March 17, 2020
By Dan Wilkie

Varsity Group is preparing to open its sixth venue as the food and beverage anchor to Sirona Capital’s $220 million FOMO precinct in Fremantle.

When Ben Maher, Matt Pound and Fabian Boucher launched their first Varsity Bar in 2012 on the site of the Broadway Tavern in Nedlands, there was little to suggest they were tapping in to a cultural phenomenon.

At the time, Perth’s restaurant scene was on the verge of a major transition, with a changing economy leading diners to seek more affordable yet still interesting eating options, while American-style food was about to become a fast-growing trend.

The Varsity Bar in Nedlands was one of Perth’s first US-themed establishments, with its simple menu of chicken wings, Philly cheese steak, sloppy Joes, pizza and authentically American burgers designed to entice students from The University of Western Australia located close by.

The popularity of the burgers in particular drove Varsity to open its second venue in Northbridge, and ultimately provided a platform for an additional four venues across Perth, a portfolio that will be added to later this year with the launch of Varsity Fremantle.

Mr Maher told Business News the founders had not originally intended to branch out beyond the Nedlands venue, but its early success has prompted a strategic rethink.

“When we opened that second store, which was just 32 square metres in Northbridge, it was at that point that we saw how well it was received and we kind of thought that we could be onto something,” he said.

Mr Maher said the success of the Northbridge burger store was largely due to a leap of faith by Mr Pound, who insisted on Varsity becoming Uber Eats’ official burger partner for the food delivery giant’s Perth launch.

“We leapt in blindly, utterly not knowing how it would affect our business, but it just catapulted it out there,” he said.

“It was at that point that we thought we could roll out a hamburger franchise and do 40 little stores all across the state and go national.

“Then we weighed it up and looked at the energy involved in running two venues and thought we didn’t really want to roll out 40.”

Mr Maher said Varsity’s expansion from that point – to stores in Waterford, Joondalup and Morley – was led by opportunity, with the Waterford store near Curtin University in particular cementing the group’s strategy to tap in to the student demographic.

That strategy is also underpinning the expansion to Fremantle, with Varsity’s offering expected to resonate with students at The University of Notre Dame Australia.

At Fremantle, Varsity will take up a prime tenancy to anchor the food and beverage component of Sirona Capital’s FOMO, the $220 million redevelopment of the old Myer and Queensgate buildings.

Sirona Capital managing director Matthew McNeilly said he believed Fremantle was evolving into a university town and the FOMO offering would be tailored to draw students out of the historic West End.

Mr McNeilly said Varsity would complement the 10 or so other food and beverage tenancies at FOMO, which would be Asian hawker-style food concentrated around a laneway to be known as Tidal Lane.

“Varsity is our key F&B anchor and I’m really confident that we have the right tenants in the right locations,” Mr McNeilly said.

“One of the challenges for us, it’s almost a bit like solving a Rubik’s Cube in some respects, is it actually comes down to the curation of the space – where we will put specific tenants and how they will work alongside one another, across the way from one another – so we were quite focused on that.

“And that’s taken us a lot of time, because you have got these multiple permutations of how it could ultimately land, but since the last quarter of last year we have got our preferred layout and now we are landing deals.”

Matt Pound (left), Ben Maher and Matthew McNeilly are excited about Varsity Fremantle’s potential. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

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