How a Sydney real estate guru created a $200m foodie mecca

While it is a commercial venture and investment for Winton, Ayrburn is very much a passion project for Meehan. He spent the first 11 years of his life on a beef and sheep farm in Winton (the name he gave his company) in Southland about two hours south and now has a home just a few minutes’ drive away.

Ayrburn’s main complex of stone buildings is reached through a winding road that bisects vineyards on one side (Ayrburn will produce 75,000 litres of wine a year) and deeply green fields dotted with farmhouses and luxury homesteads on the other.

Chris Meehan in the members’ bar at Ayrburn. Vaughan Brookfield

Meehan, with his distinctive mop of greying curls, strolls over to greet The Australian Financial Review Magazine for the first time. Casually dressed, laid back and softly spoken, he is easy to be around, and we begin our walking tour of Ayrburn. He says he wants it to be a place for locals as much as for tourists to enjoy good food, a glass of wine or a gelato in historic surroundings.

“Plenty of people told me this was a crazy idea, but when they see it now, they realise it will be the destination to come to in Queenstown,” Meehan says, as we walk among the revived old stone buildings set against the glorious backdrop of the snow-capped Remarkables mountain range.

A little later, we’re standing in The Dell, the grassy central meeting point in Ayrburn (where visitors will be able to enjoy an al fresco lunch or take in a concert). We’re staring at a life-size statue of Napoleon, a massive Clydesdale horse nose to nose with a woolly merino sheep.

Napoleon was Ayrburn founder William Patterson’s faithful companion of 25 years, a “caring and loyal animal” according to folklore and “the only friend who wouldn’t attempt to silence Patterson when he spontaneously broke out into song after one too many drinks”.

Patterson named the farm after the town Ayr where he was born in West Kilbride, Scotland, and tacked on “burn” – the Scottish word for stream – as a reference to Mill Creek that runs through the property. Ayrburn hosted the region’s first agricultural show in 1904 and many of its major events while continuing to operate as a successful wheat, sheep and dairy operation right until the early 21st century.

“It’s a really important part of Queenstown’s history as it was one of the first properties to be settled here,” says Meehan, who has delved deeply into the property’s backstory. “It was sort of the social hub for the district even 80 to 90 years ago . . . and so in a way we are turning it back to that.”

The restored Woolshed is one of Ayrburn’s largest and grandest venues, where guests will be able to enjoy a hearty steak, lamb, fish or pasta dish (crafted by executive chef Richard Highnam) with the option to dine al fresco on a deck overlooking a trout-filled stream.

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Meehan tells me I’ll be the “guinea pig” later, when we sit down for dinner in the Woolshed to try out the work-in-progress menu as well as some experimental cocktails crafted by Ayrburn’s wine and beverage manager Henry De Salengre.

There is an eclectic array of modern artwork covering the walls. It’s by some of New Zealand’s most prominent artists including Ralph Hotere, Bill Hammond and Colin McCahon, and all on loan from Meehan’s extensive private collection.

The bar inside the Woolshed.
 Vaughan Brookfield

Next, he leads me into an adjoining tavern-like space that will be an invitation-only private members’ bar for 100 handpicked, mostly local wealthy families. This will function – according to Meehan – like the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge. “To stay a member, you have to be in the top 90 per cent of spenders, the bottom 10 per cent drop off every year,” he explains. Upstairs is a private dining room and lounge.

Outside again, we stroll towards the Dairy, a tiny stone building converted into a gelataria. And then Meehan grabs the keys to a golf buggy, and I’m soon clinging onto a side rail as we zoom out of the hospitality precinct and up towards the gorge where Winton will build a luxury retirement village and a small hotel in front of a waterfall and framed by a meandering creek.

Then we zoom off again to a paddock, which Meehan explains will be subdivided into multi-million-dollar residential acreages, then back towards the main precinct where we pass a flower vegetable garden taking shape that will supply Ayrburn’s restaurants and a planned wedding venue. Lastly, he points out a large field that will become a “big concert venue” for 5000 to 6000 people.

“We’ve managed to get a 4am trading licence because we’re pretty isolated out here on 55 hectares,” he tells me as we make our way back to the parking lot, and head up the hill to one of the precinct’s oldest buildings, that is now the intimate Burr Bar.

A bronze sculpture
of Napoleon, the Clydesdale horse owned by William Patterson in The Dell. Vaughan Brookfield

Ayrburn’s first venues will open to the public this month. In 2024, Meehan will open the next stage of Ayrburn with the showpiece being Billy’s, a fine-dining restaurant under construction on the site of William Patterson’s 1890s country estate. It incorporates what little could be salvaged from the original nine-chimney, five-bedroom Victorian home.

“Billy’s takes its inspiration from restaurants like Mimi’s at Merivale’s Coogee Pavilion. It will be upmarket and expensive – around $500 a head. There will be a bit of theatre to go with it too,” Meehan says. Also opening next year will be the Barrel Room – a piano bar set among ageing wine barrels and against the backdrop of hand-painted fresco depicting a pastoral scene – and shops including a butchery, bakehouse and a flower shop.

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There’s also plans to build a large pond behind the Woolshed, where children will be able to catch kōura (a New Zealand yabby) and then enjoy the seafood on their pizza or pasta.

Meehan says it’s important that Ayrburn caters to all three generations – children, parents and grandparents. “I think we have done that really well.”

It’s modelled on hospitality precincts like Merivale’s The Ivy in Sydney, and Meehan says by creating a multi-venue destination, “you really get a lot more out of each individual business than if it were standalone”. “We went over to Sydney and did a lot of research about how Merivale operated their businesses. I don’t know Justin or Bettina Hemmes, but I have a huge amount of respect for what they do,” he says. “We did a lot of homework on their model, we didn’t copy it, but we used it for inspiration.”

The quaint Burr Bar, a whisky bar named after former owner Adrian Burr. Vaughan Brookfield

Sydney’s famed hospitality scene is familiar territory for Meehan, who moved across the ditch to Sydney’s lower north shore when he was 11. He attended school at Artarmon primary and North Sydney Boys High, and then completed an associate diploma of business at Sydney TAFE.

In 2000, he founded Belle Property, which specialised in selling luxury homes around Sydney Harbour for the rich and famous. As a cocky 29-year-old, Meehan secured the rights to the Belle name after managing to get a meeting with Kerry Packer. The media mogul’s Australian Consolidated Press owned a popular interior design magazine of the same name.

Meehan believed the association with a luxury magazine title specialising in high-end homes would be a good fit for his new real estate business. He recalls that Packer was pacing the room while he made his pitch and seemed not to be listening to him at all.

“But then, at the end, he said something like, ‘OK, son. Negotiate the deal with John’ [Alexander, Packer’s offsider].” That deal turned out to be a masterstroke as Meehan expanded the Belle franchise to more than 20 offices across Australia and New Zealand that he would later sell to a private equity firm in 2009.

The Woolshed will serve dishes made from local produce. 

In the early 2000s, Meehan was a regular in newspaper property sections, and also gossip columns. This was mainly due to his friendship with Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark and her husband Prince Frederik, heir to the Danish throne. In 2000 – four years before their royal wedding – Meehan had hired advertising executive Mary Donaldson as a sales director and member of the Belle management team. He witnessed the early days of the royal couple-to-be’s romance and would later skipper Princess Mary onboard his $500,000 yacht (named Belle) in races on Sydney Harbour against her husband.

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A keen sailor, Meehan’s grand Arrowtown home is full of large models of yachts and other sailing craft, as well as stacks of sailing magazines. His wife, Michaela, is a three-time Danish sailing Olympian.

After cashing in his Belle chips in 2009, Meehan took to buying up distressed real estate debt and turning those projects around. This became development firm Winton Partners and five years later he returned to New Zealand with his family. (He maintains strong business and personal ties to Australia, including owning Palm Beach trophy home Gaelforce, which he purchased in 2021 for $18.7 million).

Since returning home, Meehan has grown Winton into one of New Zealand’s biggest private land developers specialising in master-planned neighbourhoods and high-end retirement villages. Meehan dual listed the business on the Australian and New Zealand stock exchanges in December, 2021. The two listed vehicles have a combined market cap of about $1.4 billion, of which about 55 per cent is owned by Meehan and his wife through their investment vehicle Korama Limited. Investors in Winton include Macquarie and private equity firm Wanaka Partners.

The floating of Winton raised $350 million in fresh equity, allowing the company to operate entirely debt free, and last financial year the company delivered post-tax earnings of $73.8 million. Being cashed up and debt free has been important to the delivery of Ayrburn. Meehan laughs when he says that no bank would have funded plans to turn a bunch of old, crumbling stone farm buildings into restaurants and bars.

The outdoor terrace dining area
of the Woolshed. Vaughan Brookfield

“When I bought Ayrburn from Adrian Burr, it wasn’t zoned [for development] at the time. It only had rural zoning. My fallback position was to build a house on it.” He then spent the next few years trying to get some planning approvals in place. “We got approval for a hotel, which we subsequently converted into a retirement village.”

With a large-scale project locked in, Meehan says he first tossed around the idea of doing a golf course before coming up with a restaurant precinct. “Originally, it was going to just be three restaurants, but then we realised it was not going to be the destination we wanted, so we kept adding more and more venues, to get where we are today.”

Meehan and his team headed overseas to look at different models of restaurant precincts and multi-venue offerings including Merivale’s The Ivy and The Establishment and private clubs in London’s Mayfair. “That’s where we decided on the mix. That was probably a good five years ago now.”

The dining room inside the Woolshed.  Vaughan Brookfield

While all of Winton’s development projects have included a high-end retail, food and beverage offering – Meehan says he spends more than half his time designing stuff – Ayrburn has gone way beyond anything the company has done in the past. “It’s been a real passion of mine to do this well. I just love it,” he says. “As a local, it’s a chance to give something back not just to the community, but to wider New Zealand.

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“It’s going to be a venue that’s visited by anyone who comes to Queenstown. It’s a chance to show how well something like this can be done, and to showcase Winton’s design talents.”

And Ayrburn is just the start. Meehan is already hard at work reviving a portion of the Wynyard Quarter maritime precinct adjacent to the Auckland CBD. Featuring restaurants, cafés and event spaces on the water, it’s called Cracker Bay. He has worked out the slogan: Have a cracking time at Cracker Bay.

Ayrburn’s first five venues open their doors to the public on December 9. Meehan says word is spreading among locals and local tourism bodies. He says he has even won the support of most of the property’s neighbours who objected to the project at the start. “There’s no shortage of food and beverage offerings in Queenstown, but they are all full. They are all operating at above capacity, so we think we will get good take up.”

Just to make sure, Winton has purchased a fleet of shuttle buses to bring guests to Ayrburn from Queenstown and nearby Arrowtown. “If you can choose between coming to a restaurant on the main street in Queenstown or coming to Ayrburn, I think people will come to Ayrburn.”

No doubt many of those visitors will be Australian.

  • The writer’s accommodation in Arrowtown was paid for by Winton.

The Summer issue of AFR Magazine – plus Watch special – is out on Friday, December 8 inside The Australian Financial Review.

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