Since coming under the ownership of Iris Capital in 2019, the Sydney Junction Hotel was quick to rephrase its reputation as a troubled venue and in the past six months while COVID-19 saw most of the hospitality industry shutdown, a new team was busy behind the scenes creating the next incarnation of the iconic hotel.
New licensee Jay Pring may have a had a rocky introduction to both the Iris Capital team and the Sydney Junction Hotel with his first order of business being to close the venue down when the COVID-19 Delta variant found its way to the Hunter, but that hasn’t stopped him forging ahead with a plan to re-invent the former nightclub-style hotel.
“On my first day I had to tell the team we were closing down,” he said.
“It wasn’t an ideal way to start a new role but that’s COVID for you.”
While Pring didn’t have a long way to travel from his last role at the Northern Star Hotel just down the road, it was due to the pandemic that the former business development manager found himself in the country when the opportunity with Iris arose.
“My family and I were living in Singapore and had come to Australia for a holiday when the pandemic began in 2020,” he said.
“It had been our intention to return overseas but we were unable to cross international borders and by the time restrictions lifted my son was happy in his new school and we had all found ways to re-start our lives here.
“I had a role at the Northern Star and when this opportunity came up with Iris it felt like the perfect next step for me.”
And it seems he was right.
As many venues struggle with dire staff shortages coming out of lockdown, Iris Capital Operations Manager Locky Heffernan credits Pring’s ability to keep the team engaged throughout the pandemic for the venue’s current success.
“As someone who came into Iris right as we locked down, his ability to build and retain a team during an extended shutdown exceeded our expectations,” Herffernan said.
“He was able to engage the staff and cultivate relationships to keep them motivated which has been the hardest thing for our industry. During lockdown, so many staff have left hospitality to start careers in other industries and it’s the teams that managed to maintain contact and engagement throughout the pandemic that were the ones who prospered. Thanks to Jay, while we haven’t been untouched by staff shortages, we aren’t feeling it like some of the other venues both here and in the industry.”
"During lockdown, so many staff have left hospitality to start careers in other industries and it’s the teams that managed to maintain contact and engagement throughout the pandemic that were the ones who prospered" - Locky Heffernan
Having undergone a major facelift and re-merged from lockdown primarily as a sports bar and lifestyle venue, The Sydney Junction Hotel, while still catering to a younger demographic after dark, is now a far cry from the nightclub it was three years ago.
“We’ve really moved away from a certain reputation the hotel had many years ago. It’s taken a while to shake that connotation but now with this renovation, the venue also has a new face to show the community,” Pring said.
“We’ve brought back that old-fashioned pub feel where people can come in and the staff know their name. It’s a place where locals can walk up to the bar and their drink is ready because we know what they like. It’s a place that’s perfect for locals and families alike.
“That said, younger patrons are also a key part of our demographic and we’ve got a good balance at the moment with a live music vibe happening throughout the dining hours which then transitions into a DJ atmosphere in the beer garden and that’s an area we’ve spent a lot of time getting right. It’s created a really respectful crowd in the later hours which is exactly what we wanted.”
According to Pring, some of the stand-out features of the renovation, aside from the new beer garden area, include the addition of several mega-sized TVs including a six by three-meter screen in the dedicated sports bar, which he described as being ideal for viewing sporting events such as the Melbourne Cup, high-profile fights, and grand finals.
“The lockdown meant we could get six months’ worth of renovations done as quickly as possible. At the time we had the feeling it would be more than a couple of weeks for the shutdown and it turned out that was the case. For us, it meant we could re-open with a brand-new venue and brand-new attitude.”
"At the time we had the feeling it would be more than a couple of weeks for the shutdown and it turned out that was the case. For us, it meant we could re-open with a brand-new venue and brand-new attitude" - Jay Pring
Under the guidance of Iris Capital Executive Chef – Hunter, Gavin Forman, the hotel’s new head chef MD Hossain has also brought his own unique flavour to the venue, creating a re-imagined menu as well as high-end aged steak offering for those looking for something a little special.
“The Meat menu has a number of different menu items including a 700g rib eye cooked to your liking with a variety of sauces to choose from including truffle mushroom,” he said.
“This is a pub, yes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t offer premium menu items and the feedback we’re getting has been extremely positive.”
The general menu includes all the pub classics as well as vegan and vegetarian options such as homemade vegetarian five-spice dumplings and a pesto spinach pasta.
For Hossain, the Sydney Junction Hotel might be the first pub kitchen he’s managed, but his experience speaks for itself. Having held positions in the United Kingdom, the Maldives, and more recently at the Gates Restaurant at Leogate Estate in the Hunter Valley, the head chef said he is greatly enjoying the close atmosphere at the Sydney Junction Hotel as well as the opportunity to help shape a brand-new offering.
“I created this menu alongside Gavin, and I enjoy seeing people starting to re-engage with dining out after COVID-19,” he said.
“It’s very rewarding.”
The Sydney Junction Hotel is open from 10am seven days per week.
The new-look Sydney Junction Hotel