How Justin Hemmes became Sydney’s party king

The Merivale CEO learnt the art of having a good time from his parents. Now, he’s getting ready for the sparks to fly in Sydney once more.
Justin Hemmes

Justin Hemmes

Rob Shaw

Justin Hemmes is the first to admit he likes to have a good time. Everybody does, he says. It’s a basic human instinct: we want to have fun. But creating an environment in which people feel relaxed and comfortable enough to have fun is an art. One in which Hemmes is unusually gifted.

“Often you’ll go to places and people don’t feel comfortable and they’re looking around,” he says as we sit side-by-side on a leather banquette, sipping freshly poured cocktails (Martini with a twist for him, French 75 for me). “When you go to a place that’s brand new and everyone is talking to their friends, you know it’s right,” he says. “It’s about creating an environment that people feel comfortable in, and can actually converse and have a good time. They’re not waiting for something to happen.”

We’re at Little Felix, Merivale’s newest opening and latest addition to The Ivy precinct on Sydney’s George Street. We’ve only just met (bar a brief introduction at the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards) but the bar’s décor – with its dark green walls and plush velvet chairs – creates an instant intimacy. It’s conspiratorial.

Over the course of the next hour, Hemmes will discuss everything from his childhood and teenage years through to the impact of Sydney’s lockout laws and business confidence. He is warm and animated, never more so than when discussing his family, especially his late father, John, and his two young daughters.

More than anything, Hemmes is hospitable. He makes you feel welcome and wanted.

The bar at Little Felix.

(Photo: Nikki To)

Hemmes learnt the art – and joy – of entertaining from his parents, John and Merivale. (The Merivale group, which began as a fashion house before morphing into a hospitality empire, is named after Hemmes’ mother.)

“Growing up with Mum and Dad was very colourful,” he says. “Family dinners, for instance… Mum loved to try new cuisines, so if it was Japanese, we’d all have to dress up in kimonos and she would build a table on the ground, and we’d all sit on the ground.”

Parties in the Hemmes household were frequent and raucous, full of “great music and great drinks”, says Hemmes. “They had such a passion for life that when I grew up and I started going out, I was like, ‘Things are quite boring.’ I’d go out with my mates and think, ‘Really? This is people having fun? This is not fun. This is standing around ogling women. Where’s the great music? Why aren’t people dancing?'”

Hemmes’ first taste of the hospitality trade came not long after he’d turned 20. His parents had owned the Angel Hotel on Pitt Street for some years, leasing part of the building to Just Jeans. Upstairs, the couple had opened a restaurant called John and Merivale’s Place – their first foray into restaurants. When Just Jeans gave up the lease, John decided to convert the space into a bar, calling on his son to run the small establishment.

“The bar was so busy that all the hotels around us complained and we got shut down because we didn’t have a hotel licence, we only had a restaurant licence,” he says. In those days, Hemmes explains, a restaurant licence allowed you to serve drinks as long as your customers had the intention to dine.

“Once we got shut down, I had to put a gate up there – the gate is still there today – and I would let one in, one out. And as they came in, I would say, ‘Do you have the intention to dine?’ And they would say, ‘Yes, Justin, I have the intention to dine,'” he says, laughing at the memory.

Justin Hemmes with his father, John.

The Angel gave Hemmes a taste of the industry, but it was Hotel CBD that really ignited his passion. “It was the energy you get and the adrenaline of creating places where people come to have a good time and socialise,” he says. “It’s such a positive energy and it reflects onto you.”

Hotel CBD opened in 1995. John Hemmes had bought a building that housed an old bookshop and some derelict offices on the corner of York Street and King Street. His plan was to renovate and lease the building.

The moment Hemmes walked into the space, his imagination took hold and he could see the building full of people, having a great time. It’s something that still happens whenever he enters an empty property.

“I actually see it completed,” he says. “I see the people in it. And I see them interacting and how they interact. It’s like I’m walking through it. When we’re open, it’s almost like I’ve had a premonition and that’s how they are.”

Hotel CBD was the first time he experienced such a vision, imagining a multi-level venue that offered something for everyone. “In those days, if you were at a bar and wanted to eat some good food, you’d have to leave and go to a restaurant. And then if you wanted to have cocktails, you’d have to find a cocktail bar, and then if you wanted to dance, you’d go to a nightclub. They were all different venues and you’d be hopping around all night. I said, ‘What if we put all of that in one building?'”

His father loved the idea and soon the whole family was working together to design and develop the project, including his mother, Merivale, and his sister, Bettina. The result was unlike anything Sydney had seen before.

From left: Merivale, Justin, John and Bettina Hemmes.

“The idea was to build this thing and then have someone run it and take a lease,” he explains. “We had someone and we started building it – I worked on the construction site. The potential tenant pulled out. They said it was too ambitious, that it wasn’t going to work. So we were left with a building that we’d designed and built. Dad said, ‘Well, it was your idea. You go and run it.'”

Hemmes ran the venue for two years, turning it into Sydney’s hottest property. Crowds of partygoers would line the street outside, waiting to get into the building’s celebrated nightclub – or to be serenaded by fashion icon Maggie Tabberer’s daughter Brooke, who managed the third-floor cocktail lounge.

“She was a fabulous singer,” recalls Hemmes. “We had a piano in there and she was the host – it was like something off The Love Boat. There was nothing else like it.”

A young Luke Mangan was the head chef at Bistro CBD on the first floor, while the second floor was dedicated to pool tables and Sega Rally machines.

“It was so unique to Sydney and people embraced it so much that it encouraged me to do something bigger and more challenging,” he says.

His next challenge was just down the road, where he took on the Slip Inn. It was a bigger and more ambitious project than Hotel CBD, in a much quieter area. Hemmes says that part of King Street used to be “a ghost town”.

His father’s friends began warning the businessman that he had too much faith in his son and was blind to the project’s obvious shortcomings. It was, they warned, doomed to fail.

“When I opened, the first Friday, it was empty,” he says. “Not a soul in there. I remember I rang my dad and said ‘I think I fucked up.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘There’s no one here, Dad.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry. Jussy, if you think it’s going to be good, it will be good.'”

The next Friday, there was no one there again, recalls Hemmes. Depressed, he rang his father to break the news. Again, his father said, “Don’t worry, Jussy, it will happen.”

John was right and the Slip Inn became another roaring success, spurring Hemmes to take on an even bigger gamble, Establishment, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. But it wouldn’t be the last time his father’s encouragement kept him going.

“My dad had blind faith in me. My mum was the same. When I did Ivy, I put so much on the line and it was such a difficult process. It really put a lot of stress on the business, financially. I just kept getting knocked back and knocked back and knocked back by the council. The costs were building. I got to a point where I said, ‘Dad, I think I’m going to have to pull the pin on this one. I don’t think it’s going to happen.’

“I was standing on the steps of Town Hall, and I was actually crying at the time. I was broken. I said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to work.’ And he said, ‘If you think it’s going to work, stick with it.’ If it wasn’t for dad…” Hemmes tails off. “I was a broken man.”

Justin Hemmes.

(Photo: Rob Shaw)

John Hemmes passed away in 2015, which means he won’t be there to support his son through his biggest project to date, a reported $1.5-billion redevelopment of The Ivy. It’s the only time during our conversation that Hemmes is less than forthcoming, searching carefully for each word.

“It’s in action, but it’s a long way away. Before we break ground, it will be four years. There’s a vision. We’ve been working on it for a couple of years and it will continue to evolve and change.”

Does it make him nervous? “No.” He pauses. “Excited. It’s very exciting. It will be the biggest thing that I ever do in my life. But it’s not overly complex. It’s just taking all the learnings from what we’ve done over the years and consolidating them to create something really iconic. It’s a bit of a legacy for me and for the city. I want it to be really special.”

He’s under no illusions, it will be challenging. Business, he says, is tougher than it’s ever been.

“It’s a result of the lockout laws,” he says. “Sydney’s not hot property anymore, not like it used to be. I feel now the timing is right for an explosion in the right direction. The stars are aligning. I think things are looking up. If we spark it, it’s going to go. I feel people want change. They want excitement. They want the city to be busy. They want Sydney to be fabulous. We just need to ignite it.”

And if anyone has the power to make that happen, it’s Hemmes.

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