Farmers, a fisher and a footy player band together to save Woodside Beach Hotel

The new team at the Woodside Beach Hotel, from left, Dylan Conway (apprentice chef), Rob Paget (chef), Paul "Dick" ...
The new team at the Woodside Beach Hotel, from left, Dylan Conway (apprentice chef), Rob Paget (chef), Paul "Dick" McAlpine (co-owner) and Matt Raidal (co-owner). Photo: Richard Cornish

The old pub at Woodside on the South Gippsland Highway was in a sorry state of repairs until a group of locals put their hands in their pockets to save the much-loved watering hole.

Since 1849, local farmers and fishers have called the Woodside Beach Hotel their local. It was a community hub where weddings were celebrated and the dead were mourned for generations.

In 2016, in the middle of a drought, the then owners closed its doors. It was a devastating shock for the small town 230 kilometres south-east of Melbourne.

Dairy farmer Paul "Dick" McAlpine, new co-owner of the Woodside Beach Hotel in South Gippsland.
Dairy farmer Paul "Dick" McAlpine, new co-owner of the Woodside Beach Hotel in South Gippsland. Photo: Richard Cornish

"When we lost the pub, we lost part of ourselves," says local dairy farmer and now part owner of the pub Paul "Dick" McAlpine. "It was the place where farmers, locals – everybody – got together to chew the fat."

McAlpine is one of 10 people who have pooled funds to buy and renovate the pub, which reopened its doors this week.

"When we bought the old girl last year, water had got in through holes in the roof and the floor was rotting," says co-owner Matt Raidal.

Local porterhouse steak served at the pub's grand reopening lunch.
Local porterhouse steak served at the pub's grand reopening lunch. Photo: Richard Cornish

The consortium includes farmers, a fisher, a Financial Review Rich-Lister (who requested not to be named), plus local lad and Western Bulldogs midfielder Josh Dunkley. More than $500,000 has been invested to bring the old pub up to a modern standard.

The Woodside joins a growing number of community-owned hotels across the state.

In 2014, 23 people from the Wimmera farming community of Apsley, seven kilometres east of the South Australia border, banded together to save their local art deco boozer. After the publican of the Nandaly Hotel died in 2017, regulars pitched in to buy and run their Mallee local.

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Nandaly, about 400 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, has a population of just 39 and the residents semi-seriously refer to the pub as the "mental health centre". Thirty-five kilometres south is the majestic Royal Hotel in Sea Lake. It was purchased for $180,000 by 17 locals, providing the remote town on Lake Tyrrell with jobs, much-needed tourist accommodation and a community meeting place.

On the banks of the Wannon River in Cavendish, 35 kilometres north of Western District town Hamilton, is the 1840s-built Bunyip Hotel. In 2007 a group of 23 locals, mainly farmers, bought the pub. The licensee is James "Jimmy" Campbell, former head chef of MoVida Sydney and the son of a local farmer. He now busily cooks for both regulars and tourists.

"A lot of our pubs are old infrastructure," says Campbell. "They need constant upkeep and are very expensive places to run. Sometimes too expensive for one owner.

Chef James Campbell from the Bunyip Hotel in Cavendish, Victoria.
Chef James Campbell from the Bunyip Hotel in Cavendish, Victoria. Photo: Richard Cornish

"The locals who own this pub are not in it for the money. They want a place to have a beer after work, and somewhere to bring the family for dinner on the weekend. It's about community."

The Woodside Beach Hotel's first lunch in more than six years was on Thursday and the dining room was full. British-born chef Rob Paget moved from Sydney with his wife for a sea change and to make the most of local produce.

"Gippsland is a food bowl, and that is something we are going to really champion," he says. "I get the steak from local farmers and the fish from one of the owners who has a fishing boat in Corner Inlet."

The kitchen has already hired Woodside residents to wash dishes and employed young local Dylan Conway as an apprentice chef.

"This business needs to be a success," says pragmatic farmer Paul McAlpine. "We've invested a lot of time and money into this old pub. It's not a charity."