If you didn’t know the guy from his photo in countless property and tabloid articles over the last 30 years: “Bar Czar continues his pub shopping spree”; “Playboy throws wild staff party with model girlfriend Madeline Holtznagel” – You might have a hard time picking him as the 97th richest person in Australia, based on last year. financial review rich list.
It’s the kind of placement that will earn you a $1.2 billion fortune.
The Merivale Group boss says he believes his company withstood two years of coronavirus “extremely well” under the conditions, but acknowledges “we are also fortunate to have a scale where we can afford to support our staff”.
“We offered as many jobs as we could and started new businesses just to employ people and keep the wheels turning. However, I know that COVID has been horrible for a lot of companies because they just didn’t have that capacity.”
Fried rolls filled with a melted mixture of scallops and shrimp arrived at the table, about 1000 degrees too hot to eat. We decided to give them a few minutes of alone time. Hemmes can’t wait to talk about why Australia needs more migrant workers anyway.
Staff shortages are the biggest issue in hospitality right now, and while Hemmes has been largely supportive of the government’s actions through COVID, he says the Interior Department needs to make the paths to immigration much easier.
“Two years ago, the term ‘visa’ was on the nose. There was the impression that foreign workers were taking jobs from Australians. Well, we’ve just gone through the most relevant case study you could be involved in, where we’ve shut down visa workers, but we can’t fill the positions with Australians,” he says.
“We’re talking about hospitality roles that Australians just don’t want to do, like the bottom line stuff – cut and peel. Australians want to be at the front of the kitchen where the action is. But we also need to bring in more skilled workers, who are a big part of the hospitality education system. Sommeliers and sushi chefs, for example: the staff gets excited to learn from these people.
“By bringing them in, you create more employment, education, income and tax revenue, and therefore a more buoyant economy. It’s a no-brainer.”
Skilled workers abroad should be granted automatic permanent residency, it says, while unskilled workers may be put on probation. “We want to encourage them… we want them to bring their families and settle here. Many industries are crying out for people to work in roles they currently can’t fill, so let’s let more people in. I honestly think our population should be 40 million.”
Hemmes’s late father, John, was born in Indonesia to Dutch parents. He met Merivale Brennan, a milliner from Burwood, on a return trip to Holland via Sydney in 1954, and the couple were engaged when they arrived in Europe.
The married couple soon returned to Sydney, where Merivale made elegant hats in his parents’ garage, and the dashing “Mr. John” sold his creations to luxury retailers between shifts as a waiter. They opened their own retail store in 1957 and launched the first House of Merivale fashion store two years later in the Theater Royal building on Castlereagh Street. It would expand into a chain of three stores on Pitt Street, one in Canberra and one in Melbourne.
When his son opens his first restaurant in Melbourne later this year, working closely with his sister Bettina Hemmes, who is instrumental in the group’s venue design, it will be right near the original site of Merivale’s temple of Victorian fashion.
“It’s literally 50 feet from where my parents had their first store in Melbourne,” Hemmes says of the seven-story building on Flinders Lane that he bought for $40 million last April. The site has the potential to host several restaurants. Taiwanese-born chef Jowett Yu, who has spent the past seven years Hong Kong’s acclaimed flagship restaurant Ho Lee Fook will run one of the kitchens, though the opening is at least a year away.
“I remember going to the Melbourne store as a kid and taking the tram with Dad. He always said ‘the best fertilizer for a farm is the sole of a farmer’s shoe’, which meant that he was always hanging around the shops and was very involved in sales and the daily running of the business. Meanwhile, mom was the creative one. She is a creative genius.”
In the early 1990s, Hemmes took his parents’ portfolio of inner Sydney properties and began turning it into a hospitality empire. A ground-floor bar on Angel Place came first (just behind where we’re eating grilled pork with a Thai herb salad), followed by the more ambitious, multi-level CBD Hotel on the corner of King and York.
“I was probably 22 when Dad bought the CBD building with plans to renovate it. We worked with a local architect and Mom was very involved in the design while I created the multi-faceted concept. Dad had a tenant lined up, but they chickened out, they thought he was too ambitious, so he said to me, ‘Well, it’s your fucking idea, you run this.’”
Hemmes worked on the site for two years as a bricklayer before launching the CBD Hotel as the hottest new bar of 1995. “I worked with the bricklayers, the cranes, the gossips and the plumbers. It was wonderful to learn about those trades,” he says. “To this day, my favorite part of the job is being on site and working with builders…solving problems and finding better ways to do things. I first fell in love with the complexity of building and then managing the pub. Creating a party and seeing people enjoy your craft… that marks the way for the future”.
Merivale is currently defending a class action lawsuit filed by workers claiming alleged underpayments of up to $129 million. The Federal Court ruled that a WorkChoices-era deal was never validly approved, but Merivale says he passed the fairness test and structured his business around the deal. Hemmes’ lawyers say the regulator was at fault.
The class action lawsuit and COVID appear to have done little to stem Hemmes’ recent pub spree. More than $150 million has been spent acquiring new venues in the last 18 months, including the two Victorian sites and four venues in Narooma on the south coast of New South Wales. Hemmes says he’s “more ambitious than ever,” though when asked if he’s trying to turn Narooma into the new Byron Bay, the barkeep replies “absolutely not.”
“I have a house in Narooma, and it is my home away from home. [Operating venues] around the city makes living there more interesting, while supporting local employment. It also means I can take visitors to lunch and I don’t have to cook or clean,” she laughs.
But how does Hemmes think Merivale’s sunny, laid-back and altogether very Sydney vibe will be reflected in Melbourne dressed in black? “It will be no different from opening new venues in different suburbs of Sydney such as Rozelle, Coogee and Enmore. They are all unique communities. Our offering at Vic on the Park in Marrickville is very different than Mimi’s, which is very different than what we do at Manly at Queen Chow.
“We are not trying to copy anyone in Melbourne, which already has very good operators. We’ll just do our thing and tailor it to the community and who we think the guests will be.”
Like his father, Hemmes regularly “walks” his places, which means a trip to Totti’s after lunch where he spends two minutes arranging a painting so it hangs straight. I tell him that one of the best career tips my mother ever gave me was to never ask anyone to do a job you couldn’t do yourself. Hemmes nods. “Dad used to say the same thing.”
She will spend the upcoming weekend in Narooma with her own children, daughters Alexa, 6, and Saachi, 4. “I spend 100 percent of my time with them when I’m with them,” says Hemmes.
“I used to dive for lobsters in Narooma and cook them over the fire for them, maybe with some local abalone and oysters. However, now they are both at that age where they only want simple things and what they like best is pasta with soy milk, cheese, garlic and ham. It is true that it is not the healthiest thing in the world.”
Still, the chance of fresh oceanside lobster with cheesy pasta? That sounds like the ingredients of another “better meal” to me.
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