Cnr Fryans & Swanston St, Geelong VIC
(03) 5202 4009 or www.littlecreatures.com.au
Story: Mark Davie
Photos: Jean-Paul Horré
Geelong has had a hard time of late with Ford slowly packing up shop, and the Alcoa aluminium smelter wrapping up. It’s a bad time for jobs in Victoria’s second biggest city, and you’d think hospitality would be on the downturn too. But the potential for a small-scale recession hasn’t stopped some of the finest operators setting up shop. Cartel Coffee Lab has a knack for digging up Cup of Excellence coffees that no one else has the nose for, Boom Gallery is giving the Geelong arts community a quality outlet, Smorgy’s one-size-fits-all buffet made way for Cameron Ling’s diverse set of pier-end establishments, Pickers Union is leading a crop of great new cafés, and now Little Creatures, one of Australia’s best-known craft brewers has opened its main East Coast brewery in the coastal town.
To be fair, most of these places had either been around, or heavily in the planning stages, before the job-loss announcements. But the overriding outlook for hospitality in the city is good, and Geelong hospitality has come a considerable way in the last few years.
STRUGGLE STREET? AU CONTAIRE
When Little Creatures was thinking about moving to Geelong, there were two things the team had in mind. The main thrust was that Little Creatures needed a permanent East Coast brewery. Not just because of demand, but because the best craft beers are fresh. And the original brewery in Fremantle is about as far across the country as you can get from Australia’s three biggest population centres.
But the second element was potentially opening a hospitality outlet.
Steve Symons, long-time designer for Little Creatures, who also does a lot of work for James Squire, said it wasn’t always a done deal. The market had to be ready for it. And the initial plans detailed a loft-style hangout, barely a shadow of what the hospitality offering, Canteen, ended up being.
Symons was so dedicated to discovering how ripe Geelong was for a touch of Little Creatures hospitality, he spent a few months living in a caravan park soaking up the area. In that time, he found the regional city to be “quite arty and a bigger cross-section of people than its reputation lets on. People think of Geelong as quite bogan, blue-collar and a cultural desert, which is totally untrue. For a small city, the live music scene is incredible. And they like their food, sport, and art. If I was living in Victoria, I’d be living there, it’s a hidden jewel — you’re close to Melbourne but it’s got its own vibe.”
Geelong needed more than just a loft, so the idea of what Canteen could be began to take shape. Symons’ time perusing Geelong instilled him with plenty of faith in the project: “I truly believed this venue would go off. The team decided to put Canteen in that building because Geelong is not a sleepy town. People like to go out, they’re used to the bad weather, and the people are loyal. We’ve already got a lot of repeat business, which is great.”
IT’S GEELONG, NOT MELBOURNE
This isn’t the first Little Creatures outlet on the East Coast. In Issue 26, Venue covered the opening of the Little Creatures Dining Hall in Brunswick, Melbourne. Some of the brand’s essence made it across the Nullabor: large open warehouse space, neat touches like freely borrowable red fixies and a delivery Kombi, buzzing communal atmosphere, and a simple complimentary food offering to beer — pizza and a few plates to share. But it was decidedly Melbourne — and a bit dark. It was as if Little Creatures was trying to fit in, rather than boldly transplant the essence of its Fremantle home.
The brewery and Canteen in Geelong have been built within an old, Victorian-era woollen mill. The English company responsible weren’t big on homework: it simply replicated its ‘dark satanic’ blueprint from Blighty and transplanted it to Geelong. It means the serrated factory roofs angle the wrong way, and the windows catch the heat of the sun in the afternoon. But, it also means there’s plenty of natural light streaming in, which kicked off the Freo feeling. “We’ve wholeheartedly taken the Fremantle vibe into Geelong, instead of trying to be Melbourne or Victorian, and it’s really worked for us,” said Symons.
The Canteen fitout is much more like the Freo Great Hall, with a good dose of coastal pep. The space is much more open than the Dining Hall, you don’t have to rub shoulders and backs just to get through the door, or squeeze into a booth. It’s full of colourful metal chairs and pallet tables, instead of dark wooden ones, with yards of concrete floor in between. To one side, a sandpit and fake grass show it’s no mere metropolitan hipster hangout either. In fact, the first beers Symons shouted at Canteen were for two octogenarian ladies! “They were from just down the coast, Barwon Heads,” said Symons. “Even with the music, they totally got it.” And that’s the aim, to bring back the joy of beer, people, families, sandpits, and colour to the East Coast arm of Little Creatures. Symons: “You want to attract 90 year-old grannies, mums with kids, the trendy boys and girls, and all the people in-between. I think we’ve hit the mark with it, it truly is a place for everybody.”
FITOUT FROM WITHIN
It would have been easy for Canteen’s fitout to fall into the try-hard trap: containers and pallets, hand-painted signs that seem to wink cheekily as you read them. But Symons speaks the language of Little Creatures. He’s been there since the early Freo days and knows exactly how to convey the brand effortlessly through design.
Symons: “My brief was to use as much of the leftover stuff from the $60m brewery fitout as we possibly could without it being too contrived. It’s got a lot of honesty about it, because the bar and kitchen are made from containers that part of the brewery came in on. And all the timber for the furniture and walls is from the pallets and skids the brewery came in on too.
“It would have been cheaper to build a bar to be honest, but we wanted to use the containers. They’d come all the way from Germany. And I love the fact they’re sitting in that building and give it a sense of scale.
“The sign over the kitchen is the original sign from Freo they were going to throw out. I managed to rescue it and ship it to Geelong. The back wall of the canteen is the old lining boards from the brewery ceiling that were pulled out when they redid the roof. Even the ashtrays are part of the old wool mill machinery I had welded together.
“The old lights around the bar I found in junk shops and old factory lights I had arms made up for so they look like the old swan-neck variety.
“We used a company called Little Vegie Patch Co for the landscaping. I love that it’s hard to tell where the industry stops and the hospitality begins. They’re really good at finding interesting bits like the cement mixer planter. And for the vertical gardens I found some old fruit-picker baskets in a recycling place in Geelong.”
“The priority,” said Symons. “Is to give people a great experience and Geelong something that’s going to last. They’ve had a few shitty times with all the industrial shut-downs. Give them somewhere to go… a bit of an oasis.”
And it works both ways. Give the people a great spacious coastal vibe and the beer tastes even better. This is, after all, meant to be a branding exercise, not a cash cow. Symons: “You could possibly fit in another 80 people, but you’d lose the whole vibe. It’s nice to have a hospitality venue, but it’s really all about the beer and the brand. As soon as you start cramming people in, it’s a bad experience that reflects on the beer and the brand.” So some nights, at least until the initial buzz wears off, you might find yourself waiting in line in a shipping container tunnel. But at least you know when you get through, there’ll be loads of space, a great vibe, and hoppy brews that are as fresh as they’ll get.
WHEREFORE ART THOU ROMEO
Six years ago Dean Romeo jumped in a car with a couple of German backpackers and headed from Melbourne to the other side of the country. He got there and fell in love with a Little Creature. After bugging the management solidly for a few days, they finally gave him a job. From there, he worked his way up. After two years, he became a team leader on the floor, then a duty manager, assistant venue manager, and then the Brew House manager, which is essentially the Cellar Door of the Fremantle brewery.
When the opportunity came up, he put his name in the hat to head back to the East Coast. And as fate would have it, six years later, he’s managing Canteen, only half an hour from where he grew up.
Romeo is a Little Creatures die-hard. Exactly the kind of manager you’d want working your floor. “The Little Creatures brand is all about having fun and making a homely environment for people. It still seems like more than a job. It’s refreshing to roll into work and have some fun with it all and sell good beer.”
Romeo showed <venue> around the brewery too, which is well worth a tour. There’s miles of stainless steel tubing, and massive German stainless steel vats, one of which does the ‘hop back’, a technique peculiar to hoppy beers like Little Creatures, where a giant teabag of hop flowers are repeatedly dunked in the brew.
Along with all the traditional brewing methods, Little Creatures has also upped the environmental ante throughout the plant, including a giant balloon that salvages C02 for later use.
It’s a beautiful place, and the commitment to ‘manufacturing’ bodes well for Geelong.
Richard Hallam from YSI was responsible for installing the sound system at Canteen. Here’s how he approached the audio design: “For audio, the space was quite tricky — very high ceilings with gradients and lots of parallel hard surfaces. The room was planned to evolve organically, so mounting speaker cabinets to the walls would have looked odd and it would have made it hard to direct the sound.
“In the main internal zone we decided to go with pendant speakers: four flown Bose MB4 subs with the whole kit and caboodle processed through two Bose SP24 Loudspeaker controllers.
“Initially the design (using 20 Bose DS100F with pendant kits) perfectly covered the designated zones. However, during the rough-in it was decided that fan-assisted gas heaters needed to be accommodated. It became obvious that a lot of the pendant speakers would have melted, as they were positioned directly underneath where the now-installed heaters are located. So most pendant speaker locations changed and, subsequently, coverage did as well.
“We added two more Bose DS100Fs and the end result works well in the room with good dispersion. The pendants are driven by two QSC 800Tis and the subs via two Quest QA2004 amps for plenty of low frequency oomph.
“Outdoors, at the laneway entrance, we flew nine Quest MS601s nearly five metres from floor level. They sound very good, and the customer is so impressed with the sound outdoors that we’re about to add another eight MS601s to continue down an adjacent laneway.
“Zoning was accomplished by using the great-sounding Cloud Venue 4 with wall controls located behind the bar with an iPod input. There are two other audio points (Outdoors and Stage) going through dbx compressor/limiters so that DJs and small bands can be piped through the systems.”