Publican sells The Swamp

TIME'S UP: Stephen "Sooty" Moffett is selling the Islington Tavern, known as The Swamp after 26 years of ownership. PHOTO: MARTIN HUNTER

Well-known publican Stephen “Sooty” Moffett is moving on from the Islington Tavern after 26 years. He sat down with reporter Anan Zaki to discuss the highs and lows

It was the night of September 4, 2010, the city was still in shock from the magnitude 7.1 earthquake which struck that morning.

Businesses all over the city were closed, but on Main South Rd, the queues for the Islington Tavern, also known as The Swamp, spilled onto the footpath.

“We never missed a day. There was just nowhere else [for people] to go. One in the morning and we had 100 people outside and 100 people inside and we’re only allowed 144 people,” recalls Mr Moffett.

“At one stage we had 11 doormen, so it takes everything you make away. We had people dragging each other through windows, it was crazy.”

The 54-year-old took over The Swamp in August 1992, and moved in above the pub. To this day he does not know how it became known as The Swamp.

“No idea and no one has ever told me. It was always here. Whether it had something to do with the freezing works around here, I don’t know,” Mr Moffett said.

The pub has remained a popular watering hole for freezing workers and rugby league players.

When Mr Moffett took over, it was his first foray into hospitality.

“My former in-laws were in the [hospitality] game, and at the time we thought it was a great idea.”

Initially it was hard, working long hours to keep the business running, but that was just part of the “tough” industry.

“I really slogged it out back then,” he said.

One memorable moment that he will never forget in his 26 years at The Swamp was a break-in in the late 1990s.

“The most bizarre thing that’s ever happened is I got robbed by two people in wetsuits and [they] emptied our gaming machines.

“The alarms didn’t go off, the window was taken out and they came through,” Mr Moffett said.

The break-in was caught on a CCTV camera, but police were never able to catch the thieves, he said.

Mr Moffett started $5 roasts which packed in customers.

“Twenty-six years ago, there was just less choice. Hospitality is really tough on the food game at the moment.

“To sell a roast to a young person now would be pretty hard, whereas back then they would come looking for it,” Mr Moffett said.

Behaviour at pubs have also changed for the better in recent years, he said.

“Twenty-six years ago you’d be waiting at the back door for something to happen. It was the wild west.

“Whereas now, if something happened it would make the newspaper,” Mr Moffett said.

When fights broke out, he had no time for it and trespass notices were handed out almost immediately.

Mr Moffett said he is selling the business to a “North Island-based development company.”

He said the owners did not want to be named.

However, Mr Moffett will still be at The Swamp until the new owners fully take over in late February.

He decided to sell the business after struggling through a year of roadworks at Pound Rd from 2016 to 2017.

“It was never really for sale, they [the new owners] came trying to buy it and I guess once you see roadworks around here, you realise how vulnerable you are to it affecting your business.

“We had a drastic change in turnover, revenue fell about 20 per cent. But I’m not going to say how much we turn over,” Mr Moffett said.

He does not know what the new owners plans are for the property, but he believes the name The Swamp will be kept.

And what will he miss the most when he leaves The Swamp?

“The people. The characters that come here, you get to know them all over the years,” Mr Moffett said.

As for his own nickname, “Sooty”, it originated from The Sooty (TV) Show which ran from 1955 to 1992.

“When I worked at a supermarket as a schoolboy [in the 1970s], I used to pack sausages, and the boss of the butchery gave [the name].

“There was two of us [working under the boss], I was called Sooty and the other one was called Sweep,” Mr Moffett said.

And he doesn’t plan to leave the industry just yet.

“I’ve got another bar, Schroeder’s in St Albans. At this stage it’ll be the only one,” he said.

However, Mr Moffett did not rule out buying a new bar.

He has some advice for anyone looking into getting into the hospitality industry.

“It’s [about] the customer, the customer, the customer,” Mr Moffett said.

“No matter what you think, it’s about the customer.”