Operator Profile: Ben Carroll & Hamish Watts

Hamish Watts & Ben Carroll web

They’re the characters behind two Sydney bars that have a character all their own. We sat down with owners of Applejack Hospitality, Ben Carroll and Hamish Watts, to find out just what it is that makes their venues, Bondi Hardware and The Botanist, stand apart from other bars.

What’s the attraction of the bar business for you?

BC: What isn’t there to love about it! The industry is all about ensuring customers and staff have an amazing time, putting smiles on faces and interacting with so many different walks of life.

HW: I mostly love the creative aspect of the trade; being able to come up with interesting ideas and concepts for venues along with new directions to take our drinks and food.  There is also the social interaction side, management side, business side etc. It is a very unique environment as you have to be a jack of many trades, which I love.

How did you become business partners?

BC: Working together for many years and like many others in the industry we dreamt about opening our own venue. With a bit of egging on from each other and a change in the industry trends we saw an opening and dove in head first.

Tell me a little about your businesses.

HW: I think we have managed to build two unique businesses that offer casual and fun food and drinks in a relaxed environment.  I strongly believe it is the service model as much as anything else which makes them unique.  Bondi Hardware was a blood sweat and tears job, and it now has its own rustic and edgy personality whilst the Botanist has such a fresh, clean and green feel with its own culture and personality.  Like any proud Dad, I love them both as much as each other for their individuality.

How have you evolved as business operators since the beginning?

BC: We are much better than we were. When Bondi hardware first opened we fumbled around for a period of time finding our feet, fortunately the amazing locals came on board and worked with us. I like to think we educated them on our business model whilst they educated us on their needs. We listened to them and evolved accordingly. I think this approach is vital when your bread and butter are the local community.

With the growth of our company we have needed to evolve in regards to how Hamish and I work together, there was a lot of double handling before and treading on each other’s toes. These issues saw us brain storm the new structure of channel management as spoken about above.

HW: Like anyone starting out, we spent the majority of our time on our feet running Bondi Hardware day in and day out.  Over time we have employed and trained some great staff who help us to have the time to work on our businesses instead of in them.  We still keep our fingers on the pulse by working a couple of shifts a week at each venue, however we now have more time to spend working on our individual channels as highlighted by Ben.

Where do you draw your inspiration from for food and drink?

BC: Much of the inspiration is what we like and what we would want, we listen to our friends and love to hear what people want. We look around the industry in Australia and internationally.

HW: With Bondi Hardware and The Botanist we are pretty lucky in the fact that we aren’t tied to any particular one theme or style.  It is this freedom that has allowed us to explore many different and interesting styles of food and drinks. For example we are launching a new cocktail and food menu at The Botanist that has a Mexican flair.

What excites you about the Sydney bar industry? 

BC: There are so many great operators out there challenging each other and pushing the industry forward. It has become a fast paced industry that if you’re not keeping up with it then you are well and truly left behind. The days of the large venue publicans are numbered giving the young guys a chance to be heard.

HW: It’s so exciting how far the Sydney scene has come in the last 5 years.  We have seen bars move from the hard stainless steel monstrosities they once were to smaller, more interesting and refined venues.  The quality of bartending was once upon a time limited to specific venues but now there are so many places you can grab a killer drink from a well-trained and educated bartender.  The style of service is far more relaxed and comfortable now and less stand-off-ish which makes for a more enjoyable experience.

I also think the wide variety and quality of interesting brands of both spirits and beers have made a more interesting and enjoyable scene.

What does it need more of? Less of?

BC: We need more skilled people that see hospitality as a career and less teachers and parents telling kids that bartending, managing or cooking isn’t a career.

HW: It would be great if local councils were more understanding of small venues and the shifting change in trends.  I feel that well operated and unique bars and restaurants really add to the community rather than detract from it and we want to work with the community as opposed to against it. In some instances it is hard to get council permission/approval for further developments.

What mistakes have taught you the most important lessons?

BC: You need to learn from every mistake and I make plenty.

HW: We are always challenging each other on how best to deal with the tough situations, which means we are continually improving the ways in which we tackle them.

How important are staff in operating a successful business?

BC: Number one.

HW: As mentioned earlier, there is nothing more important than those that you hire. When I reflect on the good times and bad since working in bars, it is always the team which makes the venue.  We are very lucky to have such a trustworthy team, even though it has taken some serious work at times to maintain this.

What advice would you give young bartenders who want to open their own bar?

BC: Do your research, understand your target market and ensure the pitch is right. A great start is being a cracking bartender but develop your skills in all areas.

HW: It’s important to learn as much as you can about the back end of running a business; It’s not all glitz and glamour and you need to be prepared to make some difficult decisions in the best interest of the business.  A more than rudimentary understanding of your financials and a good accountant will ensure you are all over managing your expenses. I love the Front of House; this is number one but don’t neglect the back.

What are you drinking right now?

BC: I drink a bucket load as it is; 10am is a little too early for me.

HW: Rum Old Fashioned although I’m not that fussy.

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