When Justin Hemmes joined our 11 am interview via Facetime, I expected him to be sitting inside a flash Sydney office.
Instead, he appeared at ease in a sunny room at his Glasshouse Rocks property in Narooma which he purchased in 2015.
Some were surprised by the hotel billionaire’s recent move onto the unspoilt coastal town’s bar scene, but for Hemmes, this is his second home.
“I just love it down here so much. It’s a beautiful part of the world and has so many things going for it. It’s got one of the best golf courses, the fishing is amazing, the mountain bike tracks are sensational, the inlet is gorgeous and the local produce is fantastic. And there’s a wonderful movement of young couples moving down south and setting up here,” said Hemmes.
“So I just felt the timing was right and I’m passionate about creating some really great additional facilities down here.”
Merivale is synonymous with chic and entertaining venues, such as ivy and Coogee Pavilion in Sydney, and Hemmes has great plans for his latest acquisitions.
“The Quarterdeck is this iconic tiki shack, built on stilts over the inlet and painted bright red with white trim. It’s very eclectic and has this upbeat party vibe, and we want to keep it that way for the foreseeable future. What we will do is work on the food and elevate the cocktails.”
“The Whale Inn is a great little hotel/motel right on top of the hill. Again, it’s probably one of the most iconic locations in Narooma. We’re going to do quite a substantial renovation on it. We’ll keep its integrity as a hotel/motel, but make it a really cool spot to stay and we’re going to make the pool area quite happening.”
Hemmes is eager to utilise fresh local produce when it comes to building new menus for these venues.
“There’s such great food down here and you don’t have to mess with it too much, so you can let it speak for itself,” he said.
“We’ve got fantastic mussels, prawns, oysters, tuna, swordfish, kingfish, flathead, abalone and lobsters – what else do you need?”
Hemmes isn’t wasting any time either, kicking off with a paddock-to-plate bistro pop-up at The Whale Inn at the end of June while renovations are underway in the restaurant and bar.
Perhaps one of the best things about Merivale moving into Narooma is the job opportunities for locals, and Hemmes said anyone who is hired will have the opportunity to train at the company’s first-class facilities in Sydney.
“We’ve been inundated with resumes and we haven’t even advertised yet, because we’ve only just taken them over and we’ve got to shut The Whale Inn while we renovate,” said Hemmes.
“But it’s great to see that people are really excited about some positive things happening in their community and the opportunity for more jobs.”
Not only is Hemmes turning Narooma into his own playground, but he also recently purchased Cheeky Monkeys in Byron Bay, Lorne Hotel in Victoria and a seven-story historic building known as Tomasetti House, on Flinders Lane in Melbourne, which he’s converting into another venue.
While COVID-19 has slowed down most hospitality operators, Hemmes said it’s only given him more drive.
“It’s certainly been the most challenging time for all of us, but what doesn’t break you makes you stronger and our staff have come out of this with incredible gusto and I’m the same,” said Hemmes.
“It’s such an innate thing for people to connect and celebrate over food and beverage. I think the lockdowns have reminded us how important that is and I’ve never seen so much excitement from our customers and staff for things to reopen,” said Hemmes.
While Hemmes wasn’t inclined to say how much he paid for The Quarterdeck or The Whale Inn, he did say The Quarterdeck didn’t fetch the $20 million some media reported.