"It's the environment where you're eating, it's the style of food, how you're eating, also beverages, music, ambiance, design."
Bar tsar Justin Hemmes dreaming up Sydney's sexiest food and drink spots
Born in: Sydney
Friends: Alan Jones
Home Town: Sydney
Every time multimillionaire bar owner and restaurateur Justin Hemmes pops up in the media, labels like "playboy", "bar tsar", "nightclub tycoon", or (our personal favourite) "mega-bucks bar magnate" often appear before his name.
"I'm getting too old to be a playboy," Hemmes tells The Power Index during our hour-long interview in his plush office overlooking the Ivy precinct on Sydney's George Street. Next to his conference table sits a flamboyant silver crown given to him by his singer pal Jay Kay after it appeared on the front of a Jamiroquai album.
"I think they are just tags that don't go away. I need to come up with something new." Hemmes pauses to think for a second. "Master magician?" he whispers manically.
Not exactly how you’d expect the head of a $500 million food and drink empire to respond. But Hemmes is a master at waving his expensive wand and conjuring up adult Disneylands for Sydneysiders to play in.
Justin’s parents, John and Merivale Hemmes, started Merivale as a fashion house before moving in to property. Under Justin’s leadership it’s morphed into a property and hospitality powerhouse, with over 30 bars, pubs and restaurants that dominate the social pages of Sin City.
"I don’t think there is anybody else in Australia who controls so many restaurants, and so many restaurants at such a high standard," says The Australian’s restaurant reviewer John Lethlean. "If you accept the premise that restaurant control is a level of power, he has a lot of power."
Hemmes argues that it’s the customers who hold the power: "The hospitality industry is a service industry and we try and serve people what they want," he says. "I don't think you can be powerful if you're a servant, it's a contradiction of terms."
If weight equalled influence, Hemmes would be in trouble. He looks on the younger side of his 40 years thanks to his height and skinny frame. All golden skin, styled hair and expensive smile, he’s the living embodiment of Sydney.
And perhaps Hemmes’ greatest power lies in knowing exactly what Sydney wants. "It's not just food," says Hemmes. "It's the environment where you're eating, it's the style of food, how you're eating, also beverages, music, ambiance, design."
All of his venues subscribe to this vision. There’s Ivy, the Palm Springs-inspired play house where the beautiful people come to be fabulous. There’s est., the three-hatted restaurant that serves up modern Australian food in a contemporary setting. There’s Felix, the classic French bistro with a wall of European wines. The list goes on and on.
"The influence of the Merivale group on Sydney's dining and drinking scene is massive, no doubt about that. They've got the golden touch," says wine writer Max Allen.
But even a Midas touch can bring with it a dark underbelly. In 2009 a female customer alleged that she was raped in the bathroom at the Ivy Pool Club (the accused was acquitted after a trial in March this year). Last year a driver employed by Merivale was caught by police with a bag of cocaine in the company’s Rolls Royce Phantom.
Merivale’s private security company Our Security has been embroiled in several scandals, including an incident last year where a 19-year-old patron was restrained face down on the ground and beaten in the street, before bouncers shoved a security vest into his mouth and took him into the Ivy basement and beat him further. The attack resulted in Hemmes backing a NSW government plan for police to monitor nightclub guards.
With publicity often spelling trouble for Hemmes, perhaps it’s no surprise he is reluctant to give interviews. He clearly squirms when asked about anything vaguely personal or controversial (The Power Index: "How do you regard the way the media reports on you and your business?" Hemmes: "does it matter?"). He later adds: "I'm not one to talk about myself, that's why this is unusual".
All of this may seem odd for a man who has made a motza teaching Sydney to party. And yet as soon as the recorder is switched off and the notepad banished to a bag, Hemmes morphs into the consummate host.
As he tours The Power Index around the Ivy and Establishment complexes, female staffers beam at him and male workers desperately seek to shake his hand. An Irish fan stops us to ask for a photo. Hemmes happily obliges. Sydney's cool set may roll their eyes at Merivale opening a new venue every five minutes, but what other bar owner gets this celebrity treatment?
It’s a slick operation. Merivale has in-house workmen who work 24/7, and Hemmes says his favourite part of his work is brainstorming ideas and executing them. That passion becomes obvious when he bounces around the construction site of new dining addition Mr Wong, which when we visit is frantically being finished so it can open in 10 days.
Hemmes names his least favourite part of his work as dealing with his obsessive-compulsive nature and staff who don’t share his perfectionism. Within a minute of walking into his prohibition era style bar Palmer & Co -- he also claims he hates "themed bars" but this sepia-toned speak easy seems pretty damn kitcsh, right down to the staff in flapper outfits and the live jazz singer -- Hemmes is noting problems.
The biggest: a spotlight at the Charcuterie bar isn’t shining on the merchandise correctly. Hemmes whispers into a manager’s ear and staff move frantically.
Once Hemmes has a margarita in hand, his manner softens. He’ s quick to whip out his iPhone to show The Power Index videos of his dog and photos of his silkie chickens (two of whom are named White Russian and Black Russian, of course) that live in his tennis court turned chicken coop.
He goes on to talk about swimming with whales outside his beach house and the time he went diving with great white sharks. He also speaks fondly of his parents and shares his hopes to home school his hypothetical future children. He names Alan Jones as a close mentor, branding the broadcasting trailblazer "the most incredible man I know".
Two hours, three margaritas, one corned beef sandwich and a trip to the airport care of Hemmes' personal driver later (no bags of cocaine spotted), it was official: The Power Index had been Hemmes-ed.
This article originally appeared on The Power Index.
For more on Sydney's present and future, download our free eBook Sydney: Embracing the World of Tomorrow