Every time multimillionaire bar owner and restaurateur Justin Hemmes pops up in the media, labels such as “playboy”, “bar tsar”, “nightclub tycoon”, or (our personal favourite) “mega-bucks bar magnate” often appear before his name.
“I’m getting too old to be a playboy,” Hemmes tells The Power Index during our hour-long interview in his plush office overlooking the Ivy precinct on Sydney’s George Street. Next to his conference table sits a flamboyant silver crown given to him by his singer pal Jay Kay after it appeared on the front of a Jamiroquai album.
“I think they are just tags that don’t go away. I need to come up with something new.” Hemmes pauses to think for a second. “Master magician?” he whispers manically.
Not exactly how you’d expect the head of a $500 million food-and-drink empire to respond. But Hemmes is a master at waving his expensive wand and conjuring up adult Disneylands for Sydneysiders to play in.
Justin’s parents, John and Merivale Hemmes, started Merivale as a fashion house before moving in to property. Under Justin’s leadership it’s morphed into a property and hospitality powerhouse, with more than 30 bars, pubs and restaurants that dominate the social pages of Sin City.
“I don’t think there is anybody else in Australia who controls so many restaurants, and so many restaurants at such a high standard,” says The Australian’s restaurant reviewer John Lethlean. “If you accept the premise that restaurant control is a level of power, he has a lot of power.”
Hemmes argues that it’s the customers who hold the power: “The hospitality industry is a service industry and we try and serve people what they want. I don’t think you can be powerful if you’re a servant, it’s a contradiction of terms.”
If weight equalled influence, Hemmes would be in trouble. He looks on the younger side of his 40 years thanks to his height and skinny frame. All golden skin, styled hair and expensive smile, he’s the living embodiment of Sydney.
And perhaps Hemmes’ greatest power lies in knowing exactly what Sydney wants. “It’s not just food,” he says. “It’s the environment where you’re eating, it’s the style of food, how you’re eating, also beverages, music, ambiance, design.”
All of his venues subscribe to this vision. There’s Ivy, the Palm Springs-inspired playhouse where the beautiful people come to be fabulous. There’s est., the three-hatted restaurant that serves up modern Australian food in a contemporary setting. There’s Felix, the classic French bistro with a wall of European wines. The list goes on.
“The influence of the Merivale group on Sydney’s dining and drinking scene is massive, no doubt about that,” says wine writer Max Allen. ”They’ve got the golden touch.”
But even a Midas touch can bring with it a dark underbelly. In 2009 a female customer alleged she was r-ped in the bathroom at the Ivy Pool Club (the accused was acquitted after a trial in March this year). Last year a driver employed by Merivale was caught by police with a bag of cocaine in the company’s Rolls-Royce Phantom.
Merivale’s private security company Our Security has been embroiled in several scandals, including an incident last year where a 19-year-old patron was restrained face down on the ground and beaten in the street, before bouncers shoved a security vest into his mouth and took him into the Ivy basement and beat him further. The attack resulted in Hemmes backing a NSW government plan for police to monitor nightclub guards.
With publicity often spelling trouble for Hemmes, perhaps it’s no surprise he is reluctant to give interviews. He clearly squirms when asked about anything vaguely personal or controversial (The Power Index: “How do you regard the way the media reports on you and your business?” Hemmes: “Does it matter?”). He later adds: “I’m not one to talk about myself, that’s why this is unusual.”
All of this may seem odd for a man who has made a motza teaching Sydney to party. And yet as soon as the recorder is switched off and the notepad banished to a bag, Hemmes morphs into the consummate host.