Throwing open the pub doors

CHEERS: Dave Catchpole, left, and business partner John Hellebrekers from the Barworks Group enjoy a beer at the Zookeeper’s Son in Royal Oak, Auckland.
CHEERS: Dave Catchpole, left, and business partner John Hellebrekers from the Barworks Group enjoy a beer at the Zookeeper’s Son in Royal Oak, Auckland.

For a publican, John Hellebrekers is receiving a lot of attention.

Late last month he was inducted into the Restaurant Association's Hall of Fame, an honour usually reserved for chefs and restaurateurs.

Hellebrekers, though, was recognised for the work of his Barworks Group, which is behind the opening of pubs in many Auckland suburbs using a model that enables young, aspiring bar-owners to get into their first establishment.

It's a unique model that has attracted international interest and investment from global giant Heinekin.

It's tough to move from being an employee in the hospitality industry to being an owner, says Hellebrekers.

"It's not a highly paid industry, so it is hard to accumulate the capital."

Over drinks with a DB Breweries contact in Las Vegas after a hospitality conference five years' ago, Hellebrekers hit on a formula, and it has led to the establishment of 20 community-style gastro pubs with more on the way.

Hellebrekers got his own break when he was invited to partner with two others, to establish the Degree gastro bar in Auckland's Viaduct precinct.

And in Vegas, the penny dropped that he could repeat that formula - if there was a major capital partner. DB agreed to be just that.

Now Barworks, which is 60 per cent owned by DB and 40 per cent by Hellebrekers and other minor shareholders, provides three-quarters of the capital to start a pub in partnership and giving others the opportunity he had with Degree.

The formula is relatively simple, Hellebrekers said. Over the next few years Barworks hopes to open two to three new pubs a year.

The right high-profile and sunny site is needed in a suburban centre or mall. Often enough it's an established pub, only run-down or badly managed.

The drinks are easy, with a range of DB beers as well as some guest craft beers to add choice. And then there is food, which has to be good because these are gastro pubs relying on their menus to draw in custom, as well as to provide 40 per cent of their income.

Barworks provides back-office support for things like HR and even has an executive chef to keep an eye on the food.

But Barworks is no cookie-cutter pub operator, Hellebrekers insists. Each bar is unique, as they operate in unique neighbourhoods and must appeal to locals.

When you know how Barworks operates, it is possible to spot one of its pubs. But to the public at large, it would be hard to see they were part of the same pub group. 

In Howick there's Basalt. In Takapuna there's The Elephant Wrestler. In Mount Eden there's Dominion Bar. Some have place-specific names based on local legends like The Postman's Leg in Glenfield, named for a one-legged postie who was once a local character.

Sunday Star-Times met Hellebrekers in The Zookeeper's Son in Auckland's Royal Oak, a pub Barworks co-owns with David Hickey, who was chef at Degree for many years.

The pub is named for the son of former Auckland major John Boyd, who caused controversy with his Royal Oak zoo just before World War I. The zoo split public opinion and was eventually shut down in 1922, with many of the animals being transferred to establish Auckland Zoo.

Hickey said the name was inspired by an incident when a lion escaped from the zoo. Boyd's son, a lion tamer, recaptured it.

"You try to find that local story and then you get the community buy-in," said Hickey. "It's often a story that the community has forgotten. It's about connecting with the community.

A little commercial licence does creep in.

Historian Lisa Truttman's book The Zoo War has Boyd's son as an alcoholic, who once threatened to release all the animals, lions included. At least he would have approved of a pub being established up the road.

And the escaped lion was a cub, which got itself attacked by a cow, Truttman writes.

Historical quibbles aside, the Barworks model has been attracting attention from overseas since it's parent company was bought by Heineken in a two-stage deal in 2012 and earlier this year, said Hellebrekers.

"In the Heineken Group, the Barworks model is unique. It's getting a lot of interest globally, because it has been very successful," he said.

Sunday Star Times