“Would you like a water - or a whiskey” Jonny McKenzie asks catching me off guard.
I am sitting at start-up office Biz Dojo with Jonny McKenzie, Wellington’s best cocktail bar entrepreneur turned tech entrepreneur. McKenzie founded Posboss, a point of sale til application system for restaurants, bars and cafes. For some it might seem strange to be drinking hard liquor at only five thirty in the afternoon on a Wednesday. Not for McKenzie, who has spent most of his life working behind the bar of such famous Wellington institutions as Hawthorne Lounge, CJR Merchant Bar, Cuckoo and CoCo at the Roxy Cinema. Apparently you can take the man out of the bar but not the barman out of the...well...man. The polite thing is, obviously, to take the whiskey. Jonny looks gratified. “So” he says half smiling “Wellington eh?”
"I was the youngest"
Jonny McKenzie was born into a family of busy people, the youngest of three boys. His mother is dance teacher and Footnote Dance Studio owner Deirdre Tarrant. His father is musically talented lawyer and horse trainer Peter McKenzie. The pair raised the three McKenzie boys in their Kelburn home where they live to this day. The house remains Jonny’s home base when he does business from Wellington (with no children, he is the travelling member of Posboss).
Jonny’s childhood memories are flavoured by rank as 'youngest'. While growing up, older brothers Bret (Flight of the Concords) and Justin (co-owner of a range of Wellington’s bars) would get Jonny to play with them in the Botanical Gardens. “We treated it as our backyard, playing through the pathways, flax bushes, swamps and trees” he remembers. “Recently the Gardens cut down the tree we all used to climb together.” Mum Deirdre would often have dance related meetings in town for her studio. She would drag young Jonny along, quieting him with bribes of wedges piled with mountains of sour cream from Krazy Lounge or pancakes heaped with cream. But Jonny’s biggest trump card was (as the youngest) being the first one in the family to have a Game-Boy (“I played a lot of Super Mario”) and then a Sega Megadrive, sparking jealousy amongst the McKenzie clan and giving birth to his liking for digital devices.
“I tried to come up with as many groups as I could that would get you time off school”
Jonny cut his teeth at Clifton Terrace Model School (“it was 60 students”) before going on to Kelburn Normal School and then Wellington College. He played sport but preferred musicals and drama. Jonny’s creative side also came out to get around Wellington College school rules. “I tried to come up with as many groups as I could that would get you time off school” Jonny remembers. “We started up the tea society - you could come to tea in fourth period. It was a legit reason to have my friends come and drink tea with me. We would take time off school because we were a club with chair positions and stuff which made us formal. The school had to sponsor us. We also had Annual General Meetings with all the girls schools.”
"I thought I would study IT to make some money"
For a man with a business providing creative retail solutions, Jonny started out with a far more straightforward goal when deciding what to study at 18. “I thought I would study IT to make some money” he says. “I also decided it would be crazy to not let that dream come true where you can go to university in your Pyjamas. So I went to Victoria University - literally across the road from my house”.
"It was more fun making drinks!"
Jonny followed his brother, Justin, into working in hospitality. It became an obsession that took over IT. His first job was for Ruth Pretty catering. He then worked at Concrete Bar located at the bottom of the Wellington Cable Car. Jonny would make coffee in the morning before University, go to class for the day and then bar-tend at Concrete from six in the evening until midnight. He also worked at a night bar as a glassy from midnight until close. “The degree was fun” Jonny says “but sitting in a computer room wasn’t really my thing compared to taking and collaborating with other like minded people - it was more fun making drinks!”
After completing his IT degree Jonny got working “in a real job” for a company called ‘Run the Red’, a mobile technology company. “I learnt huge amounts about the mobile world and where it was going” Jonny says “strangely enough at the time they were just getting into mobile porn and l was one of the curators for managing customer feedback - it was an interesting time in my life.”
“Strangely enough at the time they were just getting into mobile porn and l was one of the curators for managing customer feedback - it was an interesting time in my life.”
However opportunity came knocking when Jonny was offered the chance to open his own cocktail bar with brother Justin. It became Wellington’s much loved Hawthorne Lounge. At just 20, Jonny would work his day job from nine until five and then go to the bar to work from five-thirty until close. “Sunday was my sleep day” he says solemnly “I was very precious about my sleep day on Sunday. I would go to bed at eight in the morning and sleep a solid 12 hours until the next day.”
Wellington Hospitality: "When new cocktail bars open, you know times are good"
At the time the Hawthorne Lounge opened there was a bold Wellington hospitality scene. “The Matterhorn was bringing in international bands and pride was strong. It was a time for creativity, cocktail bars and events” Jonny remembers. After a year of running the Hawthorne Lounge Jonny and Justin got the opportunity to take over a bar in Courtenay Place, now ‘C G R Merchant’. Jonny admits that he probably didn’t have the education to open a bar on Courtenay Place because he wanted to open bars “that suited rather than suiting the people”. “I didn’t really understand the Courtenay Place persona,” he says. “C J R is probably doing the strongest of all the incarnations of the bar”. There were also other challenges - the bumps of the global financial crisis changed the cocktail bar scene. Some of the pride of the mid-2000’s was lost. “Some people went very safe - like, let's have a chicken dish, fish dish and a beef dish. Wellington has really lifted it’s game though in the last few years. I love seeing new cocktail bars, like The Hanging Ditch open. When new cocktail bars open, you know times are good again”.
Then there was CoCo bar at the Roxy Cinema, then Cuckoo bar on the waterfront - all within a year of each other. “It became this terrible habit that I just went and opened bars just because I felt like it” Jonny admits. At that stage Jonny decided: “no more bars." “We moved away from Roxy so that was part one. I feel like bars are a real personal thing and you need to be there and feeling them and how they are doing. My brother had just gotten married and had plans for a baby on the way. So the bars were a safe bet as far as the business - but I felt like I still had some more risk in me.”
Creating Posboss: "I had some more risk in me"
Jonny’s thirst for risk led to creating Posboss, a point of sale til system for the hospitality industry. It was born from a simple motivation. “I hated my point of sale system” Johnny says. “It came about become I met some developer guys from TouchTech who who were at a breakfast celebrating my mum’s work. I had been trying out Vend (another point of sale system) and they were developing an application built for ordering coffees. We went and had a coffee at Six-Barrel Soda. We talked about what they had created, and then I pointed out they had missed a key point - the point of sale til system, which is what hospitality businesses revolve around. They had been talking to Vend too about making it.” It wasn’t until 6 months later the gang decided to work on the iPad application full time, put some money together and broke away from Vend to make a product especially for the hospitality industry (the two, Vend and Posboss, stay close).
From there, it has been an upwards trajectory, with more to come in 2016. This year, Posboss heads to Australia. They will also be launching a coffee ordering app from phones and are also developing analytics so businesses know how one another are doing. “Everyone bases their business on 4am chat - How was your business? Were you busy? - but this will give you insights into how your business is doing”.
“Wellington culture and wellington people always have an open door. If you ask someone, everyone will help you.
Wellington will always be home for Jonny though. “Wellington culture and Wellington people always have an open door. If you ask someone, everyone will help you.” he says. “Everywhere else I have been you have closed doors and you have to try and open them. Most people are so keen to see people succeed here. We did it with the other cocktail bars, like Motel and Matterhorn. Things like Wellington on a Plate encourage that too. Same with Biz Dojo. Also there is Moore Wilson’s in Wellington. And, it’s a super compact city. Everything is there.”
Afterwards, when we have parted ways and Jonny is off to another meeting I find myself in Moore Wilsons getting food for dinner - I find myself almost accidentally dancing to the music playing through the speakers. It could be the whiskey. But I suspect that it is much more likely that some of Jonny’s magic, and determination, has rubbed off already on me.