By Jack Hayes
“Hospitality is in our DNA” is the all too familiar phrase drawn on a shopfront window or uttered by a friendly face at your local restaurant, pub or café.
Very few can boast the conviction to that phrase like Coopers Inn owner and operator, Matthew O’Kane.
From Culgoa to Mitta Mitta, Geelong to Albury-Wodonga, his extended family has owned and managed some of the finest establishments in Melbourne, Victoria and beyond.
“My grandmother Pauline O’Kane (Gallagher) was literally born above a pub – the former Clare Castle Hotel at 168 Exhibition St,” Mr O’Kane said. “This pub was located on the corner of Mornane Place, just two blocks from the Coopers Inn.”
Sadly, the Clare Castle Hotel is no longer, but Mr O’Kane’s endeavour to continue his rich history in hospitality is undeniable after taking the keys to one of Melbourne’s oldest pubs.
The Coopers Inn was founded in 1854 by John Byng; an African-American man fleeing slavery in North Carolina, USA who moved with his family to Nova Scotia, Canada, before finding his way to Melbourne and opening the Digby Hotel, which was shortly after renamed the Coopers Inn.
After taking over control in 2017, Mr O’Kane had worked tirelessly to pour every cent of profit back into improving the Coopers Inn.
He was adamant about etching his name in the fabric Melbourne’s pub history, and business was building. Since his ownership, turnover had increased by 30 per cent.
That was until COVID-19 hit.
“As much as the pub has been here since 1854, it is a new business for us. We bought this pub and have poured our heart and soul into it, and every little bit of profit we put back into it to make sure it’s constantly improving,” he said. “Then something like this happens, which is just completely out of our control.”
“It has been extremely tough, not only on myself but also my staff and family. We are pretty tough and resilient people, but this has definitely challenged us.”
As it has for the large part of Melbourne’s hospitality scene, COVID-19 has forced local businesses to rethink and reimagine.
Pivot has been the word that has encapsulated this transitional phase. Pivot to take-away dining; pivot to food and beverage delivery services; pivot because it is your only option to survive and support those who rely on you.
In the case of Mr O’Kane and the Coopers Inn, his pivot comes in the form of a warm community embrace.
“Over the past few months, the Coopers Inn has generously offered the use of its kitchen to Al Dente, under a shared food premises arrangement,” Mr O’Kane said.
“Al Dente is a pasta-delivery service operating on the Cookaborough platform and was founded by Italian chef Andrea Vignali and close friend Davide Bonadiman.”
“Under normal circumstances, Andrea would still be working as a sous chef at Melbourne dining institution Grossi Florentino but is not able to due to his status as an international visa holder.”
According to The Guardian, there are more than 1.1 million temporary workers in Australia, most of which are not entitled to government support.
Opening his doors and kitchen is Mr O’Kane’s way of giving back to all the migrant workers who have called the Coopers Inn home over the years and extends further to personally supporting one of his own.
Isabelle Woods is one of the longest-serving members of the Coopers Inn team and is affectionally known as Mr O’Kane’s “pub daughter.”
“I just couldn’t let her go. She has had Christmas Days at my house; she is pretty much family to us.”
Supporting migrant workers comes as an unexpected, but a preordained, ode to the history of the Coopers Inn and the former Little Lon District.
Once a booming, yet debaucherous, quadrant of the CBD, the Little Lon District housed and entertained some of Melbourne’s most notorious criminals.
Eighty pubs, bars or drinking holes once stood on the block bounded by Lonsdale St, Spring St, Exhibition St and La Trobe St. Now the Coopers Inn and new friends Little Lon Distilling Co are the only two of their kind left standing.
To celebrate, Mr O’Kane has joined Little Lon co-owner, Brad Wilson, in creating The Publican, a gin inspired by the story of Coopers Inn founder, John Byng.
“I’m proud to have worked with Brad using the finest of Australian malted barley and good old-fashioned Melbourne water. We’ve added my own unique mix of botanicals – smoked juniper berries, citrus, sage and even Galaxy beer hops,” he said.
“This is a one of a kind, truly handcrafted, Melbourne born and bred gin. Most importantly, it’s helped to keep me active during COVID-19 while the Coopers Inn is closed.”
With government restrictions expected to ease over the coming months, Mr O’Kane has a cautious eye on returning to “COVID normal”, and with new government allowances for outdoor dining, the Coopers Inn will slowly return to its former glory; to its roots that are entrenched in fostering community connection and spirit.
“We encourage people to support local and independent businesses, whether it’s you coming in for a drink or a meal, or telling a friend or relative about us; we appreciate it all,” he said.
“What we can offer at the Coopers is an authentic Melbourne pub experience in the CBD, still doing it the traditional way, and that’s something we are proud of.” •
For more on the Coopers Inn or to buy their handcrafted gin, visit: coopersinn.com.au.