The Oaks Hotel is an icon in Sydney’s hospitality scene. Why and how did it earn this reputation? While in Sydney, everyone I talked to kept saying that I had to go there before I left. I put in a call to David Thomas, the owner of the Oaks for the past 30 years. I told him who I was and that I’d like to come over and take a look at the place to find out why everyone was pushing me to go there.
The Oaks Hotel is a combination of attractions that include pizza, steaks you cook yourself over an open-pit grill, bars, poolrooms, bottle shops (or liquor stores as they are called in the U.S.) and even a small-scale casino. While they don’t do any advertising in the traditional form of marketing, they do have features that attract customers and get people talking.
Beer and Pizza
One thing about ordering pizza at The Oaks is that you don’t order pizzas built to order. All of their pies are specialty pizzas. They offer 18 different varieties that include Tandoori chicken, grilled lamb, Peking duck sausage, Thai chicken and marinated pork along with some traditional pizzas like vegetarian, Margherita and seafood. David says the best sellers are the Tandoori pizzas and lamb pizzas. “We don’t really change any of the pizzas, but we do add new ones from time to time,” David says. “When we have a new pizza, we add it to a specials board and see how it does first.
“Aussies drink beer,” David says. “Beer and pizza go together beautifully and we sell a lot of beer. People come in during the day and sit outside in the courtyard where the famous oak tree is and enjoy the smells of all the food being cooked on the grills. It’s a nice relaxing environment. But, people don’t drink as much as before because of the driving laws.”
One of the main attractions of The Oaks is the cook-it-yourself open-pit grill where customers cook their own steaks, kebabs and other assortments of freshly cut meats. Customers walk up to the meat cases and gawk at the fresh steaks (Rump, T-Bone, Scotch Fillet, Prime Eye Fillets, chicken halfs marinated in herbs and garlics, steak or chicken kebabs, sausages, fresh fish steaks or cutlets…and yes, you can even get a cut of kangaroo.) There are grills inside the restaurant as well as outside. Self-proclaimed grill masters have an assortment of spices and sauces at the grills to season their steaks and such.
I really liked this idea of cooking your steaks for several reasons. First, how can anyone leave saying their steak wasn’t cooked to their liking…they cooked it themselves. Second, it frees up the kitchen staff and helps orders come out faster. Also, with customers cooking their own meats, the cost of labor is reduced. David said that they supply the freshest and best cuts of meat because the raw cuts have to look their best when customers are looking at them in the meat cases (See photo above.)
Other than the pizzas, one of my personal favorite items at The Oaks was the bucket of mussels. David said his son went to Belgium and saw them being served there and thought it would be a great idea for their restaurant. The Oaks serves five different flavors of mussels ranging from Provencale Mussels (served with tomatoes, herbs and garlic) to White Wine Mussels (served with vegetables and steamed in white wine). They are served in a stainless steel bucket with fries and are delicious. A bucket of mussels and fries are priced at $20 (Australian) and judging by all of the tables with buckets on them, they sell a lot.
The Oaks takes a rather different approach to promoting this menu item. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so The Oaks has banners outside the building and signs inside with a photo of a bucket of mussels, a cup of fries and a glass of beer with an addition sign (+) between each one. It’s simple and gets the message across without forcing customers to read a sales pitch or promotion.
David says the second biggest draw at The Oaks is the poolrooms. The Oaks used to be an actual hotel and what they have done is convert the upstairs rooms into poolrooms. The rooms are furnished with elegant pool tables, leather couches and a warm cozy feeling. Customers can rent a table and these rooms are so popular that you have to book one in advance. “These are great for functions and parties,” David says. “It gives customers another reason to come here and have their events. It’s hard to get people in for the first time, but with features like this, it’s easy to keep them.”
These rooms also contain a jukebox and may be booked for one-hour periods. There is no charge for the room, just the cost of playing pool. Food may be ordered from the bar and it will be brought to your room. Pool tables are $4 per game, jukeboxes are $2 per three songs, waiting staff runs $20 per hour with a minimum three hours and requires one staff member per 35 guests (optional).
There is no room's hire charge at The Oaks for party rooms, which helps keep costs to a minimum, although you are required to order food from one of their packages. On the menus, there are food packages to cater for every budget. The minimum price per head is $16.00. Drinks can be obtained from the bar, centrally located amongst the rooms. Waiting staff can also be organized to look after guests and drinks can be pre-ordered and set up in rooms so they are ready when guests arrive.
In addition to poolrooms and party rooms, The Oaks also has a mini casino with video poker and slot machines. David says it is not a huge moneymaker, but does give customers something else to do while they are there. The laws regarding gambling are different than in the U.S., so this is another option they can explore.
The Oaks can seat about 1,200 people at once and can accommodate up to 2,000 with the poolrooms, casino area and outdoor patio. Denise Brinson, the catering manager, says that they are able to book a lot of functions and sell food and beer for the parties. In addition to the assortment of food customers can choose, they also keep 16 to 20 beers on hand, mostly draft beers. “It’s a fantastic atmosphere and the beer is very cold,” Denise says. “We also serve it in chilled glasses. During the peak hours, we have about 120 staff members.”
While I was in The Oaks, I stopped off at a table where two elderly women were seated and asked them how they heard about The Oaks and why they came. They said they found it by their web site. “We’re very happy we came,” one woman said. “We’ve been treated so well by the staff. The service is so good and so is the food.” On the web site, you can book parties, view menus, read about their restaurants, bars and history of The Oaks or view the layout of the place. The website is www.oakshotel.com.au.
While David says they don’t spend a cent on advertising, marketing is there…just in different forms. From the banners with photos of mussels that encourage you to have a beer and bucket of mussels, to the lure of booking a party or pool table, customers who do try them out have many reasons to return. There’s the mini casino, the outdoor patio, at least four separate bars and the thrill of cooking your own steak all under one roof. If you are ever in Sydney, I recommend taking the ten-minute drive across the Sydney Harbor Bridge and checking them out…you may find a few ideas you want to incorporate into your restaurant. You can also check out their web site for ideas and a look around by going to the address in the previous paragraph.