Entertainment offerings breathe new life into Old Synagogue

13/06/2019 - 12:14


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Opening four venues in a heritage building in Fremantle is the latest venture from the team responsible for taking Oktoberfest national.

Entertainment offerings breathe new life into Old Synagogue
Ross Drennan (left), Drew Flanagan and Mike Van Dongen have embraced the challenge of reviving a 117-year-old landmark. Photos: Gabriel Oliveira

With backgrounds in property valuation and civil engineering, Ross Drennan and Drew Flanagan are not what might be considered stereotypical publicans.

In fact, neither has previously worked in a bar or pub; but that hasn’t stopped them making a massive impact in Perth’s hospitality scene.

The pair is continuing a remarkable transition from the corporate sector to building an events and venues empire with the launch of the Old Synagogue, a new precinct being developed in a historic but neglected Fremantle landmark.

Four bespoke venues are in the works at the Old Synagogue, a 117-year-old heritage building located on the corner of South Terrace and Parry Street in the centre of Freo that promises to deliver unique and diverse food and beverage experiences.

Each of the four venues will be linked, but will have unique identities. 


The precinct will comprise a high-end restaurant, a rooftop terrace, a boutique basement bar and a beer garden, all of which are expected to open towards the end of the year.

Messrs Drennan and Flanagan’s journey into hospitality began in 2010 when Nokturnl Events launched via a raucous New Year’s Eve party on the banks of the Swan River.

However, it was the group’s Oktoberfest series that took Nokturnl to another level, growing from a Perth-only festival in 2011 to now include annual German-themed events in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.

Mr Drennan said the move into bricks-and-mortar hospitality would certainly be a challenge, but was confident lessons learned from building Nokturnl into a national juggernaut would translate.

“We’re pretty good at pouring beers, not too many people pour as many beers as we do in October,” Mr Drennan told Business News.

“But there is definitely a degree of crossover in what we’re doing here in terms of the hospitality element, just in a different setting, but we’re obviously learning a lot along the way.

“From events, what we have probably picked up is seeing spaces and how to use them well, trying to design things from an interest point of view. Hospitality is all about creating fun.”

Mr Drennan said a shift into permanent hospitality was something he and Mr Flanagan had never seriously considered until the opportunity to purchase the Old Synagogue arose.

“About two years ago we said we weren’t going to get into hospitality venues in Perth, but we saw this building come up for sale and thought there was just so much to work with here to really create something quite cool,” he said.

“Walking around the site, down all the stairwells and to see all of those different spaces – there are so many options to us.

“So then we thought we’d create four venues rather than one massive venue.

“If it was one venue, it would probably be the biggest venue in Fremantle, which we didn’t really want.

“It’s a big risk. There have been some high-profile big venues which haven’t worked. Hopefully it’s safer for us cutting it up.”

Mr Flanagan said a previous development approval at the site prescribed the construction of a five-storey hotel, a plan he and Mr Drennan eschewed in favour of creating a food and beverage-focused hospitality destination.

“We liked the historic aspect of the synagogue, and the opportunity to put something modern out the back,” Mr Flanagan said.

“It will allow us to really appeal to a much wider base of people; each space is going to be quite different and cater to a different audience.”

The building is currently a hive of construction activity, with contractor Encon busy restoring the heritage space.

Encon director Mike Van Dongen said the builder, which was established two years ago, was excited to have the opportunity to work on such a unique development.

“It’s a bespoke build, building on a site that’s been partially restored and has had some interesting things done to it that we’ve started to uncover is a good challenge,” Mr Van Dongen told Business News.

“From Encon’s perspective, that’s what we want to build, we want to build interesting things for good people.

“These guys were known to us through friends, and they’re the type of clients we want to work with.

“We’re part of the team, we’re not sitting on the other end of a contract; a contract doesn’t really have to exist in this instance, it’s just one team making decisions together.”

Mr Van Dongen said the other attractive aspect from a builder’s perspective was the early engagement from the project team.

“One of a builders biggest frustrations is where you can’t add value because things have gone too far,” he said.

“Whereas on this project we can work together and help make informed decisions on costings and times, design etcetera.

“This is unique in every sense; there wouldn’t be too many of these types of projects that are done around Perth, and it’s the fact that it’s a hospitality venue but it’s got so many different aspects to it.

“The structural side and the challenges associated with that interested us as well – a basement built under a 117-year-old synagogue.”



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