THERE's not much mobile reception at The Eltham Hotel, and that is the way Luke, Matt and Julia like it. They want you to come to the region's iconic watering hole and do what it was built for: stop, connect with community and fill your belly with good local food and beer.
They've given the beloved old establishment "in the middle of nowhere, at the centre of everything", a facelift. As a result, this 118-year-old-bar, and its guest rooms, are all smiling again.
Not that taking over the licence, just as a global pandemic hit, has been without its "challenges", says Luke Sullivan, " but it forced us to get creative".
"We came up with the idea of doing virtual meat raffles and trivia nights and couldn't believe how quickly we built up a following."
It's a lock down story of how passion in the right place at the right time is a marriage made in heaven.
Matt Rabbidge, orginally from Oberon, NSW, cemented his relationship with Luke over their common love of craft beer whilst working together at Stone & Wood.
Luke remembers having his first legal beer at The Eltham Hotel 14 years ago at the age of 18.
"I'd been coming up to the area with the family and remember finding this little country pub country and its locals and thinking: this is a really special place," he says.
For Matt, there was just something about old railway junction between Lismore, Ballina and Bangalow.
"It has a spiritual feel to it," he says.
"People tell us of how they always make a connection with someone in the catchment when they come here."
Matt and Julia Ashwood married in 2015. Julia's "eye" is already well-known for her travels due to her huge instagram following on The_Vista, but her local credentials are inter-generational.
Having grown up in Lennox Head, she traveled two hours to and from Trinity College in Lismore each day. The couple are now bringing up their own two kids and live close by.
Having left Stone & Wood to start up his own bar service, Dead East, Matt brought in Luke to help with the cocktails and, an entrepreneurial spirit emerged.
The Eltham wasn't on the market when Matt made enquiries about whether the previous owners wanted to sell, so it was a surprise when he came home and told Julia:"we've just bought a pub."
"There goes the international travel for a while," says Julia. But she's okay with it, Covid's put paid to that anyway. She's turned her social media focus to what our Australian towns have to offer.
Late last year, the team began improving the gardens, beautifying the bistro and putting up a pergola to open up the space to the surrounding countryside.
Julia then set to work on the Five Ladies. The accommodation suites are known as: Maggie, The Bold Station Master, Delilah - The starry-eyed local darling, Rhonda - their own lady of the night, Patsy and Estelle - the homegrown beauty and keen botanist.
"The take up has been amazing. We're now booked up until after Christmas, " says Julia.
One of the biggest changes to the pub was getting rid of the pokies, says Luke.
"We just didn't see them as a good sustainable business model. It is good conscious feeling to know no one is going to go bust on my shift.
"This is a family pub for people of all ages and walks of life. We want them to go home with a full tummy and a beer buzz, and have them come back again soon."
The focus in the house is now back where it began, brewing beer.
"We want to appeal to the old guy at end of the bar at the RSL drinking brown ale, who's full of stories," says Luke.
"Our house brand is called Brewser's Beer Co. The brown lager is called Brown. It's based on the German purity law, is all natural - yeast, malt and hops - with no additives. We've used the graphics, by artist Paul McNeill, of a punter sporting a black eye on the label of our Golden lager label, Shiner. It just says it all."
But that's not the only thing about the place that is home grown. Acclaimed muso, Murray Paterson, has been enlisted to head up The House Band. It's crafted from the bar staff and, last week, they had their inaugural House gig.
COVID edicts prevailed and it was a sell out. Rest assured, there was no one on their phones.