Justin Hemmes: Australia’s Most Influential Bar Personality

Justin Hemmes

This interview featured in the June issue of Australian Bartender magazine.

Interview by Edward Washington


Justin Hemmes, the winner of this year’s Bartender Magazine Most Influential List, is a busy man. So when we sat down recently at The Beresford Hotel in Surry Hills, it was a great opportunity to find out what pushes him to succeed and constantly strive for perfection.

With a hectic 18 months behind him and another venue set to come on-line very soon Hemmes is certainly showing no signs of slowing down and what’s coming up might just be the most exciting thing yet. www.merivale.com.au

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

“The excitement and the people, I mean it’s all about people and having a good time. Socialising is what it’s all about, we just create the venues for people to come and have a good time. Who could be in a better business than helping people have a great experience? It’s a wonderful and uplifting industry to be in.”

How have you evolved as a business operator over the years?

“Well I guess I have learnt from my mistakes, not particular mistakes, but everyday I’m learning. Every day something comes up, another hurdle is thrown at you that you learn how to avoid, or step over. I think probably one of the most important things that I have learnt is to recruit the best people – surround yourself with the best people of the capacity for whatever the job is.”

“I think originally I thought that if I surround myself with people who are young and ambitious like me, then we can learn the ropes together, but it’s not the way to do it. You’re better off employing people that have had the hurdles, that have jumped the hurdles and had the mines thrown at them. [People that] have better experience than myself and are better at the job than I would ever be. I think to surround yourself with the best people is one thing I have certainly learnt, and am consistently learning.”

You’ve used some interesting recruitment techniques including holding NIDA auditions, how has helped you recruit the best?

“You can teach anyone to make a drink, but you can’t teach people to have a fantastic personality, and you can’t teach them to be engaging with customers. To an extent you either have it in your personality or you don’t, so we did this NIDA recruitment process to see what peoples’ personalities were like and see them shine through and that’s what we employed them on – then we teach them the trade after that.

I am just so inspired by life and I get such a buzz out of living that I just want to bring that to the public.” Justin Hemmes

Everyone that works behind a bar, or in hospitality, is in show-business, so I wanted to recruit actors really, because you’re on show. What ever your problems are on the day, or whatever issues you’ve got with your partner or family, or whatever’s going on, you have to leave that behind and it’s show-business – you step behind the bar and it’s show time, the cameras are on and they’re rolling.”

How do you balance your work ethic with the social side of your businesses?

“You have to live and breathe it, so – it’s sometimes very hard to do it, but I’m pretty accustomed to it now as I have been doing it for nearly twenty years. The reason that I love the industry is because I love socialising. I love people and having a drink and a wonderful meal with great friends, that’s what I do, so it’s my business.”

How do you continually develop your creative ideas and think outside the box?

“Everyday, anything I do from the smallest event I get inspiration from. I don’t actually go to other venues and say, ‘Oh, this is great I’ve got to do something like this’, it’s just an experience. It could be an experience that you have at someone’s home, it could be at a party or when you travel.

It’s all the time, I am just so inspired by life and I get such a buzz out of living that I just want to bring that to the public.”

What makes Merivale an exciting company to work with?

“The most important thing in our business is our staff, so we embrace the staff.

It’s a serious profession the hospitality business so we want people to come to us who want to learn, and we want to teach them and there’s fantastic progression and opportunity throughout our business.

We empower our staff with knowledge of the business [and] we pretty much have an open book philosophy because we want them to take pride in what they do and build a passion, not just for the industry, but for our business – and we want it to continually develop.

Staff training [is important] as well, but it’s really about empowering them. We have a lot of training sessions in place and we treat them like a family. Like I said, staff are the most important thing for the business.

All the fit-out and the physical are secondary to the staff, you could open a room with black walls and no windows but if you put a fantastic bartender in there it’ll be a happening place. You can spend unlimited amounts of money on building a venue, but if your staff are terrible, the place is going to be dead.”

What excites you about the Sydney bar industry and drives you to continually open new bars?

“Customers. I get such a buzz from creating something, creating a new space and seeing people in there enjoying it. Seeing people having a wonderful time, dancing and meeting people and falling in love – to see that, to build a place and see people enjoying it is the ultimate buzz. Also, I think the customer here is very discerning; they’re certainly well educated when it comes to food and beverage and they are willing to try new things.

We’re not fickle which is good. In New York, as incredible as it is, there quite a fickle crowd. They’ll leave a place and go to the new place just because it’s the ‘new place’. Even thought there is nothing about the old place that they don’t dislike, it’s just that it’s not new anymore.

Over here people will go and try the new place, they won’t drop the place that they know and love [however], but they’re willing to try more things to broaden their options. The customer is also far more educated now. I mean 15 to 18 years ago a hotel was a pub, it was your local pub and you went there for a drink with your mates.

Life’s hard. Business is hard. If it was easy, everyone would be successful. Things get thrown at you all the time and like I said, it doesn’t get easier so don’t be disheartened.Justin Hemmes

You’d hardly see a girl there; I mean you’d almost feel sorry for a girl if she walked into a pub 18 years ago. You’d just go there for a drink before heading to a restaurant and then after that you’d go to a nightclub.

Nowadays, you’ve got all these different experiences available and also the food available in those days was a pub meal. Now you’ve got these fantastic ‘gastro-pubs’ opening up and some of the best restaurants in the state are in hotels or in the country. Pubs have turned into this fantastic entertainment Mecca of different styles of drinking with fantastic, incredible wine lists and the best chefs producing incredible food.”

Do you have any concerns about the future of Sydney’s bar industry?

“It’s been a challenging 18 months with regulations, government policy etc and council suggestions – a very tough 18 months on a political level. But I think the industry is in a good place, I think you just have to be careful that the powers that be don’t destroy what is a fantastic industry it it.

We put so much time, effort and money into making sure that we’re complying [with regulations] and making sure that our businesses are run well. We need to do that because otherwise it would give them an excuse to say ‘look what’s happening, it’s creating all this mayhem’.

We’ve got to work to keep our eye on the ball and make sure that we’re putting on a good show, and don’t give them an opportunity, or a reason, to dampen or put the breaks on the industry – we just need to ensure that we run a good show.”

Where do you see Merivale in five years?

“Ha, I don’t really know what I’m doing tomorrow. I guess just keep on growing, keep expanding and recruiting the best. We’ve changed our offerings over the years to cater for the demand and what people want and we’re ever evolving, we’re constantly evolving and growing.

I mean the last 18 months for us has been huge growth, we’ve done more in that time than we’ve ever done. We’ll just keep growing, and hopefully keep on top of what the demands are.

I think food is playing a huge part in the industry; a greater part than it ever has which is exciting. The combination of food and beverage together, is something that New York’s been doing forever. I mean you go to New York and you go to a great restaurant and it might have a great bar in it, so you just go to the bar.

We never had that, so you either go to a restaurant, or you’d go to a pub. Now it’s all one in the same and I love that combination of mixing food and beverage in the same environment.

I like seeing the young kids coming up, particularly the chefs. There’s this whole new generation of young chefs coming through that are breaking away from the mould of ‘this is how you cook’ and I think that’s really interesting and exciting.

The quality of the food that we have in this country, let alone the city is second to none. It’s as good, if not better than anywhere in the world, as good if not better than New York – I’ll say better, so we’re very, very fortunate here. And we’re progressive.”

Do you have any ideas to do something outside of Sydney?

“I’ll eventually do something when it’s right, maybe here or overseas – the dollars pretty good at the moment. When it feels right it’s right; I don’t have that five year plan, it’ll be the gut feeling.”

Are there any local or international bar operators that you admire? If so why?

“I don’t really look at the industry like that – to be honest I am so busy looking at what we do and trying to better ourselves that I don’t really look around that much. I’m so focused on us, and us being as good as we can be so I don’t really view it in that way.

We’re just constantly trying to better ourselves within ourselves. We see ourselves as the biggest competition to ourselves so we have to constantly keep on improving. To be honest I spend 99 per cent of my time, if I’m not working, at our venues anyway, eating and drinking as a customer.

It helps me make sure that our offering is as good as it can be. It helps me maintain an eye on the business and I don’t miss a thing – [I have] attention to detail that’s for sure.”

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

“Advice? I think all good things take time, don’t jump the gun and don’t rush into things and I just think the fundamental to success is hard work. Tenacity – there’s roadblocks everywhere and they just keep popping up and it doesn’t get any easier.

Long hours, hard work and you’ve got to love the industry; live and breathe it. They need to know it is hard work, bloody hard work and dedication. There’s a little bit of a trend coming through where they want to be superstars and they’re forgetting about the hard work.

Life’s hard. Business is hard. If it was easy, everyone would be successful. Things get thrown at you all the time and like I said, it doesn’t get easier so don’t be disheartened by it. You’ve got to have tenacity and staying power and take each hurdle as it comes.”

Tips for running a successful bar business

  • Staff
  • Tenacity
  • Passion
  • Hard work

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.