STEPHEN Hunt was 24 when he bought his first Sydney pub with his dad.
“It was a tatty entry point pub, a small operation, but it did well for us,” the affable hotelier recalls of the Thurles Castle pub on Cleveland Street, Chippendale, which has since closed down.
In the decades since, the focus of 43-year-old Hunt – a new generation publican whose education includes a masters degree and an executive stint at Harvard – has changed.
“I’m only into well-managed, well performing pubs that we can add upside to in all departments,” he says.
That strategy was in full force when the head of Hunt Hospitality recently spearheaded a private syndicate to purchase the Duke of Wellington in New Lambton for $8.35 million.
“It’s got a strong food offering, a strong mix of trade, a good community base and we love the location,” says Mr Punt of the Regent Street pub, which remains under the same management.
The purchase brought Mr Hunt’s Hunter hospitality pool to four, with a fifth acquisition just days away. His foray began in 2002, when he and his father and a friend bought the Kent Hotel in Beaumont Street, Hamilton.
“It had good food and good bar and location, which is all important to make yourself resilient against government legislation – you need a good mix of trade,” he says. “It’s a nice old-style pub and we didn’t want to mess with that, though it’s been freshened up and we reinvest back into it regularly.”
In 2012, Hunt Hospitality and investors bought the CBD Hotel in Hunter Street, giving it a refurb then leasing it back to new management.
Late last year it led a private syndicate to buy The Rutherford Hotel, which has origins as an inn dating back to 1851, for $4.25 million.
The Rutherford watering hole is undergoing a $250,000 renovation that will retain its “rustic” feel.
One of five children, Hunt says his upbringing in a very social family influenced his decision to get into pubs, starting when he finished school and worked behind the bar to learn the ropes. With many accountants in his family, gaining a masters degree was about “pushing myself in business”.
The qualifications may well come in handy in current trade, with Sydney city mayor Clover Moore calling for the better managed pubs and clubs to be exempt from the State Government’s 1.30am lockout laws, which have pushed many operators to the brink.
“Less people are going out, there are less liquor sales, we’ve had to reinvent ourselves,” Mr Hunt says.
Praising police for their efforts, he maintains the legislation is not the “be-end”: “It should be used as a location by location solution.”
PEEK back through the archives at how the region's pubs and patrons have transformed.