Continuing his parents’ seafood restaurant in Hobart, Will Mure with wife Jude speaks to Sarah Norris about their passion for world-class produce
Back in 1973 when Mures Fish House restaurant was established in Hobart’s Battery Point, phrases like ‘hook-to-plate’ and ‘vertically integrated business models’ were never heard.
Tasmania’s tourist industry was just starting to pick up, with the rest of the world finally cottoning on to its rugged good looks. It wasn’t, however, until the 1990s that interest in the State’s burgeoning food and wine industry really picked up.
In fact, we’re still revelling in Tassie’s pristine environment, which yields world-class produce, in particular, seafood—and these days words like ‘sustainability’, ‘ethically sourced’ and ‘provenance’ are synonymous with the region.
But when George and Jill Mure opened the Fish House as the State’s first licensed seafood restaurant, the fishing industry was in its infancy.
“The biggest challenge they had back then was sourcing a continuous supply of good, fresh fish,” says Will Mure, talking about his parents George and Jill.
Not being able to find quality seafood was the catalyst for drawing George back into a profession he had left due to a knee injury; and although they didn’t know it at the time, it began their journey in helping build and shape the State’s seafood industry.
George had been a fisherman for years, having worked in the North Sea in England before moving to Australia in 1961. He continued to work around the country before being forced to chuck it in.
Fast-forward to today, and Mures Fish House is now Mures Fish Centre run by son Will and his wife Jude, with a fleet of fishing boats, a processing facility, a wholesale, retail business, sushi bar, as well as two restaurants—a more casual bistro called Lower Deck and an à la carte offering called Upper Deck.
Mure’s wholesale business supplies to a large proportion of restaurants and fresh-food outlets in Tasmania, as well as to Melbourne and Sydney fish markets. They smoke salmon and make shelf-stable soups distributed around Australia and niche markets overseas, such as Singapore and Hong Kong.
“As far as I am aware, we are the only fully integrated company in Australia that catches their fish, processes it, value-adds it, retails it and then cooks it,” says Will.
So, how do you grow from a small local restaurant into a vertically integrated business employing over 150 people?
Will says it began with Melicent, a 50-foot double diagonal-planked fishing vessel they built in the late ’70s and named after George’s “very tough” grandmother. “We built Melicent and started crayfishing and drop-lining for blue-eye trevalla. The blue-eye drop-line fishery was only part-time, spasmodic, but the more we did it, the better we got, and it eventually became a full-time fishery for us.”
They eventually outgrew their space, deciding to build and open a fish centre in 1987 in the thick of it among the boats and yachts of Hobart’s working fishing port, Victoria Dock. (That’s the site that’s still there today, complete with processing facility, shop and restaurants.)
As Will and his sister Sarah got older, they took control over parts of the business—Sarah the à la carte restaurant and Will, the fishing side of things. “It made sense—fish and fishing has been in my blood ever since I could walk.”
George sadly died in 2003, and Will and his wife Jude took control over more of the business. “When this happened, I realised the shore-base of the business needed our full attention [the wholesale, value-add, retail and bistro]. We were lucky enough to find a great skipper who was able to run our boats, meaning Jude and I could then start to focus on the fish centre and drive all aspects of that business,” explains Will.
Two years ago, Jude and Will had an opportunity to buy out Sarah who, with her husband Rick, decided they wanted a lifestyle change. “It’s been a hell of a change because it’s different having all aspects of the business to look after. It’s given us a new view of the whole business, that’s for sure,” says Will.
They took over the running of the à la carte restaurant, which they discovered had different demands than, say, the bistro, due to its levels of expertise and service. Asked what they think the hardest part of the past two years has been and Will says it’s having to go backwards to go forward. “We went backwards, that’s for sure, but I think we have come through that period and we’re now starting to see the changes we’ve put in place [in that time]. We now have people on board who share our vision. We’ve realised you have to look long-term.”
Like the business, the industry and technology has also evolved. The Mures’ preferred fishing method has always been long-line fishing—which is, as it sounds, a long fishing line with baited hooks attached at intervals—and back in the day, it had to be done manually.
“We used to bait up every hook by hand so before you went fishing, two of you needed to spend four or five hours baiting up fish. It was horrible—the most time-consuming thing—and you didn’t get paid for it,” says Will.
Now hooking is fully automated, meaning the bait is cut and attached to the hooks by a machine as you set them. The lines have up to 300 hooks, which are set horizontally and suspended from weights above the sea floor. It’s much safer, easier and time-efficient, and is the biggest change the family has seen in their 40 years of operation.
Mure uses this method because it’s low impact to the physical environment, specifically the ocean floor, as using hooks is considered a ‘passive’ method of fishing as the depth and bait target only the species sought as opposed to a ‘catchall’ netted method.
“The result is excellent, quality fish because you’re catching individual fish and they are coming on board alive. They are then humanely killed, cleaned and iced down quickly so the result is top-quality fish. The second big advantage is it’s environmentally friendly. The term is now clichéd but it is. It’s low-impact to the ocean floor,” he says.
Will points to the Australian Fishery Management Authority, which is responsible for the efficient and sustainable management of Commonwealth fish resources, as one of the reasons why the country, especially Tasmania, has such an excellent reputation. “Back in the old days, trolling was bad because there were no restrictions. Nowadays, it’s completely different. It’s well-managed by the Australian fishing industry and people only fish in areas they have always fished, so there’s no further damage to the habitat. It’s come a long way since the days we first started.”
Blue-eye trevalla has always been the company’s main catch, joined now by pink ling, oysters, crayfish—the list goes on—and for two or three months a year, they head to the high seas to catch the likes of yellow-tail king fish.
Blue-eye, which Will describes as versatile and easy to cook, used to be the biggest seller in their restaurants, but with the influx of international tourists, people prefer to order more high-end delicacies—“like oysters and lobsters, which are more expensive. Some of the locals get shy of the price tag but for a lot of people from overseas, it’s often cheaper than at home,” says Will.
The couple are strong and passionate advocates for utilising Australian products and highlighting local produce. “Tasmania is one of the most wonderful places in the world to live,” says Jude. “People say the weather is bad, but Tassie has just got a nice natural and unpretentious way about it.”
That genuine, warm and honest approach is exactly what they are trying to ensure people experience at their restaurants, which is one of the areas they have been concentrating on for the past two years. “It’s been exciting taking over Upper Deck. It’s about beautiful seafood and offering warm, genuine service, but that’s hard to achieve. When people think à la carte, they think snobby and not genuine, which is not what we want to offer,” says Jude.
Quality control and consistency across the whole business is their main concern these days. Part of that is opening a new custom-built factory in Cambridge, allowing them to achieve better quality.
They acknowledge there has been high and low points on their journey but have learnt a couple key things along the way.
Asked what the number-one piece of advice they would give their younger, start-up selves if they could go back in time and they say that’s simple. “We’d tell ourselves it’s going to be harder to drive change than you expect, but it’s important you work at achieving it.
“It’s about figuring out what you want and then finding the right people and allowing them to drive that change,” says Will.
“Surround yourself with the bright people because you can’t do it all yourself,” chimes in Jude. “We didn’t realise how important it is to get those key people involved, but it is because they will drive our vision.”