“When life gives you lemons, use them to make lemonade,” is an old adage about turning life’s challenges into something positive. Owners of Retro Kitchen in Ashburton, Debbie & Kelly Macvey, have faced more than their share of challenges but they remain undeterred. They talk with Spirit Magazine about resilience in tough times, thinking ahead and finding family balance.

                                                                                                         words: Judy McAuliffe images: supplied

Debbie and Kelly are a couple that stands out in a crowd. Perhaps its Debbie’s favourite blue lipstick and trademark blond bun that does it, or maybe’s its Kelly’s casual, easy charm and enormous grin. Whatever it is, it’s clear to see that they believe in making the most of every moment.

“When you’re upside down in a ditch, your vehicle is on fire and you’re waiting for the Jaws of Life to cut you out, you just hope like hell you’re going to make it, and you promise yourself if you survive you’ll do so much better. For us, that accident was an enormous turning point,” Debbie says.

The accident Debbie is referring to was almost three years ago now.  Kelly was driving her to work when a ute came through a Give Way sign and hit the passenger side of their vehicle. “Debbie took the worst of it. I dropped her down and held her there for 20 minutes until we were cut out. We were seven metres down a ditch and there were people all around, which was reassuring, because I thought that meant we were going to be fine, but then they all disappeared, and I wondered why. I found out later that they were all moved because we were on fire.”

No bones were broken, but the emotional toll was enormous. “No one walks away unscathed from an experience like that,” Kelly says. “Neither of us remembers the following two months. We worked; we slept; we worked; we slept.”

Even after two years of therapy, Debbie still suffers from ongoing fatigue. “There’s no such thing as healing and moving on,” she says. “. But we were lucky. We walked away. It was tough, but plenty of other people are worse off.”

With six children (the youngest is now 17, the oldest 32), four grandchildren and another on the way, family means everything. “We spent 17 years farming,” Kelly says. “When we started out, farming was very family orientated, and that’s what we wanted – a lifestyle that worked for our family. Our timing wasn’t the best though,” he says wryly.

“That first year of contract milking we took a $150,000 loss and earned nothing for the year. We bought all the gear to set ourselves up, and the pay-out dropped from $8.50 to $3.60. We had four years of hard slog to recover, but what do you do? It’s hard and frustrating, but you don’t have an option. You just have to do your best and survive. Keep looking forward.”

For Debbie, farming meant years of waking at 4am for milking, managing the family and falling asleep in the middle of helping the kids with homework. But it wasn’t all bad. “We had some amazing times as well, fantastic times with staff – dress up parties, darts nights, Christmas parties with 22 people around the table, staff celebrations – whatever we do we try to have fun.” 

Our last three years of farming they were on Mataura Island, and then in February 2020, massive floods hit Southland. “What you saw on TV was nothing,” Kelly says. “We were on 600 hectares, and you couldn’t see a fence post; the roads were all washed away, and our house was surrounded by a moat. Our Staff were all flown out by helicopter, but we hid from them, so we didn’t have to leave. We moved 600 cows that night. This was our third flood and we wanted to save everything we could.”  

The floods and the accident were the catalyst for change. “It made us re-evaluate what we were doing, and we realised that we’d gotten to the point where we had no life. We’d plan a weekend away and the weather would turn bad or something would break down that we had to urgently fix. The harder you worked, the harder you were expected to work. The lifestyle no longer suited us. We needed a new plan.”

Kelly admits to being the risk taker. “I come up with the crazy ideas, and then Debbie tones me down. We’re a great team,” he grins.

Their new plan? “A couple of our kids had moved to Ashburton, so in February 2020, we moved here too, intending to have a bit of a quieter life, so we bought a house and three days later we were in lockdown. It was actually a very productive time for us – we got a lot of our renovations done,” they laugh.

Jokes aside, their “quieter life” seems some way off. “Prior to farming, we had some hospitality experience. Our original plan was to buy a food trailer, but that didn’t work out. Then Riverside Food Bar came up for sale, and they jumped at the opportunity.

Retro Kitchen, which they opened in November last year, was a complete surprise to everybody, including Debbie and Kelly. “We needed a bigger kitchen was our motivation, so we sat down and made a plan, but once we got started and did the first wall with bright colours, it all sort of happened. We designed a menu around what we could do, but aware that it would be easy to train people, and hopefully, at some stage, we would get out of the kitchen.”  More recently, they’ve added a Hot & Cold food trailer to their business portfolio.

“We’re good at making plans, thinking ahead, deciding what our next move might be, rolling with the punches. Now we have road works to contend with for the next three months. It hurts, but we’ll survive.”

Kelly and Debbie are passionate about bringing young people through, no matter what the industry – farming, hospitality, whatever. Family is another passion. “Bring back Sundays,” they say. “Everything we’ve done has been for our family, but it’s too hard when you’re working seven days. Family time has disappeared, we need to somehow pull that back. The pressure on families is enormous, and it’s such a shame.”

One last thought? “Whatever happens, life is short – enjoy it, have fun.”

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.