A half-an-hour bus ride from the heart of Wellington takes you to one of the city’s quaint, hilly suburbs, Newlands. It’s a chilly evening. Clouds are hanging ominously low and the cold southerly wind has just picked up. A furlong off the main road, tucked away in a corner of a local shopping centre is a small 18’ x 30’ shop.
‘Welcome to Hell’, says the signboard, ‘Home of the Seven Deadly Sins.’
The rather scarily named place is actually a pizza takeaway outlet. It’s one of the 14 joints in Wellington of the Kiwi chain Hell Pizza. What sets this particular place apart, for a cricket fan, is that it is owned by former New Zealand player Gavin Larsen.
That’s right, the Postman, who always delivered with his economic dibbly dobblies, has been delivering tasty, affordable pizzas for the last two and a half years. Larsen entered this business after stepping down as the CEO of Wellington cricket in 2011.
“Our son Corey and daughter Vanessa used to work here,” says Larsen’s wife Karen, speaking with The Sunday Express, even as she prepares the orders that have been placed by the customers. “Gavin had been with his Wellington cricket job for four and half years. He wanted a change, just a total change from what he was doing. He just needed a time out from cricket, really.
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“The local Twenty20 team, Wellington Firebirds, had Hell as one of their sponsors. That’s how he got to know the Hell people. And they started talking about it. Since our children were already working here, we thought why not take up this place.”
Larsen had since joined the 2015 World Cup organising committee and has to travel a lot. So, the soft spoken Karen stands in his place these days. “He was here officially a lot until he took up this World Cup job. He has been in this new role for nearly a year. Right now, for example, he is in Melbourne for a week. In his absence I tend to be here quite a lot. And he comes whenever he can, really. On Fridays and Saturday, when he is home, he is not away, he is invariably here,” she informs.
A cricketer owning a food joint isn’t really a new thing. In fact, it’s one of more predictable businesses that cricketers start in India. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly opened designer restaurants. Virender Sehwag gave his name to a food court. Even Praveen Kumar has his massive cutout inviting you to dine at ‘Praveen’s Restaurant’ midway on the Delhi-Haridwar highway.
But in India, it’s only players’ names and posters that are visible at such places. They don’t really stand at the counter or in the kitchen. They don’t have to.
Larsen, on the other hand, has done those things. And he has kept a low profile. There are no pictures of his at the pizza place or even a remote reference that it is owned by the man who played a crucial role in taking the Blackcaps into two World Cup semifinals.
You could say that cricket isn’t the most popular sport here, and that many don’t know who Larsen is in the first place and, therefore, wouldn’t be aware of the fact that he now owns a pizza shop. In any case, most aren’t surprised even when they find out about him.
Sam, a teenager who lives a couple of blocks away from Larsen’s shop and who guided this reporter to the place, is one of those. A Wellington Hurricanes rugby team fanatic, he is rather more surprised by the location of the shop. “Who opens a pizza place next to a pub,” he says with a shrug.
Karen, who juggles between her job as a massage therapist and the pizza business, says: “That’s the way we are. We are not in the same league as Tendulkar, are we. We have to work hard to sustain ourselves. Perhaps, if he would have played cricket these days, we would’ve been rich, but we are not. But no regrets.”
The place, meanwhile, is doing brisk business, informs Karen. “We are moving shop, to a bigger place in the main road. It would be way better. Easy to find. There will be enough place for people to sit and eat,” she adds.
It’s dinner time, and Hell’s offerings are very tempting. The request for a Mordor pizza is placed, and Karen takes her time to prepare it. It’s worth the wait. The pizza looks sinful and the first bite is…heavenly.