The epiphany was that we could build something so large and great, but still be a pub
Doing it for state and city, Sand Hill Road grow a garden in the centre of their first CBD pub.
Story: Mark Davie
Photos: Shannon McGrath
Garden State Hotel:
95 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Summing up an entire state’s identity with a number plate slogan is a tall order. Victoria’s state slogan has changed six times since 1977, vacillating between political catchcries and road safety messages as bureaucrats attempted to influence the state’s agenda from the ass of a car. Even though the only place you might see it these days is on the rear of an environmentally un-friendly XD Falcon, the original — Garden State — is still the only slogan that seemed to capture an identity Victorians were proud to screw onto their bumper.
Victoria may not be the most pleasant of states, weather-wise, but all that rain means our gardens sure can be lovely. There are 32 botanic gardens in the state, with the crown jewel Royal Botanic Gardens covering 36 hectares in the centre of Melbourne. Then there’s the private gardens, 16 parks, and the herb garden sitting on the window sill of a Southbank apartment. It’s a bloody nice sentiment, Garden State, and one the boys at Sand Hill Road — Doug Maskiell, Tom Birch, and Matt and Andy Mullins — wanted to bring back into the heart of Melbourne with their latest pub, Garden State Hotel.
ALL GROWN UP
It’s the group’s tenth venue — seven of which they still own — and while they’ve opened the odd bar, Sand Hill Road’s stock in trade is pubs. Their first was the Commercial Club Hotel in Fitzroy — bought and refurbished 17 years ago by crowdfunding thousand-dollar lots from their mates — and they’ve kept growing the Australian pub concept ever since.
“We’re publicans,” explained Matt. “We love the idea that the pub was at the centre of Australian life from the beginning. It was where you went to celebrate or commiserate; go when you needed help or guidance, or needed a meal or drink that you couldn’t afford yourself.”
Other than an interstate detour to Rockhampton to revitalise the Heritage Hotel, Sand Hill Road has mostly kept its business to the inner suburbs of Melbourne. For the last 10 years, they haven’t just been renovating pubs, they’ve been rebuilding them and revitalising their identities to better fit the character of those modern inner suburban communities. Whether it meant retrofitting concrete pipe portals into the facade of the Prahran Hotel, or building an entire laneway precinct into the guts of the Bridge Hotel — Sand Hill Road aren’t afraid to do more than simply remove the beer stains, they’re building community hubs around the core elements that make up a pub.
But what makes a pub in the CBD? It can’t just be a worker’s lunch drop-in, a happy hour watering hole, a laneway bar, a bistro, or a function space. For a pub to be a pub, it’s got to serve the community in a variety of ways. It’s always been a question floating around Sand Hill Road for seven and a half years, when they first dared to start looking for an opening in the CBD. It would seem like plenty of time to figure it out, but in the end, it all came down to one night scribbling on a whiteboard.
“For years, Zelman Ainsworth (CBRE) — the hardest working letting agent in Melbourne — has been pitching us 150sqm here and there,” said Tom. “We weren’t interested because we were doing larger format venues. Then one day he called Andy and said, ‘I’ve got 750sqm on Flinders Lane on the back of 101, with a 24-hour license. Do I have your attention?!’”
That spot ended up having one of the richest hospitality histories in Melbourne. It was previously home to Rosati’s, opened by Piero Gesualdi in 1986 and operated by Melbourne restaurateur godfather, Ronnie di Stasio. “Rosati’s was one of Melbourne’s first super restaurants,” said Matt. “Built on the idea of an Italian railway station bar, you could fit 1000 people in, do breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then bar trade afterwards. It had real pedigree; for people of a certain generation, it was the place.”
Rosati’s old glamour had long faded; it had fallen into disrepair and been overtaken by more innovative hospitality offerings. Gesualdi had bought the property off the Commonwealth Property Office Fund (CPA) in 2002 for $3.7m. His intention was to turn it into a 10- to 12-storey boutique hotel to fit under the 40m height limit the CPA imposed at sale to protect the views of its nearby assets. When the Zagame family bought it four years later, they were thinking along the lines of a shopping centre and a 10-level residential or hotel building at the time. Neither came to be, and the property was put up for lease.
The boys took a walk through the property just hours after Zelman called. “It was a bloody big restaurant,” said Matt. “If you wanted a restaurant, this was the one.” Be that as it may, they didn’t want a restaurant, they wanted a pub; but you can’t simply pass up an enormous Flinders Lane frontage, backing onto Duckboard Place, in one of the greatest hospitality pockets Melbourne, if not the world, has to offer.
That night they started sketching out what they could do with the century old textile factory. “Over the course of the night, what looked like an amazing restaurant suddenly looked like an amazing pub,” recalled Matt.
“The epiphany was that we could build something so large and great, but still be a pub,” realised Doug.
GARDEN STATE OF MIND
“What we’ve built is a sketch Matt made on the whiteboard the night we convened,” explained Andy, on a tour of the venue.
There’s a bricks and mortar reality of delivering on a pub’s promise, and Sand Hill Road have this checklist of non-negotiables memorised. “The public bar was always going to be the place you walked into,” began Matt. “There’d be a guy or girl behind the bar who would smile at you, get to know your name, ask you about your day, and really want to know. There was always going to be a beer garden, a bistro or grill, there were going to be function spaces. There was probably going to be a lounge, or second public bar or cocktail bar that served that multi-use purpose.
“Those spaces are a bit bigger than what they are in our other pubs, but not much. All in all, it’s a pub. Just like they have been for the past couple of hundred years. More than anything else, it’s a place where members of our community can walk in anytime they like and we get to look after them.”
All those elements would eventually find their way onto the sketch, but it’s how you arrange them that counts. The big idea that came out of that night was both their greatest gamble and defining choice. “We were very keen to give the city a park,” continued Andy. “The whole idea was to build the entire venue around a concentric beer garden while maintaining the sawtooth roof.” The sketch showed a public bar at the Flinders Lane entrance, a multi-level tower at the rear, and right in the middle of it all a beer garden taking up an entire third of the ground floor.
“In terms of design, we’re talking about mood and what you actually feel when you walk into a place like this, when you sit down and spend a couple of hours here,” said Matt. “We brought that all down to one word, and that was ‘garden’. We wanted people to feel they were in a garden, or walking through a garden to get to the next part of the pub.”
When they showed the sketch to their circle of confidants, most thought they were mad to dedicate an entire third of the space to a beer garden. If they were going to build multiple storeys at the rear, why not extend forward and build up the entire floor plan? After all, you could easily slip a beer garden onto the roof like so many other inner city bars. “We were quite hellbent, that’s what makes it a pub — a beer garden on the ground floor,” reiterated Doug. “There are wonderful bars with wonderful rooftop gardens, but they’re not pubs.”
“We then took our concept sketches to Justin Northrop at Techne.,” continued Matt. “As always, he bought amazing insights that really layered up the design. With a decade and maybe 20 projects together, we’ve developed a real shorthand between our two companies. That enables us to skip a whole heap of preliminary conversations and get straight into the good stuff.”
The beer garden spans two levels, with terraced seating leading down to the basement level Rose Garden cocktail bar. Mature trees are the focal point of the garden — not astroturf — with raised brick garden beds full of lush plants lining the outskirts, and the overhead sawtooth glass roof lending a conservatory feel.
“We always started out with pubs with beer gardens, and then we got to problem pubs like the Bridge Hotel,” said Tom. “We had to figure out how to retrofit a garden into that space, so we put in a laneway. We worked out early on that Melbournians are a pretty resilient bunch. If they were warm and dry, then they’d be happy to be outside. It would be a real drawcard. I hesitate to say, but we wouldn’t open any venue without some sort of outdoor space or greenery.”
“Because it’s Melbourne, there’s a couple of things we do to keep people dry and warm,” explained Matt. “We end up covering large sections of the horizontal faces of our beer garden, but keep the vertical faces really open. You get a huge amount of ventilation, a lot of natural light and a lot of big clear views up to the sky and the buildings beyond. The other thing we do is put gas heaters bloody everywhere. We’ve got so many Bromic heaters in our beer garden. Everywhere you turn there’s a heater pumping warm air your way. We spent a lot of time with Bromic working out the most efficient way to set up our heaters.”
With their great gamble set in stone, the rest of the venue soon found itself entwined in the Garden State theme. The entire public bar has a pergola-like feel, with large wooden uprights bolted to a network of overhead joists and hanging boxes that hold both booze and greenery. Every space is linked to the garden in some way, whether it requires passage through it or occupies part of its view.
In all, there’s 2000sqm of floor area, catering to 840 patrons. To the side of the beer garden is an automated kiosk where office workers can get a quick feed by entering their order on a touchscreen, receiving a message when their grub’s up. An open bar channels the tropics with fresh fruit, flowers in cans, and shelves lined with knick-knacks complementing the Carribean flair of the turquoise tiling.
The rear tower is anchored by the basement level Rose Garden cocktail bar, a more seductive affair with green backlit iron crucifixes hovering over the entrance, rose patterned carpet, and porcelain jugs and vases from your grandma’s collection stocked with rose bouquets. The ripples in the bar’s pink facade mimic the look of velvet from a distance, and the chandeliers and bronze work sit comfortably with the rough, reclaimed Oregon joist wood panelling, exposed brick and rusty steel work in a speakeasy via Charleston-era kinda way.
Above the cocktail bar is Garden State Hotel’s main dining area, the New York-inspired Garden Grill, with the Raw Bar serving up freshly shucked oysters and a smattering of just-caught seafood. Above that, the Balcony Dining Room is the 18-seat private dining room, accessible by lift, that backs directly onto the kitchen. It’s here that head chef Ash Hicks can play with multi-course degustation menus and have the chance to interact with interested parties. Skipping one floor, the top level is a double-height function space for up to 120 called The Observatory, where mesh arches hang from the ceiling and rounded brasswork add to the conservatory feel. While the entire site came with a 24-hour license, the group happily shaped it back to 5am to gain council approval for the build. They never wanted to run it like a nightclub anyway. Most nights finish by 3am, with the exception of the odd major sporting event.
SECRET STAFF GARDEN
The fourth floor is probably the best hospitality admin office in Melbourne, with full views of the venue and surrounding cityscape. Further to that, an entire scheme of service corridors and stairwells were installed adjacent to the main thoroughfares so staff can move around behind the scenes. They even installed a skywalk for staff to invisibly convey meals and stock to the public bar from the first floor kitchen, and H&L’s POS system keeps the entire ship connected. “The reason was to make sure the customer experience wasn’t cramped and rushed,” explained Andy. “That it could be a free-flowing, relaxing experience.”
Whereas before they’ve been hampered by this pre-existing service networks of heritage pubs, on this occasion, they were able to calculate the public floor area required for max capacity, then increase the build size to encompass more back of house areas then ever before.
One of the biggest sacrifices made in the design was the kitchen positioning. It would make logistical sense to put it at the rear of the property, on the ground floor. Load ins would be a doddle and bins easily accessed. However, the rear laneway isn’t just any old dumpster dive, it’s Duckboard Place — home to Tonka, Pastuso, connected to Cherry Bar, and a street art haven. “It’s the kind of laneway Melbourne’s famous for,” said Tom. “We had long discussions about how to give the best spaces in the venue to the public. Our compromise was to bring the kitchen up to the first floor, which wasn’t a compromise in the end, because you’re left with these extraordinary spaces for the public to enjoy. You can have the grand reveal at the front door, or duck in the back way and no one will know you’re here.”
WATCH IT GROW
Garden State Hotel is roughly double the capacity of any of Sand Hill Road’s previous pubs, it was also an entirely new build smack bang in the middle of the CBD. Techne Architects and Visual Builders have been constant collaborators with Sand Hill Road for more than a decade, but while Techne remained as the architects, Visual Builders took themselves out of contention for the project, realising it would be a stretch to dedicate their entire company to one job for 15 months.
Sand Hill Road had to find another builder capable of pulling it off. “We had a competitive tender process and chose Schiavello,” said Matt. “One of the country’s biggest and most successful family-owned businesses, which we love. It’s a decision that’s paid off in spades. They understand our needs and what it is we’re trying to create here, and helped us deliver.”
“Sitting at the table with Chris Schiavello, and Lee and Dave who worked on the project side, we instantly had a rapport,” recalled Tom. “When you’re going to spend 15-17 months together — let alone the amount of money that’s involved — you need to know you’re going to be able to get on with them, and have trust and good faith.”
Over those 15 months, 420 truckloads of debris were taken out of the back roller door, and 645 builders and contractors signed into the site, with more working offsite. It’s a lot of trucks, cranes and workers to keep out of your neighbour’s hair, especially when you’ve got the fourth tallest office building in Australia on your doorstep, residents at the rear and completely surrounded by laneways full of operating businesses. With the heritage facade remaining intact, the entire innards of the old building was stealthily demolished and removed from inside. “We did a complete demo of the building with the existing roof on,” said Doug. “It wasn’t until the roof came off, that anyone knew what was happening — except our wonderful friends at Pastuso, who were very patient.” There was one moment of panic. Not long before opening, the newpapers reported a couple of Banksy street art pieces in Duckboard Place had been lost to demolition. Horrified that it could have been them, a flurry of Sunday morning phone calls let the boys breathe a sigh of relief. It wasn’t them; all their demo had been done 18 months earlier.
“I was constantly in awe of Schiavello who had to wrangle it all,” said Matt. “There were 30-odd days of cranes between Flinders Lane and Duckboard Place.”
We were quite hellbent, that’s what makes it a pub — a beer garden on the ground floor
LIVE & LEARN
With roughly double the number of patrons, there was also a rash of new hires. Sand Hill Road has a mantra: ‘Laugh, learn, live, love life’. “If we four partners are sticking to those, the business runs really well,” explained Doug. “The more work we put into each other and not directly into the business, it booms because everyone around us picks up and gets on with it.”
Likewise, they’re always looking for staff who innately ascribe to the same values. As Matt put it: “Business is not about P&Ls. It’s necessary, you’ve got to keep a close eye on it and be the best at it, but it’s not what it’s about.”
“For us, service is what you do,” explained Doug. “Every staff member that comes to work for us can already do the nuts and bolts — carry plates, make cocktails. The cultural side of the hospitality part of is what really matters. You can’t necessarily train that, you have it or you don’t.”
Their desire to keep the Sand Hill Road culture intact begins right at the door. Their pubs have always strived to prioritise locals and they want to keep it that way, but a large capacity makes it incredibly difficult to identify regular patrons. With that in mind, half a dozen of the group’s cream-of-the-crop greeters now work in Garden State Hotel’s public bar, trying to pick up on who’s a regular as quickly as possible. Having a line out the front of Garden State Hotel isn’t an aim, but it’s a byproduct of being popular, so they always keep headroom in their capacity to be able to shuffle regulars in as soon as they arrive.
Flinders Lane has become the centre of the cool food movement in Melbourne. Within 100m of Garden State Hotel are Supernormal, Coda, Cumulus, Chin Chin, Tonka, Pastuso, Lee Ho Fook, Mo Vida, Gazi — exceptional food and beverage. “We thought by putting a pub in the middle of that might tie the area together in a neat bow,” said Matt.
“It also changed what we thought we had to put out from our kitchen,” said Tom. “All those restaurants have amazing chefs, which is why we were after a chef like Ash Hicks to take us to that next level.”
Ash Hicks has worked in a number of great restaurants, both in Australia and London, and spent the last four years bringing Circa, the Prince back up to two hats. He’s a great fine dining chef who was ready for a change; the opportunity to bring faster, perhaps more fun food, to a larger audience. “He’s an amazing talent and he shared the same vision for the future of great casual dining,” explained Matt.
It wasn’t just the food that had to reach a new level, every other area of the pub needed fresh expertise, including down the back in the cocktail bar. The four of them have spent years travelling the world and tasting cocktails for ‘work’, yet one of their favourites sits just 100m from their door, Eau de Vie. “We got lucky,” said Matt. “Kevin [Peters] had spent a couple of years running the bar program there, was looking for something new and applied for a job. We’d drunk Kevin’s drinks before and loved them.”
Managing a venue as large as Garden State also required new operating expertise, and a new general manager. They searched for someone with “fine dining and large venue, late night experience, and someone who shared our values,” explained Matt. Initially, they couldn’t find that person, so they asked Marcus Mooney if he could fill the gap. He’s been through most of the major pub groups in the country and had a lot of experience with QSR, but his recent move into ownership meant he couldn’t take on the role full time. He agreed to jump onboard for two months, then handed over to Dan Viney, who was able to bring his experience to the table too.
“The people we’ve employed are the top of their game, but their true genius is being able to talk about their passion at an accessible level to whoever they’re talking to,” said Doug. “They can dumb it down for people like me!”
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