In the 2022 Australian Hotelier Industry Leaders Forum, Odd Culture CEO James Thorpe looks back on a year of disruption and evolution.

Sydney-based group Odd Culture Group, as it was rebranded in early 2021, has been busy buying and transforming city pubs over the past year.

CEO James Thorpe, who is a panelist at this year’s Pub Leaders Summit on April 4, says he wouldn’t have predicted that back in March of 2020 when NSW was first told it was going into lockdown.

“I honestly thought that our industry was done, that the business was over,” he says. “It was at that point that we decided we weren’t going to be a victim of the pandemic. That we would try with every resource available to make it work – for the staff.”

So the group pivoted some of its pubs, trading off-premise only, and instead of using Uber or Delivery, they devised an in-house delivery system that saw all food and beverages delivered by the group’s bartenders, managers and floor staff.

“We even hired e-bikes for those who couldn’t drive. Our staff all maintained employment through that lockdown, and the pubs garnered such intense community support that they came back after lockdown to a frightening level of trade – which more or less persists to this date.”

Ultimately, Thorpe says, Covid has given rise to several new venues for the group, and the team is around four times the size now as it was at the top of the pandemic.

People strategy

Odd Culture Group’s People & Odd Culture program was developed in late 2021, says Thorpe, as a way of formalising its commitment to its people.

“The program, which all full-time employees are a part of, puts hard caps on service hours, and makes time for intra-venue mentorship, personal development and nationally-recognised training, as well as giving each staff member a solid path for progression within the company.

“We have a big focus on putting the right people in the right role for them, setting them up with the training and support they need for success, and then giving them relative freedom to do their role effectively,” Thorpe says. “People will surprise you when given the right tools to shine.”

Fine dining focus

Thorpe says this focus on employees, specifically making hospitality “a sustainable career for those who have the spark for it”, has defined the group ever since.

“Our appointment of James MacDonald as Group Executive Chef and working with his team of industry-leading head chefs like Anna Ugarte-Carral, Jesse Warkentin, Doug Alverenga, and John Hockey, is a massive highlight for me,” he says.

According to Thorpe, being one of the very few pub operators in the country who do not operate gaming machines, the food and beverage offering is an especially crucial part of the business mix for Odd Culture Group.

Odd Culture Newtown, which opened in November, was the first project Odd Culture Group designed from the ground up – literally, as the venue was gutted by fire in 2018 – according to Thorpe.

“It’s a two-level bar and restaurant on the busy King St pedestrian strip in Newtown, with a huge, 2000-plus product craft beer and natural wine bottle shop attached three doors up.

“All of the design was done in-house by the group, from interior to lighting to furniture design. It was really rewarding seeing it all come to life and be so well received by customers.”

More in store

The group remains on an expansion trajectory, with plans to add two to three more venues in 2022.

“While we love pubs, and will always operate them, rising freehold values in that sector and a changing regulatory environment which increasingly favours other license types, for example, small bars,” Thorpe says. 

“That together with our aversion to gaming machines has swayed our appetite toward “clean slate” opportunities, rather than “turnkey” pubs with a heritage overlay.

The group’s Newtown bottle shop has also been a runaway success, according to Thorpe who says the group may add more bottle shop sites in Sydney this year.

“We’ve also just secured a site in Melbourne for our very first hospitality venue out of state, so keep your eyes peeled for that.”

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