The Duke of Wellington, established 1853, is ready for its next big campaign.

Story: Christopher Holder

The Duke of Wellington pub is old. If the walls could talk they’d probably have an emphysema wheeze and could tell you stories that would make your hair curl.

It’s always been a quintessentially CBD pub, in tune with the rhythms of the big city: footy on a Saturday, tennis in January, ANZAC Day libations, Friday afterwork drinks… and a constant dribble of sozzled journo-types filing in and out of the Herald & Weekly Times building (alas, long gone).

The last publican was one Brian ‘The Whale’ Roberts. The ex Richmond FC man-mountain was straight from the tradition of the hard-drinking footy player who saw pub management as a natural career progression. He festooned his walls with football and racehorse memorabilia, and pulled pots like a pro.

But it was clear to the landlord that The Whale didn’t have the wherewithal to give The Duke of Wellington a new lease on life.

The pub closed its doors for around three years in anticipation of something fresh, by which time the landlord approached The Open Door Pub Company. Open Door had acquired Lion Nathan’s pub portfolio (that included a number of well-known Melbourne pubs along with three venues at the Sydney Airport), and saw clearly The Duke of Wellington’s many possibilities.

And now, Open Door has re-opened the doors. And in the final half of 2013 ‘The Duke’ (as it is now known) has reacquainted itself with Melbourne.

Of course, transforming The Duke from a ‘rat- and possum-infested’ nightmare, into a modern, inviting multi-level pub, wasn’t a doddle. After Steve Schreuder (The Duke GM and Open Door Pub Company Director) and Managing Director Michael Thiele signed the lease, it took two years to complete. The initial architectural plan was overly-ambitious and would have been commercial suicide to build. Let’s not forget, the new Duke holds one of the biggest licenses in Melbourne and this has been an enormous undertaking.

Steve Schreuder: “It’s a historic CBD building over three levels. We always knew it was going to be a huge undertaking. But we quickly saw that we were going to need to trim the costs by embracing the bare bones of the building as much as we could. The initial design had layers of battens, plaster, and wallpaper, and I’m sure would have looked extraordinary, but we’ve kept the skin as clean as possible.”

Newline Design took on the design brief with Ramvek builders doing the fitout ‘heavy lifting’. After a chat with Ramvek’s Founder Mark White it’s very evident just how proud the company is of this particular project. Just about every time venue interviews a builder we’re told how collegial the process was, only this time you get the feeling it’s a little more than spin.

Mark White: “It was a real team effort to keep the costs down and make this project work. The three parties — John Mikulic and Newline Design, Ramvek, and the Open Door Pub Company really worked as a team. At times we were making decisions on the run but we did it in concert.”


A large chunk of the challenge was working on an old building with a heritage overlay, and updating the services and food preparation facilities within the shell.

Mark White: “Heritage and the Health Department both had their ideas and neither had much regard for the other. Heritage would want a wall untouched, while the Health Department would require it to be treated. There were compromises to be negotiated. We’ve sealed a lot of surfaces while maintaining the heritage look and feel. We’ve built an entirely new kitchen to service the pub as a whole; the air handling and the beer dispense systems are all state of the art, yet done in a way that’s maintaining the integrity of the heritage structure.”

Food has become a key plank to The Duke’s success. The venue now has a 7am–1am license, and Steve and his team have decided to take advantage of the early start. Breakfast is definitely on the menu (as is first-class coffee), and the kitchen is open until midnight. The fare is replete with pub favourites. In fact, on the day venue dropped by The Duke, Steve was ready to welcome his first Parma Daze ‘Golden Chook’ award for Best Parma of 2013. Admittedly, Steve was slightly sheepish about the award, but proud nonetheless. Naturally, the kitchen is also big on canapés for the function trade.

Ultimately, The Duke is a big pub, mercifully free of pretensions. And it’s proven to already be up to the challenge of the big occasion.

Steve Schreuder: “It’s a big pub [with a license for 1000+ when the third level is complete] and there have been some challenges. We’ve had a number of big tests. When the British Lions came to town we were invaded. That was amazing. They spent the week solidly drinking — without incident, I should add. But that tested us out. As did the big Liverpool game and the AFL grand final. We have four entry doors and we had queues of over 200 in each queue after the grand final. But we got through all that.

“Ironically, what’s more challenging in a big pub is to keep it profitable and well serviced during quieter periods. There’s a lot of floorspace to cover, we’re open until 1am every night, and staffing is our single biggest operating cost.”

If running a pub was like coaching a footy team, you’d hear a lot about ‘getting the fundamentals right’, making sure you’re ‘key position players’ are top class and working as a team. Open Door Pub Company has quickly hit its stride with The Duke. It’s got all the ‘one percenters’ right and the pub fundamentals are in place. Meanwhile, the general public — the mainstream, middle-class, 9-5, ‘don’t mind a beer’ public — have embraced The Duke as its own. All without fanfare, or a flash marketing marketing campaign… but with the occasional brainwave of guerrilla marketing:

Steve Schreuder: “For the AFL grand final weekend we renamed ourselves the Duke of Fremantle. As you can imagine, this was well received by the visiting West Australians — they made it their own. What’s more, the media got hold of it and it created a frenzy of activity. We had live crosses all weekend; we had Gary Ablett in here two days after he won the Brownlow; it was really well received across the board.”

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