The emperor and the pineapple

John Szangolies' Urban Purveyor Group now encompasses 20 restaurants and bars, including the recently opened Ananas Bar & Brasserie, at which the pineapple is king.

John Szangolies’ Urban Purveyor Group now encompasses 20 restaurants and bars, including the recently opened Ananas Bar & Brasserie, at which the pineapple is king.

It has been a long and challenging, but ultimately immensely rewarding, road for Urban Purveyor Group’s founder John Szangolies. Along the way he has sidestepped his fair share of obstacles and made a lot of fine and timely decisions. Chris Sheedy seeks out the secrets to his success

In the incredibly sassy and deliciously designed confines of Ananas Bar & Brasserie in Sydney’s The Rocks district, it is an experience in itself just wandering through the space and appreciating the decor. Before you are even seated, the room’s atmosphere makes it clear that guests are in for a very special evening. There is an elaborate table that was rescued from a theatre in Paris. A clock on the wall, various antique sideboards and pineapple light fittings came from antique stores in the French capital. And the zinc bar top was designed and hand-crafted in the City of Light—the French master craftsmen travelled to Sydney to weld the final pieces together and ensure they were a perfect fit.

The entire experience oozes authenticity and elegance. It points to an attention to detail that is sometimes lacking in a restaurant. The decor’s sumptuous but undeniably playful nature has patrons whipping out their smartphones to take photos and selfies, then spreading the word about this lush establishment via social media, before they settle for a bite to eat. It’s quite an achievement. But it is one that is unsurprising in its boldness thanks to the fact that it was orchestrated by a man with an uncanny ability to keep his finger on the pulse and to keep his
ever-growing business as nimble and agile as it was on day one.

“I wanted to create a new French brasserie,” says John Szangolies, the founder, chair and managing director of Urban Purveyor Group. Having grown from humble beginnings, Szangolies’ business now employs over 1200 people. But the hospitality specialist, who came to Australia from Germany as a 20-year-old on a two-year working visa (and never left!), still loves to be involved in the detail of any new project.

“We worked with the same designer that did Saké Restaurant & Bar for us. She did a great job,” Szangolies says. “We all went to Paris and hunted for furniture. But we couldn’t find chairs and various other things in great numbers, so instead we just found bits and pieces.

“As we explored we found various pineapple-themed items and objects. There were pineapple lights and pineapple statues, etc. We began researching and discovered that in the late 17th century, if you had pineapples, you were considered wealthy. Pineapples came from South America so only the wealthy could afford them. In turn, you could also be a very good host if you presented pineapples to your guests. So pineapples became the symbol of hospitality. ‘Ananas’ is Latin for pineapple, and the word is used in Italian, Spanish, German and various other languages. Even today, when the Queen has a banquet, there are always two fresh pineapples on the table.”

And so before Ananas was even staffed for its September 2012 opening, it was having a strong form of authenticity baked into its bones. People that came on board were introduced to a special and unique culture. They felt the excitement and the weight of history and the undeniably delectable sense of style. And so did their guests.

Szangolies wasn’t always such a stickler for detail. When he first came to Australia he was employed as a telecoms technician. He fell into hospitality through the back door when, to supplement his income, he took a job at a French restaurant called the Alouette in Sydney’s George Street.

He realised that he enjoyed the demanding environment of the restaurant industry and soon tossed in his job as a technician to make hospitality his career. Having come from a family of butchers and smallgoods producers, he shouldn’t have been surprised.

“I’m from Hamburg in Germany and thanks to my family I was always clued in to the idea of food retail and quality smallgoods. But I didn’t realise at the time that it would form the basis of my future,” he says.

“My parents had a butcher shop. My grandparents did the same thing. They made sausages and liverwurst and various forms of German charcuterie. They retailed to the public. That experience taught me the importance of quality.”

His family also taught him to keep an eye on his competition—literally! “I remember my grandfather using a pair of binoculars to look at the
prices competitors were charging,” Szangolies says with a smile.

After a two-year traineeship in hospitality, the then 23-year-old was offered the position of assistant manager at the Kosciusko Chalet Hotel at Charlotte’s Pass. It was a job that thousands of people his age would have leapt at. But a one-week orientation session was enough to convince Szangolies that it was not the career path he was after.

“It would have been too easy for me to become a snow bunny for the rest of my life,” he explains. “So I decided not to take the job.”

Instead, Szangolies and a colleague from his traineeship decided to open a restaurant. They soon moved into a space in Kings Cross that was previously a hairdressing salon and launched The Cauldron, a modest eatery that would eventually grow to become a renowned nightclub.

“I made a tonne of mistakes when running that restaurant,” Szangolies says. “But mistakes are good, as long as you only make them once. I was taught a lot of great lessons during that time and many of them still apply today, mainly around the fact that success is always about customer satisfaction and about quality.”

“We began researching and discovered that in the late 17th century, if you had pineapples, you were considered wealthy.” John Szangolies, founder, chair and managing director of Urban Purveyor Group

In 1973, a few years after opening The Cauldron, Szangolies and his partner sold the business and moved on. He took a general manager’s position with the group that ran the Argyle Tavern and the bar’s events spaces. This eventually led to him developing—then buying—the Löwenbräu Keller in The Rocks, as well as the Argyle Tavern, in 1982, when the parent company headed in a different direction. The empire known as the Urban Purveyor Group was born.

Urban Purveyor Group now encompasses 20 restaurants and bars and a beverage importer and distributor called Urban Beverage Imports, which sells to Woolworths, Coles and Aldi as well as independent liquor outlets. It also includes an events business called Urban Events Venues & Catering, as well as Hanseatic Fine Foods, a small goods, bakery, patisserie and food preparation business that provides small goods, sausages, breads and pretzels to supermarkets, bars, restaurants and independent delicatessens.

But the business’s growth since the early 1980s has not been without its dramas. Being based in the heavily touristed area of The Rocks, many of the establishments were highly reliant on the travel market. This was fine up until the terrorism incidents in the USA on September 11, 2001.

“We had been very active in the inbound market and the Japanese markets,” he explains. “We had done a lot of work in the events space. Some of the inbound operators were very big customers of ours and we actually dedicated areas within the Argyle precinct purely to inbound tourism. But September 11 really was the end of the big groups business. I realised that I needed my businesses to be attractive to locals. I closed Reds restaurant (which catered to the high-end inbound market) two days after September 11.”

Szangolies began to direct his attention and resources towards the local and corporate market, fine-tuning his events spaces, restaurants and bars around their needs. A few years down the track, the global financial crisis began to bite. Corporate events disappeared, so suddenly it was time to turn the events spaces into restaurants and bars that had to target locals. That is when the ideas for spaces such as Saké and Ananas were first hatched. This is where the agility of the Urban Purveyor Group, despite its increasing size, has been its most powerful asset.

“I would simply read the situation, make a decision, then make the move immediately,” Szangolies says. “In 2001 I also employed an advisory board. They are a group of specialists whose role is to advise me and I value their advice immensely. I decided on an advisory board because the business was growing rapidly and branching out into beer importing too, so becoming more diverse. I had knowledge gaps, but it is also quite lonely at the top. It is quite a lonely place to be when you’re growing a company.

“I listen to the advisory board and take their advice. It gives me great decision-making confidence and also allows me to keep an eye on the future. It allows me to plan and employ for the future. We always work on three-year and five-year future plans. We always say, ‘What got us here is not going to get us there.”

Where exactly is “there”? It’s impossible to say exactly, but right now it involves a further national roll-out of Bavarian Bier Cafés and a couple of new concepts currently on the drawing board. “I couldn’t do any of this without the professional and knowledgeable team that has developed around me as the business has grown,” he says.

Market forces, as Szangolies has demonstrated so successfully during his career, must be reacted to as soon as they reveal themselves. They must be analysed, understood, related to a specific business, then plans must be put into action. Inaction would have left Szangolies and his business dead in the water countless times over the past few decades, but balanced and speedy decisions have instead turned potential drawbacks into powerful advantages.

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