Running Scratchelys on the Wharf since 1989 has been a labour of love for Neil Slater. Its continued growth and popularity is a testament to his passion and business acumen. By Frank Leggett
“I started my career just outside Newcastle (NSW) at the Hexham Bowling Club—famous for Ozzie the Mozzie, the gigantic mosquito statue out front. At that time, I was attending teacher’s college and working in pubs, clubs and restaurants in the evenings. Once I graduated, I was employed as a teacher for four years but also worked in restaurants three nights a week. I decided to follow my heart and in 1983, I gave up teaching and took a job at the Alpine Hotel in Thredbo.
“For the next five years, I worked in restaurants and as a ski instructor in Australia, the USA and Austria. Then I met my beautiful wife, Donna, and we continued to move around a lot, running restaurants in Thredbo, Newcastle and Dunk Island.
“During the 1988 bicentennial year, we returned to Newcastle and I was working as a very aspirational waiter. When the NSW Government moved the Stockton Ferry Terminal and left the building vacant, I knew this was the time to take the plunge. I was working at Queen’s Wharf, the restaurant next door, and counted the numbers for every session from February to November. I figured that if we could get one third of the available market we could make this work. We won the tender and in 1989 we opened Scratchleys BYO. Our point of difference was that our restaurant was completely BYO when others were charging outrageous amounts for booze.
“For 10 years, the building was a ferry terminal masquerading as a restaurant. The toilets were outside so our diners had to walk out the front door and around the back to use the facilities.
“In 1999, BHP closed its steelworks in Newcastle and everyone expected the city to die. That was the year I fully refurbished the restaurant, doubling our capacity and finally moving the toilets inside. We also utilised a number of environmental initiatives and won an award from the Master Builder’s Association for the most energy-efficient building in Australia.
“Obviously, the financial side of things is important but a restaurant shouldn’t be driven by the dollars alone. It has to be driven by a love for the industry and a love of people. If you do it for the right reason, the money is the end result.”—Neil Slater
“Scratchleys was reinvented as a fully licensed restaurant with a 300-bottle wine list.
“Newcastle doesn’t have a big tourism industry so I rely on local people and return clientele. While our dedication to consistency had given us nearly 30 years of business, you also need someone with the drive to make the business work. I like to know my guests and staff intimately, and now at 60 years of age I am more of a father figure to my young team.
“A restaurant shouldn’t be driven by the dollars alone. It has to be driven by a love for the industry and a love of people. If you do it for the right reason, the money is the end result.
“We are the absolute waterfront restaurant in Newcastle, and people bring friends and relatives to show off the working harbour and the city. There are a lot of well-travelled people who would see Scratchleys as nothing more than a fish ’n’ chips shop with a nice feel. There are a lot more people who see Scratchleys as the epitome of dining. They bring mum here for her birthday and buy her a lobster. Each of our 100,000 guests per year is different and we have an obligation to meet their expectations. The fact that we’re fast approaching our 30th anniversary and the business is still growing indicates that we get it right a majority of the time.
“In November 2016 we opened our new bar ‘Battlesticks at Scratchleys’, a beautiful space that offers amazing cocktails, tasty tapas and live music five nights per week.
“In 2015, I was awarded the Hunter Business Chamber’s Business Leader of the Year and in 2016, I received the NSW Lifetime Achiever Award at the NSW Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence. It’s a great honour to win these awards but it’s only possible with the help of my wife, my restaurant manager, my chefs and all the rest of my team. I wouldn’t be where we are today without such wonderful and committed people. They really know how to put in.”