It's fair to say that Howard Johnson, 26, would not be the manager of Lismore's Loft Restaurant if it was not for a working holiday visa requirement that he spend time in regional Australia.
"It was my best three months ever," says Howard, who hails from the south coast of the UK, of the time he spent on a hobby farm at Booerie Creek in 2015. "I did a bit of everything - weeding, drenching, mowing, fencing."
My first jobs were sanding, painting and designing the bar.Howard Johnson
He sees the visa requirement as a two-way win. "It's great for the economy and a huge experience for anyone not from this country to see places they'd otherwise never go," he says.
After time in the UK and living elsewhere around the Lismore region, Howard is back living at the farm with the friends who let him know four years ago that The Loft was changing ownership and looking for staff.
"I got here a week after the 2017 floods," he says. "Everything was still in the construction stages so my first jobs were sanding, painting and designing the bar."
Howard's interest in bar design was far more than academic. His first training in hospitality was a bartending course with the European Bartending School, who offer courses all over the world.
"I went to Thailand," he says of the four-week course that culminated in a test of 80 cocktails. "Some of those have been asked for at The Loft and I've realised I hadn't made one since then!"
Howard works in a tight-knit team with co-owner Brad Rickard and chef Richard Kerr, formerly of Mirabelle in London and Buon Ricordo in Sydney.
"We're all in this together, we bounce ideas off each other and everyone puts in the same amount of effort," Howard says. That balance of responsibility has had had to shift towards Howard and Richard after Brad and his wife, Kate Scott, moved their family back to their home state of Victoria.
They planned to travel to Lismore every month or so but then the border closed and has remained shut.
"When we opened, Brad wanted me and Richard to step up to take more responsibility, but he's always there on the phone when needed," Howard says.
The latter was particularly needed during Covid lockdowns when the restaurant flipped from being dine-in only to exclusively take-away and home-delivery.
Howard, who at only 26 has been The Loft's manager for four years, feels part of the Lismore community and is applying for citizenship. He celebrated his achievements recently by treating himself to a Loft lockdown home-delivery of cocktails.
"I got home and poured it in a nice glass," he says. "It was great!"