New owner looks to put Penny’s back on the map
This is the second time Scott Assender has owned the landmark Sydney Road music, drink and food venue
Friday, October 22, 2021
DOZENS of Brunswick pubs and hospitality venues will welcome customers onto their premises today for the first time since the lifting of an 11-week lockdown at midnight.
Among them will be landmark Sydney Road venue Penny’s Bandroom, back on the scene after an absence of almost two years.
For venue owner Scott Assender, the most recent lockdown was the hardest of all because Penny’s (formerly known as The Penny Black) had only opened its doors six days earlier when it was told on August 5 that they would need to close again.
Just getting to that stage was the conclusion of a seven-year odyssey to regain the venue that he first operated between 2008 and 2014.
When Penny’s first reopened back in August, Mr Assender – whose business interests also include Sydney Road restaurant Brunswick Mess Hall and the Four Pines Welcome To Brunswick beer garden – was brimming with excitement at finally getting hold of the keys to the building again.
But after the 77-day lockdown that forced all pubs, restaurants, cafes and other venues in Melbourne to shut their doors for the sixth time, that enthusiasm has been dampened by apprehension about how the new vaccination regime will work in practice.
“We’re as on track as we can be,” Mr Assender said earlier this week.
“We’re opening Friday and Saturday and Sunday, and it should be interesting. We will see. There’s a lot of challenges … we’re walking into the unknown.”
Among the challenges are having enough vaccinated staff to work shifts this weekend, how to ensure that only vaccinated customers are allowed onto the premises, and the capacity restrictions of 20 indoors and 50 outdoors that are unviable for many businesses.
Mr Assender has been in the hospitality business for three-and-a-half decades, beginning at the McDonald’s chain when he was 15.
He worked at and ran venues in Australia and overseas before opening The Penny Black in 2008. The venue, inside the imposing two-storey building that was Brunswick’s post office for almost a century, had operated as Don’t Tell Tom for four years before Mr Assender took it over.
He has always regretted selling the lease in 2014 so when it became available again at the start of last year, Mr Assender jumped at the chance to reacquire it. But then COVID hit and the deal fell over. Negotiations began again in March this year, and Mr Assender’s 100 Burgers organisation finally got hold of the keys in July.
“I’ve been trying to buy it back for seven years. It’s just a passion.
“It’s one of the largest venues in Brunswick. I love the beer garden and it was the first venue I ever owned myself so I really have a soft spot for it.”
Regaining Penny’s has fulfilled an ambition to complete an entertainment precinct with the venue at its centre – a kind of four ring circus that also consists of Brunswick Mess Hall, Little Mess and Welcome To Brunswick.
He has owned Brunswick Mess Hall since 2012 and opened Welcome To Brunswick as a joint venture with Sydney brewery Four Pines in two years ago this month. His other business interests also include the Mr Burger food trucks and restaurants, Welcome To Thornbury food truck park and beer garden, and several pubs and bars scattered through inner Melbourne, including The Mint in the CBD and Prince Alfred’s in Parkville.
Mr Assender’s vision is that a whole night of entertainment – food, drinks, live music – can be spent in a tight precinct connected by the laneway that runs alongside Penny’s and then behind Brunswick Mess Hall, concluding at the entrance of Welcome To Brunswick in Frith Street.
“We can cater for a whole lot of different tastes now,” he says. “We’ve got all things to all people, which I love. It was my plan all along to get Penny’s back and make it a precinct.”
When business returns to normal, the three venues should employ close to 100 people.
“I think because we had a sense of normality for six months this [sixth lockdown] has knocked everyone about and been far harder for everyone.”
The new Penny’s Bandroom has been modelled on a Japanese Rock & Roll bar. When capacity restrictions are lifted, live music will be a cornerstone of the business along with Japanese food.
Penny’s Bandroom can hold 270 people, but for the immediate future will be restricted to just 20 inside and 50 outside. Mr Assender says those numbers make it unviable to reopen some of the other venues in his empire.
He admits COVID has taken its toll. He fears he will have no choice but to permanently close some of his businesses, and he has lost dozens of staff who he will not get back.
Prior to the most recent lockdown he calculated that his venues had been closed for an average of three days out of every week since March last year in what is normally a six or seven day a week industry.
“I think because we had a sense of normality for six months this [sixth lockdown] has knocked everyone about and been far harder for everyone,” he said.
“I’ve got three CBD businesses that haven’t reopened since March 2020 so I don’t know if they will ever reopen.
“When we are open, we’re restricted and we understand why, we get that, but the reality is many people will lose their livelihoods and jobs because of something that was not their fault. ”
A Brunswick local himself, Mr Assender has lived in the suburb for more than a decade and his children go to local schools.
“I love everything about Brunswick, that’s why I moved here,” he said.
“Nothing was illustrated more than at the start of COVID when a lot of mates who live in the outer suburbs, their only options were to go to Woolworths or Coles and I basically stopped shopping at Woolworths and Coles and only shop at IGA, La Manna, La Tosca, Mediterranean Wholesalers.
“We’re just so lucky in Brunswick but we’ve got to support small business and local business.”
For now, as we readjust to life after lockdown, Mr Assender’s mantra is a simple: “Be kind”.