Photography: courtesy of The Keystone Group
Without naming every one of their 18 wining and dining venues across Sydney, it’s hard to describe the Keystone Group. But their sexy wine bars, pokey local pubs and thriving late-night clubs do share three things: first-rate food, an impeccable drinks list and crowds that love to be there.
Creative director and partner, Paul Schulte is the brain and creative eye behind the popularity, having turned his back on a finance job he hated (“the whole go to the city, sit in front of a computer thing”), to pull beers in the then-newly opened Cargo Bar, one of the group’s earlier ventures.
Within a month he was managing the entire venue.
“At that point I realised how passionate I was about people enjoying themselves and that Sydney, in my eyes, was missing a range of things.”
So after three years managing the place plus a stint in London, he returned with a big idea, a bit of cash in his pocket and persuaded his former bosses to let him in on the act, changing an entire industry in the process.
His recipe for success?
WRITE A NEW RECIPE
A few years ago, licensing laws meant there were only two types of options for those fancying a bite to eat or nice drink in Sydney — a pub or a restaurant.
“The laws stated that if you went to a restaurant you had to have the intention of going there to eat,” says Paul. “To me that didn’t mean you had to eat, nor did it mean you had to have a traditional mains and entrees menu, it means that you were happy to go there and chat.”
And so the Gazebo Wine Garden was born, a mesh of both bar and restaurant where you could eat or drink as much or as little as you liked while standing, sitting or lounging.
“The concept I came up with for that was more about bending the rules of how people ate and drank. That was a first for Sydney.” And you could wander in (without a booking) at any time of the day. “We made life easy for people,” adds Paul.
ADD A PINCH OF SOMETHING SPECIAL
Take a seat at a Keystone hangout and look up, look around. Perhaps you’ll notice the “Sandy feet and bikinis welcome” sign at Manly Wine, the kitsch flamingos and gnomes hiding around The Winery or spot the fox wearing a tutu that’s hanging upside down at the Gazebo Wine Garden while you eat your meal. You could probably spend your entire meal looking and still not find all the quirks hidden around each venue.
“It wasn’t just that there were only restaurants and pubs, it was that almost all venues looked the same and I realised from London that it didn’t need to be [like] that.”
The Gazebo was home to Australia’s first green wall (now all the rage, everywhere) — with vegetation grown vertically along its walls. “When the doors were open, a lot of people still thought they were outside. Actually, a lot of people used to smoke inside, which showed how much people thought they were outside. We’d tell them [to move on] and they were so surprised.”
CHOP UP CRITICISM
The old adage rings true more than ever in the entertainment game: you can’t please everyone. When Gazebo opened with its new wine-bar concept, the way some people reacted “was almost like you were trying to poison them”, laughs Paul.
“If you put a percentage to it, about 30 per cent of people liked it and 70 per cent didn’t. But we just stuck with it and the 30 per cent we were making really happy because they hadn’t see anything like it.
“If you believe in it… there are enough people around you who will believe it as well… As soon as I started to see other venues around copying what we were doing and the demand was so overwhelming (a two-month wait list for tables!), then at that point, you believe in what you are doing.”
STORE AND SERVE WHEN READY
“We have identified certain brands that we know can grow around Australia, probably four or five but the rest will just be run like single businesses.”
Some of their brands rely on originality and local community ties, so they can’t just be “copied and pasted” into another city. “[They] are so big and unique, there is so much thought into those that you can’t just go ‘zap’ and have an identical one,” he says.
“You need to keep changing [the venues] and developing them, so we will look very different as a group in three to four years’ time, but you never try to be the next hottest thing. We never thought Gazebo was, we never planned for it to be. We were never about ‘so-and-so’ being spotted there. If you are going to make the papers, it should be because of a story about wine or because it’s fun, not because hot people are going there, because they will eventually leave and then you have nothing.”
*Catch Paul Schulte speaking at our exclusive April event, Kick.Start.Smart.*