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Just one more: hospo veteran opens ‘last’ bar

Flagstaff Team

Long-serving… After 37 years as a North Shore publican, Kevin Schwass has opened yet another bar

Launching a new bar in your 70s in the midst of a pandemic would seem insane to some. “Perhaps I am mad,” laughs Kevin Schwass sitting in his newly opened the Hops & Claret bar on Hurstmere Rd. “My wife certainly thinks so at times.”

A low-key launch was planned for last Thursday – “just a few beers with old mates,” including former political chums George Wood, Mike Sheehy and Ian Revell.

It seems Schwass, who served nine years as a local body politician until 2013, has been around Takapuna forever.

“I think I’m the second-longest-serving business owner in Takapuna now,” he says.

A policeman between 1971 and 1980, working in the CIB in Wellington and Taupo, Schwass joined Lion Breweries as a trainee manager in 1980.

He managed the Jolly Farmer in Drury, then the Tamatea Tavern in Napier before taking over the Poenamo in Takapuna in 1985, where he made his name in hospitality.

“We had all the Takapuna rugby boys and the All Blacks would base themselves at the Po’.” With Onewa Domain across the road for training, the All Blacks would fill the hotel’s 24 rooms in the week of a test match at Eden Park.

The Poenamo also hosted visiting league players and Lions and French rugby teams. Schwass ran the hotel for 10 years, then leased it from Lion for two, which gave him the funds to set up his own bar in Takapuna.

The R’toto Pub & Cafe was launched in 1996 with its own brewery – when craft-beer pubs were hard to find.

“In retrospect, we were 20 years ahead of our time, given what the craft-beer industry is today.”

Schwass’s Belgian Beer Cafe opened next door in 2002, and Florrie McGreal’s Irish Pub in 2009. The Sin Bin catered for sports punters.

Schwass even tried his hand at setting up a nightclub: Bin Bin Deluxe. “A bit of a disaster really,” he says looking back.

Part of the problem was the lack of a licence for later than 1am.

In the hospitality industry, change is to be expected. “Bars only tend to last three, four or five years before something else new comes along,” Schwass says. “You need to constantly refresh things.”

R’totos morphed into a Mac Brew Bar, which Schwass later sold.

Covid hit hard. The Belgian Beer cafe became the Master and Apprentice, then the Catnappers Arms – “reaching out to Takapuna’s corporate worker market, but they never came back”.

Florrie McGreal’s was expanded, and now Hops & Claret has opened, as a ‘drinkery’ loosely modelled on 1920s speakeasys.

Opening the new bar seems to have given Schwass a new lease of life.

He tried retiring to the Sunshine Coast at 65, to run the business remotely, but it didn’t suit his hands-on style. He missed the Shore and Takapuna.

“There’s so many people I know around here who drop in for a beer – good mates,” says Schwass, who now lives in Forrest Hill.

He’s positive about the future of Takapuna. “Its a metropolitan centre and there’s lots of apartments going up… but it has got to retain its integrity as a seaside centre.”

He also happy with his spot at the northern end of Hurstmere Rd, home to his hospitality businesses for 30 years.

“It was a wasteland when I arrived. The Mon Desir was closing and there was nothing here really.

“Then there was a lot happening at the other end of town, with the likes of the Commons, but now there’s a lot of positive things happening at the Bruce Mason Centre.”

As far as next steps go: “I do think this is definitely the last bar I will open.”

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