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Sand Hill Road’s Secrets to Making the Perfect Pub

Matt Mullins shares the blueprint for what makes redesigned pubs like The Prahran Hotel work.

By Amy Collins
June 13, 2013

Sand Hill Road’s Secrets to Making the Perfect Pub

Matt Mullins shares the blueprint for what makes redesigned pubs like The Prahran Hotel work.

By Amy Collins
June 13, 2013

There is something about taking a venue and making it new again that we really respond to. Renovations, redesigns, makeovers: They are inviting, and anyone who has visited The Bridge Hotel or The Richmond Club pre- and post-renovations would have experienced this.

The gents behind these incredible makeovers, Sand Hill Road, are at it again with the redesign of The Prahran Hotel. They have taken the much-loved Melbourne venue and added stunning architecture to its already long list of characteristics. With a complete wall of concrete pipes that you can sit in and enjoy your parma, this redesign is incredibly well played.

We chat to Matt Mullins from Sand Hill Road about redesigning spaces, the perfect pub and where he goes to enjoy a beer.

Tell us about Sand Hill Road and how it came about.

Sand Hill Road is a group of four guys. The same four guys [Doug Maskiell, Andy Mullins, Matt Mullins and Tom Birch] that were here when it started. We were all twenty five years old, working different jobs and, at the same time, starting to think maybe this work life wasn't what we wanted. The only thing we knew about was pubs. We knew what we knew from spending our misspent years in pubs.

We started with one venue. We renovated it, all ourselves. It was before designers and architects were really briefed to redo Melbourne pubs. After the first one we thought, that's fun, and did it again and again. Since then we've done eight or nine pubs, and we're having a really good time! We use the same architects, Techne Architects and Justin Northrop. We also work with the same builders, Visual Builders. You can't build a place like the new Prahran Hotel without good relationships with architects and builders.

What would you say the key elements of a 'great pub' are?

We've always said that design is one of the areas where we can push the boundaries. Our market seems happy and excited by this, they love coming and being in an exciting building. But, no doubt about it, we talk about what our market is going to want in terms of the actual product. We talk about the food offering being accessible and good value, and high-quality pub food. We talk about that first. People need to be able to eat in small groups and large groups in the entire venue. We talk about them having a public bar, where anyone can come in and not be judged. People want the barman to know them and know what they drink. In the end, the product offering is a good, simple, honest pub offering.

Do you think these elements that make your venues work are specific to a Melbourne audience?

We spend a lot of time thinking about it, about if these things we're tapping into are Melbourne things or inner Melbourne things, or if it would have all worked in other areas. The answer is we don't know, but it feels like there is something very Melbourne about our market. It's something about the Melbourne market that really responds to a good, honest pub — to a public bar, to a chicken parma and a pot of Carlton. Being able to watch the footy in the background. We built our pubs around that specific market.

What do you think it is that keep people coming back?

People come to our pubs once or twice for the design. They come back for things like karma kegs, and the public bar that has become part of their life. They come to know us and they can feel at home there. In many ways the design comes second or third or fifth even.

Tell us a little about Karma Kegs?

The guys and I have been donating money to different causes over the years. About a year or two ago we thought we might be able to involve our patrons more in this aspect of our lives. They are the business and therefore it made sense that they could be part of the charity process too.  Doug came up with the idea of the karma keg, on a Friday, at every venue. We donate a keg of Carlton, and punters decide what they pay for it and the whole lot goes towards a local charity. They always choose to pay more than what's it worth. It's incredibly cool. It tells you a lot about our patrons and how they feel about the community.

How did you go about redesigning The Prahran Hotel?

We start with asking 'who is the market for us and what do they want?'. We start with the general offering and then we talk about how we can design the building around offering that. The architects always ask, 'who is this pub for boys?'

The pipes at The Prahran Hotel are pretty wild, they look really cool, but more importantly you get to sit in one of these pipes with the street on the one side and the venue to the other. The design came out of the need for that community beer garden. The beer garden was stuck out the back and was hard to see and get to. It wasn't doing what it was meant to be doing. We needed to bring it right up to the front. Access it from the public bar, and bring light into the heart of it. The pipes now wrap it around the courtyard, an extension of it so to speak.

Do you look to the history of the pub when redesigning? Was that an element of the Prahran Hotel redesigning?

We absolutely look to the history of the pub. Design can be a great way to incorporate or evoke the history of a venue. The Prahran was rebuilt in the 1940s in the streamline style, the architectural style that came after art deco. They really added the cruise-ship style in the remodel. Everything was done in big long horizontal lines, with portholes and curved brickwork.

With the part of the hotel that we left, we borrowed from that era, specifically the circular motif. They were one of the things that inspired the circular pipes. Essentially, they are porthole windows. Iconic of the era. We took that idea and built them on top of each other, creating the wall of concrete pipes.

Aside from your own venues, where do you enjoy spending time in Melbourne?

I tend to go to venues for one of two reasons. Firstly, it's for us to learn something architecturally, and a good example would be The Boat Builders Yard. What they did there in terms of inside and outside and making things waterproof inside was fascinating and really interesting.

The other reason I go to certain venues is to visit places my friends own. I like to know the publican — The Great Northern for me is the number one beer pub in Melbourne and one of the best in the country. What they know and advise with beer and food is out of this world.

Published on June 13, 2013 by Amy Collins


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