No matter how many pubs you own, when you’re a publican you will always be that person everyone wants at their long lunch. Right from the moment you pour your very first frothy, you’ve now assumed the lifelong duty of serving up good booze and even better times on 24/7 repeat. And whether he likes it or not, Andy is definitely that guy – the consummate host, teller of stories, drinker of plenty beers, creator of many lols. I’d hands down save him a seat at any lunch, any day of the week.
When Andy Mullins, his brother Matt and their two mates Tom Birch and Doug Maskiell opened their first pub in Fitzroy in the late 90s they could barely pay for petrol. It had none of the markings of your classic pub – blacked out beer taps, no parmies (a Melbourne pub staple), no sports, no TVs, no jukeboxes or billiards tables. It was different to say the least, but their bastardly conviction to simply buck the trend was fuel enough.
Sitting across from Andy at the bottom of the Garden State Hotel, 20 years after their hospitality journey began, I’m not sure he really sees himself as a publican per se. The Sandhill Road group having only recently bought The Espy, a heritage venue, rich in history and one Andy refers to as ‘Never the best, never the most of something, but always the greatest pub of my life’.
Andy believes everything he has done till now has been a sort of warm up for taking on a beast as big as The Espy.
“We probably had to do all those 19 years of business as an apprenticeship to take on something like this. And the reason for that is because people feel so passionately about it, about the connection it’s got, the ownership it’s got, over the community and this city.
It’s hard for me to describe what it’s like hanging out with Andy but ask anyone that knows him well and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone that doesn’t love the guy. I guess we have predisposed expectations of entrepreneurs and hospo bigwigs, none of which seem to accurately sum him up. He inhabits this type of exaggerated warmth and excitement, a constant big grin and sense of curiosity (maybe even mischief) perpetually paints his face – but he’s also a bit nerdy and has great commercial sense for what works and what doesn’t. We talked about our favourite podcasts for a good 20 minutes before we even got down to the crux of it. He’s a refreshing dichotomy of traits for someone that’s been in the biz this long; probably the reason Sandhill has remained such a community focused hospitality group over the years.
But, it hasn’t been all sunshine and care bears of course. With any project this big – one that requires hundreds of staff, two years of planning and can fit thousands of people in it on any given day without any guarantee it’s going to fly or not – you’re always carrying some serious risk.
“The challenge at the Espy was, one, can we do a large format venue? Two, does Melbourne buy the same way they do in Sydney and Brisbane to a degree? Sydney is the king of the multi-faceted, big format, huge 1000 people plus venues and Melbourne is the opposite of that. It’s small and there are laneways full of people and that’s where our culture and knowledge lies.”
And it’s not just the physical renovations that take up time and headspace, the group also needed to find 350 likeminded people to staff it. The team spent six months responding to every social media enquiry, every email, every phone call that came through.
“Whether it was bands, bookers, locals, residents, artists, ex staff, ex punters, it’s actually building understanding that there’s a lot of diametrically opposed thoughts on the Espy. So that leads you to one conclusion, you cannot please everyone. So what are you going to do to take all those different opinions and build a new Espy, whilst respecting and maintaining the historic level and the legacy and myth. Also, we’re really conscious that that was 20 years ago. My best days at the Espy were 20 years ago. So we’ve got to talk to a whole new generation that’s never even been there and let them love the Espy. The building itself is 140 years old so there’s enough history and legacy there to reach back into.”
Much of the inspiration for the new concept and design of Hotel Esplanade – all about age, grandeur, history, arts – comes from one of The Espy’s most notable residents, a man named Alfred Felton. Alfred moved from the UK to Australia when he was 22 and was well known for founding Melbourne’s cultural scene. His life at the hotel was contained to two rooms stuffed full of artworks and manuscripts, wine bottles, statues, china vases and a multitude of books. He loved, lived and died at the Espy in 1904.
“When he passed away he had no heirs, so he bequeathed about 40,000 pounds to women and children victims of domestic violence in St. Kilda. And the rest he bequeathed to the National Gallery of Victoria. And that 428 thousand pounds is now worth 3 billion dollars in art.”
“The story of this man is incredible. We know where his room was, his bedroom, we know where his reception was. You can’t not sense that something, a presence is still up there.”
When the doors finally reopen, guests will be treated to a buffet of imagination – 12 bars, two restaurants and three stages across the building. An operable glass roof opens up The Espy’s terrace entrance. On the ground floor, the foyer’s arch windows offer views into the Main Bar and iconic grand staircase, in front of which sits a stage in the round. Espy Kitchen, a cellar door-inspired dining area with lofted wine barrels filling the walls, sits between the main bar and a 1970s inspired Studio Bar built around a fully-fitted Podcast Studio, a space that patrons can book to record podcasts. A 120-person mezzanine-level function room offers sweeping views over the bay.
In early December, guests can take The Espy’s grand staircase to Mya Tiger, the hotel’s Cantonese restaurant with ocean views, inspired by the Chinese cook-shops that sprang up throughout St Kilda during Victoria’s 1850s gold rush era. Continuing further up the hotel’s 140-year-old staircase, lies The Ghost of Alfred Felton, a stunning series of late 19th century rooms dedicated to Felton’s three great loves of knowledge, arts and science.
A great deal of the artistic vision for the new Espy can be attributed to Sand Hill Road stylist, Eleisha Gray, who worked closely with Technē Architecture. Eleisha curated a selection of imported furniture and decorative objects that would further enrich the textural narrative – many of which unexpectedly came from surrounding old estates or procured from family homes in greater Victoria.
Goes without saying, The Espy always has been, and always will be, the home of live music in St Kilda. Three different stages will cater to an eclectic range of musical tastes, including the Main Bar’s stage in the round which will host local and touring soloists, two and three-piece bands, along with late night DJs. Emerging artists and local south-side bands will dominate the Basement Stage, and touring artists will sell ticketed gigs in the hallowed Gershwin Room, including The Teskey Brothers, PP Arnold, Tex Perkins, Dan Sultan, and young punk outfit The Chats. The Gershwin Room will also expand its vision and host film screenings, including Claudia Dalimore’s critically acclaimed ‘Her Sound, Her Story’.
It will truly be a gem for both Melbourne and the Sandhill Group to be proud of, not to mention a perfect excuse for a “work trip” to Melbourne for someone like myself. But of course, Andy and the team are adamant that the hotel will always remain with the people.
“The night we signed the contract of the Espy, Vince and Paul, who we bought it off said as much as you’ve bought it, you’ll never own it, and that’s what it feels like. It has always been the pub of our dreams, the ultimate venue. But at the end of the day, its history, its stories and more importantly its future belongs to all the people we’ll welcome into it. For now, we’re just the custodians.”
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