Restaurateur Jessi Singh opened Australia’s first British-style curry pub, Mr Brownie, in Melbourne just days before Victoria’s Stage 4 lockdown occurred.

It has always been Jessi Singh’s dream to open a pub. Born in India, he and his family immigrated to regional Victoria where he first got a taste of what the local pub meant to the community.

“The pub is a place of community check-in, especially in rural areas. I experienced that, and I always wanted to be a part of that. That’s one of my best memories of the Australian countryside,” reminisces Singh.

Even now, living in metropolitan Melbourne, the ‘local’ is just that – a place where the local community can catch-up at any time. So for him, the decision to open a pub was a more a personal one, rather than a business decision.

Operating several restaurants in Victoria, one in Sydney and two in the United States, Singh turned his attention to his pub aspirations about a year or two ago. With pub real estate in high demand, it has been a long time on the hunt for a space, but he found the perfect South Melbourne spot early this year. The hotel had been owned and operated by a developer who wanted to turn his attention to other projects, and Singh found the area appealing, and a great challenge.

“Beforehand I wouldn’t have considered South Melbourne, because it’s a bit lost in translation when it comes to hospitality. You’ve got Port Melbourne, South Bank, Albert Park – they’ve all got their little nooks, so not many people would go to South Melbourne as a hospitality hub.

“In the second week of March I counted 49 hospitality businesses up for lease in that street. I thought it would be a great challenge to open a business in the area — I could have massive support from locals, because they were looking for a new venue.”

An opening of pandemic proportions

Of course, the timing meant that Singh took over the hotel in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a transformation of the venue and the transfer of a liquor license delayed, the hotel opened for just five days, before on-premise trading was shutdown again.

“Everybody was telling me it was a stupid idea to open a new business right now, but the landlord was very supportive. So I took the risk to open a business when everyone else was closing down.”

As devastating as the coronavirus has been – Singh personally knows people here and in the US who have suffered with it – he has a different perspective on the societal and business aspects of the shutdown.

“I’ve seen many, many tragedies in my life, coronavirus is another one. Australians don’t really know what curfew or lockdown is. My childhood was spent in India; I grew up in the middle of a civil war. So lockdown was everyday and it would last months – you wouldn’t have the freedom to go shopping or exercise. It was a total lockdown. You’d get shot if you left your house.”

With that in mind, the hospitality impresario was not overly fazed by the prospect of opening up under these circumstances, and will not let the long-term uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 cripple his ambitions.

“The thing with the coronavirus is that it’s not going to go away. It’s another thing we need to learn how to live with. I’ve always known that, so I thought I’m going to go ahead with opening. I was aware that the pub would get shut down again. There might never be a vaccine, so we have to learn to live with it.”

Singh also just wanted to bring something good and fun into the world at a time when people, particularly in Melbourne, were overcome with bad news. And while the opening was incredibly short, it was very gratifying, with the venue fully booked out (in accordance with social distancing requirements) the entire time. As such, Singh counts it as one of the biggest openings he’s ever experienced in Australia.

This feature was first published in the August issue of Australian Hotelier. You can read the rest of the article below.

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