warke was working long hours as a carer for women seriously ill with multiple sclerosis.

While Mr Burke had shown other properties to Ms Warke before, Apsley was different.

“I just liked [the people here] a lot. They were very easy to talk to. I think we all just clicked,” Ms Warke says.

Aerial photos of a small sized township, bordered by paddocks and gum trees.
Apsley has about 300 locals these days.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whitham)

“We go for a walk here and it ends up taking us two hours because we talk to everybody.

“I actually feel quite emotional when I say that. I think we’re going to make a lot of good friends here.”

The move is their transition to retirement, and an opportunity to spend more time together.

“When we were working in Melbourne we hardly saw each other. I’d work weekends and do shift work, Shane worked long, long hours,” Ms Warke says.

The silhouette of a man and woman sitting at a cafe window bench.
Shane Burke and Catherine Warke at the cafe across the street.(South East SA: Bec Whitham)

And despite having a passion for food but no real commercial hospitality experience, they’re hopeful they can do a good job.

“We love people, we’re people’s people. So I think this is exactly the sort of job that would suit both of our personalities,” Ms Warke says.

“What have we got to lose, really?”

New owners keen to keep old charm

The biggest fear for the new owners is not doing the place justice.

“The one thing we’ve got to be is just true to the past. The Border Inn is going to remain what it always has been,” Mr Burke says.

“To start with, I think we just want to bring the standard pub food back.”

Large steel work benches and cabinets in a pub kitchen space.
The kitchen’s in pretty good nick, just needing a chef.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whitham)

In time they’re keen to host live music and expand the menu, with an emphasis on local produce and American barbecue.

The one thing they do need is staff, notably a chef.

“Sometimes there’s an apprentice out there that’s got to the end, and is looking to put their stamp on something. And this is a good place to really cut your teeth,” Mr Burke says.

“It’s a great kitchen. There’s nothing you could want as a chef.”

Town alive again

As well as the pub, Apsley’s cafe reopened this year after a five-year closure.

The town’s population swelled with newcomers during the pandemic, including Cindy Beveridge who had visited from Melbourne with friends decades prior.

“But I never thought I’d [live] here. This is a surprise,” Ms Beveridge says.

A woman sits on the step of a post office, patting a dog, smiling.
Cindy Beveridge moved her life in Melbourne to the Apsley Post Office recently.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whitham)

Having worked in pharmacy for 42 years but not ready to retire, she retrained with Australia Post to take over the Apsley Post Office.

It’s an encouraging sight for the pub’s former publicans.

“I have a really good feeling that it will continue to thrive,” Mr Robinson says.

“It’s a special spot to come to, with a park here for children to play in, free camping out the back, nice lakes and walks, there’s so much on offer.”

Five men and women stand around a mowed grass area pointing towards a weatherboard building.
The shareholders have been eager to help the new owners in any way they can.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whitham)

The departure from the Border Inn is bittersweet.

“I just hope the 23 of us still see one another,” Ms Robinson says.

“We didn’t know Maureen before this and now I feel as if she’s my other mother.”

At least they can keep meeting at the Border Inn — without having to clean it.

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