In Sydney’s inner suburbs, The Grounds of Alexandria shows how passion and perseverance have created one of the city’s most popular MICE venues, writes Natasha Dragun.
It’s Christmas Eve, and while many Sydney bars and restaurants are empty, at The Grounds of Alexandria it’s standing room only. For most of December, the sprawling establishment becomes a festive wonderland; think winter markets in Europe, only minus the sub-zero temperatures.
There are stallholders selling jewellery and natural skincare products, booths set up to gift-wrap purchases, and display areas where artisans are busy monogramming leather accessories. I graze on gingerbread and pizza while others pick up pre-ordered dishes to serve at the Christmas table tomorrow. Earlier in the week, a pavilion was packed with people learning how to decorate festive cakes. Santa is on call, and hundreds of children have turned up to grab a photo. The annual Christmas Markets couldn’t get any more popular. But really, this is just your average day at The Grounds.
The concept of this multi-venue space comes courtesy of young entrepreneur Ramzey Choker, who bought his first cafe when he was only 18. An investment gone wrong saw him lose everything during the GFC in 2008, forcing Choker to borrow money from friends to launch The Grounds. When he took over the current site, it was nothing more than an industrial carpark and abandoned warehouses. But he had an unwavering vision, and transformed it into a sensorial wonderland that is as much about the experience as it is the food.
“We live in a world that moves too fast and we’ve lost that connection with the people around us,” says Choker. “That’s the reason why everything exists at The Grounds – it’s not about building cafes and serving food and beverages; it’s about life, soul and energy. It’s a place to escape.”
From fairytale weddings to corporate events
Seven years later, more than 15,000 people descend every week to do just that, queuing for coffee and cake in the cafe, sitting down to lunch in the plant-draped Potting Shed restaurant, perusing weekly – and seasonal – market stalls, picking up blooms from the florist, attending masterclasses and introducing their children to the resident animals: goats, chickens, a pony and Kevin Bacon the pig, among them.
Given the diversity of offerings, inspired by Choker’s life growing up on a farm in northern NSW, it comes as no surprise that the establishment has become one of Sydney’s most popular venues for all manner of events, from fairytale weddings to intimate corporate dinners to team-building days. “We’ve worked with some amazing brands over the years to bring events of all scales to life,” says Choker.
“A few notable occasions include a product launch with Revolve, who hosted their network of the world’s biggest influencers. We’ve collaborated with brands such as Coca-Cola and Qantas, and have created presentations, conferences, launches and dinners with companies such as Vogue, KPMG, Universal Studios, Everdure by Heston Blumenthal and Mitsubishi. Some of the more fun productions have included the Nova Christmas party and a recent breakfast to kick off the Meccaland festival.”
In the details
“The vision of our business is to create the most beautiful venues the world has ever seen – we’re continually evolving them to make [them] even more lush,” explains Choker. Indeed, entering the Atrium is like stepping into a Parisian cafe, one filled with flowers and greenery and dappled sunshine. The former warehouse still has its original industrial charm, but its design is elevated through polished wood tables and chairs, sage wall panelling and gleaming brass finishings. Depending on when you visit, you might see groups attending a breakfast product launch or mingling over celebratory end-of-year cocktails; it’s also the ideal place for high tea, Alice in Wonderland-style.
During the warmer months, the Garden is a dreamy setting for alfresco events, with visitors mingling between garden beds planted with heirloom vegetables, flowers, herbs and fruit. It’s the largest space on site, uniting three different outdoor areas: the Patio, where intimate events are “hidden” by walls of shrubbery; the Gazebo, a larger covered space also draped in greenery; and the Arbour, my favourite place across the entire establishment. Here, under a floral archway lit with fairy lights, I once watched friends say “I do”, before sitting down to dinner in the sanctuary of the Gazebo. The 150 guests made the most of the outdoor dance floor and alfresco bar, with the band tucked away in a vine-laced nook.
A week earlier, the groom-to-be held his bucks in the Lock-In, a private room fitted with handsome leather chairs and a bar stocked with top-shelf spirits. They used the plasma screen to stream music, but it can also form a backdrop for business meetings or lunches, away from the bustle of crowds outside. When the throng does finally subside in the evening, The Grounds’ cafe is transformed into the Roastery, an uber-cool space where the set-up can be tailored to different events: presentations, cocktail parties, workshops. “We’re about to launch another space,” says Choker. “It’s hush-hush for now, but watch this space.”
The Grounds effect
The popularity of the establishment has not gone unnoticed, with dozens of other eateries opening up around it, hoping “The Grounds effect” will rub off on them. If you can’t bear to leave, or plan to leave at an ungodly hour, you can now check in to the freshly minted adjoining hotel Kafnu, which also comes with co-working spaces, meeting rooms, production and podcast studios and a gin bar.
Taking its name from a village in northern India where adventurers rejuvenate, refresh and reflect before their ascent towards the Himalayan summit, Kafnu is designed to be a collaborative space elevating the individual and collective potential of its members.
Set over two levels, Kafnu also offers a 16-room boutique hotel, perfect for business travellers. A virtual fitness studio ensures that members can stay on track with their fitness regimens, and as an added convenience, Kafnu membership also comes with GoGet car membership (no meed to hire a car, just borrow one by the hour.)
“We are excited to introduce the Kafnu brand to Australia,” said general manager Simon Hall. “What sets Kafnu Alexandria apart is our positive community culture, which encourages members to share experiences, learn from one another, work together and inspire one another to achieve even more. We are building a vibrant community of hyphenates, entrepreneurs and trailblazers, and we will support their success through bespoke activities, including talks, workshops, seminars, and industry-specific events that facilitate networking and collaboration.”
While Choker is unsure of the opportunities to collaborate with the new accommodation provider, one thing is certain: this place is going to get busy during wedding season at The Grounds.