OPERATOR FOCUS: Pierre Van Der Heyde, Melbourne


Pierre Van Der Heyde from Australian Bar Holdings (Murmur, Portello Rosso, Mint, Phoenix and Penny Black) lays down his cards

Interview by Simon McGoram

How many years have you been involved in the bar industry?


“Well with ABH it has been about five years coming on to six years in Feb. And before that about three years cutting my teeth in various supervisor and management roles. So just short of a decade I guess.”

And how did you start out in the bar industry?

“Actually I started out in the industry bussing tables first year out of high school at The Chevron down on St. Kilda Road… Then I went away from it for a while and got back from an overseas trip working in the construction management game – in engineering – I decided that it was a little dry for me so just to keep things ticking over for a few months I hopped behind the jump again and decided I liked it.

I started talking with a few mates from Uni who I knew were interested in setting up their own venue and basically sold to them that I could run the front of house operations for them if they came up with the funding. So that was the birth of Australian Bar Holdings.

We spent about year searching for a suitable venue. We wanted a space of the beaten track with a unique sort of ambiance about it where we didn’t have to spend a bomb on fit out. So we found an old merchant warehouse in that merchant district down near Hardware Lane which is Murmur.

We spent not a lot of money fitting it out; I think it was under 100k which is pretty good these days for an interesting fit out. That was really our introduction into the game and things really weren’t certain until a good 10 to 12 months into trade; we were still at sea a little bit.”


Did you have some important team members that helped get Murmur off the ground during this period?

“Yeah we certainly did. At first it always hard to find the right staff mix and we did go through some mangers in those first 10 months… Around our first anniversary we came across some really good Kiwi managers… We literally had three or four Kiwi managers that knew their cocktails from that Wellington scene and when they left they all basically rang a buddy who was just as good and just stepped into the breech. I think that’s what you get if you set up a nice working environment and look after your staff because they’re critical in this customer service industry: They’re the guys who are making it or breaking it for you.”

How long did you have Murmur running before you started looking at new projects?

February 2004 we opened and we probably started looking for a venue about two years later. In July 2006 we purchased The Mint Bar which is opposite Flagstaff gardens. We were looking for a venue with a big outdoor beer garden – one that was underdeveloped that we could add a lot value to. And that was in our price range so it ticked all our boxes in that regard: Rent was low, massive outdoor courtyard that increased numbers (300 person capacity). With the smoking ban coming in within the next six month we thought that it was a prudent investment to get an open courtyard in our group.

At that stage we weren’t thinking any grandiose plans. We were probably thinking maybe two or three bars and see how that goes. We weren’t thinking anything past that in terms of our growth… It took us about 12 months to sort out and we started seeing the returns and our annual revenue just go through the roof there in a very short time. Which then put us on to think thinking; alright we’ve got two under the belt let’s start thinking about a third. It was close to 18 months later that we bought this one [Phoenix].


What can you tell us about your latest bar project Penny Black?

That’s been an interesting one. We were sort of side tracked from that venue for a little while because we ended up renovating and opening Portello Rosso below Murmur and opening the same month! It was just one of those things – Penny Black was on the market with another massive beer garden and in our price range and rent range. At that point in time is was too good an opportunity to let go.

It [Penny Black] has got massive potential – it’s a 900 capacity venue. And we’ve taken it from a café come cabaret venue to what is now a band and pub venue.

Was Penny Black a challenging project for you? Did you have any previous experience with live entertainment in your venues?

No not at all. So we really neglected it a lot in the first 12 months because all of our attention was on Portello Rosso and getting that up and running. So for that first 12 months we didn’t really touch it at all and we actually got Michael Delany, who is an associate of ours and is obviously a great interior designer and runs some fantastic venues around town, to have a look at it.  He helped us with the interior design just to create that really laid back Brunswick vibe, not over the top, but a little bit interesting and kooky; Michael is like the master of that.

Now we’ve got the main room bar (the band room bar) and we’ve a little lounge bar too. So for the first time in this operation we are able to separate the band room from our public bar or lounge bar – we’re now able to do a door charge in the band area, but still have our public bar open for normal trade.”


So what would you say has been your most satisfying moment in the bar trade?

“The most satisfying moment would definitely be winning the 2007 Cocktail Bar of the Year at the Bar Awards for Murmur. That was a massive achievement and just good to get industry recognition… I think it was the result of four or five great mangers over the years and certainly Greg Sanderson who was manager at the time was able to give it that lift in profile that it needed to get a bit more exposure. That was a great year and a great night from memory (what I can remember of it!).”

Pierre’s Top Five Tips

  1. Courtyard: “Having an outdoor area I think is a must in Melbourne at the moment.”
  2. Cheap Rent: “Being able to get your rental down to four or five percent of your turnover is a really good indicator.”
  3. Having a good concept: “Melbourne loves its cool concept bars and it can be out of left field. Just take a look at some of the more successful venues in Melbourne at the moment: Section 8 in a carpark with two shipping containers – one of the lowest cost fit-outs we’ve ever seen and they’re doing amazing as well.”
  4. Product: “Have your product right to meet your targeted demographic.”
  5. Fit-out: “Don’t blow too much cash in your fit-out. Try and do your fit-out from your capital with getting yourself in too much debt.”        

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