Operator Profile: James Miller & James Wirth

James Miller & James Wirth - Sydney's dynamic operator duo

This month Australian Bartender took some time out with a couple of Sydney-based bar entrepreneurs. With a string of successful bar businesses behind them James Wirth and James Miller are tackling some of the city’s forgotten gems and giving them a facelift so that they can be enjoyed by a whole new generation.

James Wirth was one of the brains behind the award winning Flinders Hotel and Duke which took out Best New Hotel at last year’s Australian Bar Awards. He has since joined forces with James Miller to open Surry Hills’ latest attraction – The Norfolk Hotel – with both the Carrington Hotel and the Abercrombie Hotel now back ‘on-line’ as well.

Despite their obvious successes, the boys are not shy from promoting those who have helped them realise their dreams, and designer Michael Delany-Korabelnikova, is just one industry identity that they highly credit. Despite being flat chat James Wirth kindly took some time out of his day recently to have a chat about the pair’s successes, and how it is they got to where they are.


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

“Everything. From working with people to the communal creative decision process and watching a project from start to finish. Having an opportunity to change and improve all elements of the business as well. It’s a fun industry and good for restless peoples like ourselves.”

How have you evolved as business operators over the years?

“We haven’t been at the bar game long so we’ve had to learn pretty quickly. I’d like to think we get better as we do each project as well; you learn what to worry about and what not too, get faster at decision making and better at working with staff. Hopefully each project is bigger, better and little easier the next time around.”

What mistakes taught you the biggest lessons?

“Don’t hire chefs that look like crack addicts. If they look like an addict they usually are, and will walk out on the first day. And you will need to learn how to cook really quickly.”

Flinders Hotel, Sydney

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

“It’s a fine line. You’ve got to get the work done but you also want to spend time in both your own and other peoples’ venues and experience them from the customer side point of view. I think we maintain our balance by working A LOT so when we have a late night or a few too many drinks we will still be up at 7am letting the plumbers in.”

How do you continually develop your creative ideas?

“Thinking, changing, tweaking and shooting ideas back and forth – even scrapping them and starting all over again. Sometimes the best ideas come straight away and sometimes the worst take forever.

We discuss every little part of every idea between ourselves and usually something good will come out of it. We aren’t afraid to say each others ideas suck as well, which is a good thing.

It’s also important to look for ideas outside the bar world. Read books, listen to music, watch some flowers grow – it’s hard to get inspired about bars just by been in bars.”

What’s the attraction of revamping old pubs?

“Their unrealised potential – Most pubs have lost their way sometime in the last 20 years and you just need to set them straight again.

They all have great bones or features and you usually just need to tweak things around; rip down some walls, take out the pokies, serve some new food to make it right. It’s good starting on a new project but having a venue that already has a lot of history to work within.

Making the venue work with the restrictions that come with the oldness of the pub is really cool – more interesting for us than just building something totally new anyway.”

Norfolk Hotel, Sydney

What excites you about the Sydney bar industry?

“Lots of new venues doing interesting things and people seem more receptive to them.

The movement away from stainless steel, square plates, flaring cocktails legends and lychees as an ingredient isn’t a bad thing either.”

What drives you to continually open new venues?

“We are pretty compulsive and like been busier than we should be. When an opportunity comes up we don’t really know how to say no.

We also come up with a lot of ideas for each venue that don’t make the cut, so we always have another idea that we are half ready to go with and just need the space for it.”

Where do you both see yourself in 5 years?

“Hopefully working on opening our first Hotel – a proper hotel too, not a ‘pub hotel’. I’ll have six children and a beer gut and Miller will have 6 wives and a bald spot.”

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

“Michael Delaney – he is totes mental. I don’t know many other operators to be honest.”

Duke (level 2 Flinders Hotel), Sydney

How important are staff in operating a successful business?

“Your staff make or break a venue. Learning to find, train and hang onto good staff is the key to running any good venue. As my dad would say; “You are only as good as your worst staff member”

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

“Save your money, learn to live on minimal sleep, get good at schmoozing the neighbours, find a very patient partner (you won’t see them that much) and don’t take it all too seriously.

Its just food and booze at the end of the day – if you aren’t having fun you should do something else. It’s meant to be fun.”

Box: Top 5 tips for running a successful bar business?

  1. Don’t drink too much,
  2. Trust instincts,
  3. Nurture staff
  4. Spend money where you need too
  5. Dance like people are watching.

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