John Finning and his family run Craig’s Royal Hotel in Ballarat, a property with a deep and rich history. Business State chats with him about its recent restoration and why Mark Twain once referred to it as ‘the pride of Ballarat’.
By Nikki Stefanoff
If you were asked what Mark Twain, MasterChef and European royalty had in common, you’d be forgiven for the City of Ballarat not springing immediately to mind. It’s a little known fact that this city has played host to authors, princes and princesses, and foodies alike, but they have all indeed spent time here.
The other element linking this unlikely band of travellers is Craig’s Royal, a Ballarat hotel that over the centuries has given celebrities and citizens alike a place to rest their weary limbs while enjoying a whisky or two in its bar.
A GOLDEN HISTORY
Craig’s Royal has been at the civic heart of Ballarat since Englishman Thomas Bath opened its doors in 1853. One of the first to arrive in Ballarat after the discovery of gold, Bath had set sail from England in 1846, travelling through Europe and the Americas, before arriving on Australian shores in 1849.
Originally trained as a butcher, Bath would split his time between selling meat and embracing the gold rush by mining. This decision to multi-task would serve him well and he soon earned enough to purchase a number of allotments. Recognising that the thirsty gold miners of Ballarat might appreciate somewhere to have a drink after a day’s work, Bath was granted Ballarat’s first hotel licence on the Victorian diggings and built Craig’s Royal on his newly acquired land.
Over the centuries Craig’s Royal has worn many hats. If its walls could talk, they would divulge the dining preferences of the rich and fabulous, spin tales of town meetings and spill political secrets from its time as a temporary council chamber. As the years passed many owners would take charge, but then inevitably move onwards, each time leaving the building somewhat changed.
THE FINNING FAMILY
Fast-forward a few decades and Craig’s Royal has once again been transformed, this time back to its original Victorian splendour, and is now establishing itself as the cornerstone of the city’s communal life. The man at the helm of its most recent rejuvenation is the hotel’s managing director John Finning.
Already a successful hotelier, Finning and his wife Mary bought the hotel in 1999. “When we purchased Craig’s, we did so knowing it needed a lot of work, but after learning more about its history we felt that it was worthy of a full restoration,” says Finning.
“Now that it’s finished I see myself as the building’s caretaker. These walls hold such a fascinating history that I want to make sure the hotel is passed on in good shape.”
The restoration has taken seven years to complete and with the interiors overseen by Mary and the project managed by Finning, it’s been a real labour of love for the whole family.
Family plays a huge part in this couple’s success. The Finnings made the decision to buy Craig’s Royal after running The Settlement in Cranbourne for a number of years. “The Settlement is a hotel our family built with their own hands,” says Finning. “Mary’s father was a builder and my family worked in real estate and between us it took three years to build from scratch.”
There was a time when the Finnings ran both properties simultaneously, even though they sit 150 kilometres apart, but The Settlement is now run by their son Mark. “The hotel business is a hard slog with long hours, so it’s great to keep as much as you can in the family. All three of our kids have at some point worked with us,” says Finning. “Mark has been running The Settlement for the last four years while we look after Craig’s and he’s doing a fantastic job.”
MODERN VICTORIAN CULTURE IN A VICTORIAN ERA SETTING
Talking to Finning it’s hard to imagine anyone more passionate about his industry or knowledgeable about his hotel’s past, but how do you keep something so drenched in the past relevant to our fast-paced and technology-driven future? The answer for the Finnings is through one of life’s great levellers – food.
“Victoria is renowned for its food culture, so there are a lot of people visiting this region with an interest in good cuisine,” says Finning. “The problem with Ballarat is that it doesn’t have the strong food and wine reputation of, say, the Yarra Valley or Mornington Peninsula. We’re aiming to change that.”
With food on their minds the Finnings decided to shake things up and enlisted the expertise of the European Group’s executive chef Ian Curley to direct Craig’s menu. Already overseeing kitchens for renowned restaurants such as The European, City Wine Shop, Melbourne Supper Club and Siglo, Curley played an integral part in the hotel’s future-proofing by working closely with the hotel’s head chef to direct the menu. His experience and guidance has paid dividends with a busy dining room and the news that one of the hotel’s kitchen apprentices has won the opportunity to work in Fergus Henderson’s renowned ‘nose-to-tail’ restaurant St John in London.
The notion of food bringing people together is as old as time itself. We are becoming a generation where popping out for breakfast is as normal as grabbing lunch, so it’s refreshing to see more traditional establishments, such as Craig’s, moving with the times. Ballarat itself is wholeheartedly embracing the nation’s newfound passion for good food and wine, and over the last few years has opened a number of restaurants and bars that are wowing locals and visitors alike. Japanese restaurant Kambei, Mitchell Harris Wines’ cellar door and the craft beer Mecca of The Mallow Hotel are all drawing the foodie crowd. Craig’s Royal is the new addition to this foodie wish list.
So, if you’re thinking of taking an out-of-towner and heading to the Mornington Peninsula for the weekend, why not take a chance and pay a visit to Ballarat instead? “I think that Ballarat is one of Victoria’s best kept secrets,” says Finning. “And I want to help get the word out.”
If you’re looking for expert advice in the hospitality,
leisure or accommodation industry, please contact
Steve Chapman, Relationship Director at Bank of
Melbourne on 9274 4873.