This summer the Chronicle is bringing you another look at some of the best content of 2019. This story originally ran on November 07, 2019
A pilot serving up food in a former carpark?
It sounds unlikely - and maybe not that appealing - but this is no ordinary pilot, no ordinary food and no ordinary carpark.
It's a passion project soon to launch in Whanganui, with business owners Belinda Pilcher and Bryce Mason joining forces with Luis Solano to create Maria Lane.
There's quite the backstory to the new laneway eatery which looks out to Majestic Square from its home in the former National Bank carpark.
Behind the new big brown folding doors fronting Maria Pl a transformation has been happening.
Key to the project is Solano, a chef from Mexico who is now studying at New Zealand International Commercial Pilot Academy (NZICPA) in Whanganui.
It's Solano's second time living in New Zealand. After studying for a degree in hotel and restaurant management in Mexico City, Solano came here on an exchange through his university's agreement with Weltec in Wellington.
He started working at an Italian restaurant then got involved with catering at the Mexico Embassy. Through the embassy he met a business partner of Wellington Mexican restaurant Pan de Muerto and began working there in 2010. That's where he met Mason and the two have kept in touch since.
However, after a while in Wellington, home was calling Solano and he returned to Mexico for three years.
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"I wanted to live the Mexican life again but as an adult," he said.
"I came to New Zealand as a kid and I felt something was missing as an adult. During those three years I decided I wanted to achieve my next dream to become a commercial pilot.
"I also realised you can have two or three or more passions in life. I'm passionate about food - and planes as well. That's what my heart follows."
Solano began looking at aviation schools in New Zealand, including NZICPA.
"Luis rang up one day and said 'hey amigo, I'm thinking about moving to Whanganui' and we had this idea [of working together]," Mason said.
A visit to NZICPA clinched the decision to move here - "all the dots came together and it was meant to be", Solano said.
Mason says it's all about collaboration.
"This is another commercial opportunity coming off the back of the flying school. We're really proud of what the flying school is doing."
Solano is designing the Maria Lane menu which he says will comprise "authentic Mexican street food with soul".
"I'm bringing all the authenticity with the ingredients I can find in New Zealand."
Finding those ingredients is now not as difficult as it was in 2007, during Solano's first stint in New Zealand.
Mason, who grew up in Whanganui, and Pilcher have extensive hospitality backgrounds.
After leaving school, Mason trained in wine service and hospitality at the Wanganui Polytechnic Eastown campus in the mid-80s, then went to work at Bellamy's in the Beehive.
After a decade in London, he moved to Wellington in 2000 and set up Sandwiches, a restaurant and music venue.
"There was always a desire to come home and create something new in Whanganui. We were keen to do something that wasn't a 're-hash' and wouldn't be known as 'the old this or that' so we decided a bank carpark in a laneway deserved to be a cool little eatery.
"We liked the space and felt it had potential. We're excited about this area with its line from Cooks Gardens through to the Sarjeant Gallery. It's the heart of Whanganui."
They worked with Andrew Tripe, who owns the former bank building, and then got another Whanganui returnee, designer Chris Aplin, involved.
"We brought Chris in and gave him the creative brief 'what would you do if it was your own space' - which he did and we loved it and everyone we showed loved it. We're big on working with local business and we've had fantastic collaboration with lots of businesses."
Converting the laneway space has been "challenging, with a few head-scratching kind of moments", Mason said.
Pilcher says she is "really excited about the concept and bringing it to Whanganui" and is itching to get the doors open and people into the space.
"We're upping the level of service and food offering in a really cool space - it's going to be what hospitality should be," she said.
"I've never owned a business but I've worked in hospitality for years. I'm really proud to be in this position to offer it, own it and drive it. It's all of our [Pilcher, Mason and Solano] business.
"We've got a strong team with at least 45 years of hospitality experience on the floor and we'll be raising the bar on service. We're creating an environment where people will feel comfortable and at home. We want everyone to feel welcome and it will be family-friendly, with family-friendly food.
"We want people to have interaction, not just a transaction."
The official date has not yet been confirmed but Maria Lane will open soon for lunch and dinner.
And if you're wondering how Solano is going to be able to work at Maria Lane as well as fly planes, he'll be flying during the day and relying on his experienced kitchen team to keep the food flowing while he's in the air.