Sunday, 4 March 2012

We buy the place

As much as the lunch time was busy, it was the evening trade that made the Grape Escape as popular as it was. It became an after work place to have a drink,  a neighbourhood waterhole,a place for "boy meets girl", a general meeting place for a drink and to listen to some good music.Most nights it was busy and we were open seven days a week.

We had only been trading for six months when we bought the building, 139-141 Blues Point Road for $42,000 and after twelve months we decide to redecorate - which in those days was unheard of. I had latched onto that idea from some of the bar and restaurant owners in San Francisco. We used the same interior decorators that John & Merivale used for their boutiques, as Terry and I were frequent shoppers at Mr Johns in King Street, he had good boots.

 Deciding on a Victoriana Theme,  the walls painted a gloss burgundy/red patina, wainscoting around all the walls, the panelling stained cedar, an array of antique light fittings throughout and we revealed the staircase to open up the entry hall. The furniture changed from Captains Chairs to Bentwood and we were ready for our second opening night.

This time around it was different as we knew everyone we were inviting and the whole exercise was excellent PR and helped establish the "Grape". Mind you there was a fair amount of competition starting to evolve - 'The Stoned Crow' in Crows Nest had recently been opened by Warwick Short and 'Dionysus ' in Milsons Point at a similar time by Robyn Fiorelli and Sid Preston and the Bengal Curry House in North Sydney owned by Ron Roberts and David Naish, Dick and Maureen Thornett had the "Rag and Famish" Hotel in North Sydney.

We were all friendly rivals and often we drank at each others establishments and became good friends.Many times we would be out having drinks when our own customers would join us, one place this happened often was Johnny Walkers Bistro in Angel Place. There was a regular team that would meet up most Fridays for lunch, sometimes twenty or so, with lunch disappearing into evenings into mornings and Oh! No! another hangover from to much red, port and herb superb.

Thank God we were young fit and bullet proof and also that there were two of us involved in the management. To commence we started of doing shifts of day, on day off, which meant we would start at around 10am setting up for lunch and then go through and close in the early days at 10pm which was a 12 hour shift, later the license allowed 12 pm close. As we became more organised we worked, week on and week off. 

I moved down to Whale Beach and rented an old stone cottage in Bynya Road, this allowed me to get away totally as before, I had been living either upstairs on premises, or renting  an apartment  nearby in McMahons point. Now moving to Palm Beach gave me a total break. This also renewed my love of the surf ,ocean, and getting fit. After I had settled in,  I would go down to Palm Beach and go up into the sand hills at the northern end, underneath Barrenjoey Headland, and run till I dropped and then throw myself into the surf and finish up exhausted, lying on a towel in the sun letting it's energy revive me and go and do it again a bit less each time,three or four times, until I was to tired and just lay there in the sun.Moving down there was like being on holidays, every second week I would go on hols, and hang out on the beach.There was a solid team of friends living on the Northern Beaches so you did not lack for company if you wanted it. Most of the time I was happy just to be on my own or with Ave.By the end of each week I would be well recharged and be ready for the "Grape" and the energy necessary to inject into the staff, the customers and running the business. It was "full on"for both lunch and diner and to top it off we were "very social", not necessarily when we were working.  During opening hours we did not drink much until the night started to wind down and then we would start to wind up. 

The enthusiasm of the "Grape Escape" manifested  with us, the staff and regular customers for  a couple of years in that time we achieved a lot for some blokes who had never been in business before or together as partners. It had been two years of living, breathing, working and falling in love with the "Grape" couple with all that it, being closely involved in a partnership with Terry who was the best bloke to be in partnership like this with.We had such a great time right from the inception in putting it altogether and then operating it.Our management skills were definitely inclined towards marketing, public relations, designing and refurbishment as we were always building and extending. We enjoyed each others company and we were not competitive of one another, though we we both had competitive characteristics, we did not agree all the time,Terry though it through more than I would I be more instinctive and rush in to it. An example of that was when I suggested after we had been trading for about a year and the place was humming, that we should redecorate and update, close down for a week and relaunch. Terry initially found this hard to grasp as we were doing such good business. I had seen this concept of redecorating /refurbish work well with some of the bars in Union Street,San Francisco, namely "The Camelot" and  Perry's which is still going strong after trading for 43 years, being opened by Perry Butler in 1969 and still there is testament to a well run restaurant that keeps current with the trends in the hospitality industry.

As we became more and more popular  the licensing police started to have a conversation that our toilet facilities were not coping with the  crowd and numbers  we were attracting, especially on Fridays and Saturdays.Which in essence meant that we had to come up with larger male and female toilets.

So I resolved a plan with Warren Firkin to extend the building into the back yard which increased the ground floor and basement with new toilets and larger cellar, office and storage and on the ground level increased the kitchen, bar and gave a new back veranda room.We opened upstairs as a stand alone restaurant, with new kitchen and separate French Menu, own toilets and a veranda with views of Lavender Bay. Warren drew this up and costed it  and we gave ourselves a budget of $130,000, we approached Penfolds Wines  who arranged a  loan of $130,000 and we proceeded to rebuild the "Grape" to double it's size after our development application was approved by North Sydney council.

We decided on what a third of the business was worth - $15,000, as Terry did not sell his share in the property at that time. I looked for a new partner to take over Terry's  role, which was a hard act to follow. Robert Highfield  tried and borrowed from his dad $15k but that did
 not work out, Robert thought it was 100% party time, which it was not especially with the rebuild. Graham Shields came on board, I met Graham and ended up sharing a place in Salisbury, Rhodesia with him a couple of years back and advised him to get the fuck out of there and meet up with mates of mine in San Francisco, which he did. 

Now he was my partner in the Grape as he had just returned to Sydney and needed a gig so his folks leant him fifteen big ones which he gave to me and I gave  back to Bob Highfield's Dad.

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