September 15, 2012
DRIVING through England you sometimes see a reproduction Crusades chapel, a mock Arthurian moat, a neo-Gothic tower. They’re known as follies, and they were invariably built by people who'd made so much money they ran out of sensible things to spend it on.
Vern Rickman’s folly can be seen in Archies Creek, a hamlet so small it doesn’t even have a shop. It does have a pub, a church, a post box and Archies on the Creek, a restaurant and function centre that briefly dazzled. Today it stands padlocked and empty, a menu board out the front the sole reminder of merrier times.
The surprise was not that Archies on the Creek failed but that it so nearly succeeded. This was no country pub. From the start, Rickman aimed at a temple of fine dining. He hired Melbourne consulting chef Paul Wilson to develop a menu based on the best local produce and multi-award-winning chef Shaun Nielsen to put it in to practice. The sous chefs and sommelier were on the middling rungs of Melbourne restaurant royalty. There was a 20,000-bottle wine cellar and a collection of rare whiskies, both based on Rickman’s personal collection.
In late 2009, when Rickman put on an opening party for the local gentry – councillors and business people – tongues wagged furiously, especially the tongues of those of us who hadn’t made the invitation list. Who was Vern Rickman? Where had the money come from? And why Archies Creek, of all places?
The old Bass Shire offices seemed an unlikely venue for an upmarket restaurant. Several kilometres off the main road, they have no sea or river views, not even views of the surrounding countryside, but a small man-made lake (a relic of the municipal past) and judicious placement of boardwalks, fountains and spotlights created a surprisingly glamorous backdrop for some serious eating and drinking.
“You'll eat impeccably-crafted bistro dishes made from sublime produce and choose from an excellent wine list,” gushed the Herald-Sun’s usually nit-picking reviewer Stephen Downes, who ate a “divine cannelloni filled with crab mousse and sitting in a stew of calamari, tomato and a green-herb emulsion”.
The Age’s Dani Valent supped on “a chilled pea soup, simple but served in an eye-catching glass alongside breathtakingly good fried prawn toasties” and a sirloin steak cut from local beef dry-aged on the premises. Service was perfectly pitched, she said: "country friendly, city sharp".
Serious Melbourne foodies set their GPS systems for Archies Creek to come and see for themselves. The locals also came, tantalised by the rumours and city reviews. Many took one look at the posh restaurant and headed for the sports bar, which was more like the pubs they were used to, but those who ventured into the restaurant often came out talking excitedly about the food.
Rickman opened Archies to the community, hosting art exhibitions, twilight farmers markets, musical Sundays, wine tastings, winemakers’ dinners. There was talk of expanding into accommodation and limousines, adding a winery. Staff recall Rickman saying, “I don’t care whether we make money or not; we’re going to do this properly.”
An imaginative, successful businessman, he could afford it. He’d made his money out of selling extended warranties on electrical goods to customers of Myer and Big W. Who even knew such a trade existed? He’d introduced petrol pump TV to Australia. Now he was going to prove himself again with Archies. If he needed inspiration, he had only to look at the Royal Mail in Dunkeld. Dunkeld was even more remote than Archies Creek yet the Royal Mail had been named The Age 2010 Good Food Guide‘s restaurant of the year.
Like Archies, the Royal Mail had been set up by a rich man, in this case Allan Myers, a commercial lawyer and chairman of the board of trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria. But where Myers kept his distance from the Royal Mail, Rickman and his wife Debi wanted to be involved in Archies.
*Susan, an experienced waitress who started work at Archies in 2010, says it would have been better if they had put in the money, put in someone really good to manage the place and stayed away. “They’ve eaten at restaurants but, to be honest, I don’t think they know much about running a hospitality business. Vern hired a lot of people to be nice to them. He wanted to help them. But in my opinion they didn’t always have experience for the jobs they were doing.”
On Saturdays and Sundays Rickman would sit in the bar drinking and chatting to staff and guests. He ran “whisky flights”, where patrons paid a set price for a three shots of rare whiskies, but he tended to give the stuff away if he was enjoying the company. He wouldn’t be the first man who bought a pub for the company but the spending at Archies was on a grander scale. Susan didn’t believe it could last. “Bottles of champagne. Not once a year but often. Opening parties. Consultants. They spent hundreds of thousands. If you’re crazy in the beginning it’s very hard to recover that money.”
She says Rickman’s manner made him easy to exploit. “He likes attention, to show what he has. He always said how much money he had. There were a lot of exaggerations. He is a nice person but it was hard to know what is true. There were a lot of people in the sports bar who seemed to take advantage of him. Drinking for free. Staff as well. I know staff now who are bagging him and they used to be there at 3am or 4am drinking. Not the cheapest wine, they were drinking good stuff.”
*Bill, who started working at Archies in 2010, recalls Rickman saying, “I’ve put $5 million of my own money into this place.” Like most locals, Bill had heard plenty of stories about Rickman before he worked for him. “I tried to see through all the stories and judge for myself. I flipped out with him a couple of times and on a personal level always found him to be quite reasonable. But he could be very stubborn. Some of his ideas just weren’t going to work but he wouldn’t budge. They weren’t practical – they'd economise on things that mattered and waste money on other things that were just for show.”
Shaun Nielsen headed back to the city within a year. Local chef Graeme Heenan took over and stuck to the plan of using regional produce. The kitchen was much more relaxed with Nielsen's departure but some of the buzz went too. Archies kept missing out on the big awards. These things count in the restaurant world, not just with customers but also with ambitious chefs who will move on if they sense a restaurant isn’t going places.
By early 2011, there were rumours that Rickman had lost a lot of money. Staff got used to wondering if they would be paid, but Rickman always found the money. In August 2011, Archies was judged Bass Coast's best new business of the year but in truth its best days were already behind it . Several of the chefs and most of the experienced waiting staff had moved on. They had been replaced by schoolkids on $10 or $12 an hour who did their best but didn't really know when to appear and when to disappear.
Bill says it was hard to know who was running the place and there was frequent chaos. “There was no one taking control. You don’t take 50 bookings at 7pm and another 20 at 7.30pm. You just can't do it.”
The professional reviewers were no longer visiting Archies. Their place had been taken by passionate amateurs writing for online review sites. Understaffing and inexperienced staff are recurring themes in their reviews. “The very young staff did a good job under very difficult conditions but they were let down badly by the owners,” wrote one. “I would suggest that most of the people who ate there that day wouldn't go back again.”
Archies tried to go downmarket – advertising itself as a “pizza place and steakhouse” on its Facebook page – but it didn’t work because of the opulent surroundings. Bill says people weren’t even prepared to come in and look at the menu because they assumed it was expensive. They’d go to the sports bar instead.
Towards the end, things went from bad to worse to farcical. In February, Archies catered for an outdoor music event called Serenade at Sunset at Corinella’s Pinehaven Manor. The music was sublime but the catering hit a dud note. On a cold wet night, the food was also cold. “They were understaffed, they ran out of gas and the food suffered,” one guest recalls. To his credit, Rickman refunded everyone’s money. A few weeks later Archies hosted a special Spanish night where diners were still waiting for food at 10pm, three hours after they’d arrived. By then many of them were tired and emotional.
“I think everyone gave up the ghost at the end,” Bill says. “Every weekend was a disaster. Nothing was organised. They’d know there was a function on the next day but they would never start to prepare until that morning. Nobody seemed to know what they were doing.”
So when Archies put on a Titanic night on April 14, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the liner, there were countless jokes. A 10-course degustation dinner recreated from the Titanic’s original first class dinner menu, as it was advertised, provided plenty of opportunity for disasters of a culinary kind. Suprisingly, the evening went without a major hitch and everyone seemed to enjoy it.
But it was the last hurrah. On May 27, after the Sunday lunch dishes had been cleared, Rickman told staff, “That’s it. There’s no work next week.”
Of course the signs had been obvious – the restaurant lurching from crisis to crisis, the rumours of financial collapse – but staff were stunned. “It was the suddenness of it,” one says. Rickman had always found the money, sometimes at the last moment, to pay the wages and bills. “I suppose we just assumed we’d keep going the same way,” Bill says.
Rickman told staff he would pay their holiday pay and superannuation entitlements. He also planned to re-open the sports bar once he’d sorted things out. There was talk of different operators taking over the various components of Archies. None of that will happen now. Shortly after Archies closed, Rickman’s United group of companies ceased operating. A liquidator was appointed to dispose of the business. Archies has been gutted and anything of value auctioned off. The place itself will be auctioned next month.
I never met Rickman but he intrigued me, as he intrigued many locals. Archies seemed such a quixotic and risky enterprise for a hard-headed businessman, but looking back at his career you can see he always liked a punt. The less likely the enterprise, the more satisfying when it paid off. I sought an interview with him but he declined, not unexpectedly as the metropolitan media had put him through the ringer over the demise of his United businesses. I wanted to ask him about Archies. Why did he carry on pouring money into it? Did it cost him his business empire? And what did he want from it?
In lieu of my own interview, I turned to other people's. In a profile published in The Age on June 15, 2011, Rickman said the idea for Archies came when his other businesses were going well and he was feeling a bit bored. Initially he planned on spending about $100,000 and opening a cafe and wine bar. Somehow, $8 million later, it had evolved into Archies on the Creek. He talked of his business successes and failures with equal interest. Of his approach to business he said: "I always thought you've got to dip your toe in the water to see if something can work." It's a romantic view from a golden age of business, before the MBAs ruled the roost, when entrepreneurs were adventurers.
By all accounts, the Rickmans have lost everything: business, house, restaurant. Suppliers are owed money. The staff lost their jobs. But the rest of us also lost something when Archies closed. It brought a touch of glamour to dumpy old Wonthaggi. It wasn't just the posh food and wine and serious waiters but the idea that we, too, could have farmers markets, an art gallery, winemakers dinners, sculpture exhibitions and even a rakish millionaire with a dream.
Like many locals, Bill is saddened by the demise of Archies, and not just as a workplace. “It could have been better. With the right organisation, it had so much potential.”
Susan left a couple of messages for Rickman after Archies closed but he didn’t call back. “He probably thought I wanted something because everyone is criticising him. I only wanted to say I’m sad to hear what happened. Everyone’s going to criticise Vern. It’s easy when someone falls down. But I think it was good he had a go. He’ll be back. I really admire people like that. They get knocked down. They bounce back.”
I approached a number of former staff of Archies on the Creek for this article. Most declined, for a range of reasons. One said he wanted to put the whole experience behind him. Another said she would like to talk about the good aspects of Archies but would check with the Rickmans first. The answer was no. Vern Rickman also declined to talk. Bill and Susan did not want their real names used.