This feature recently appeared in the March issue of Australian Bartender
Interview by Edward Washington
Natasha Conte has been the face and driving force behind Black Pearl for over a decade and recently revamped the venue by opening the Attic upstairs. In that time her Melbourne institution has picked up numerous accolades, including most recently the Australian Bar Awards’ Bar Team of the Year in 2011 – a fine credit to herself, the team she leads and the way that she does it.
With her decade of success in mind we sat down to have a chat to one of the bar community’s leading ladies for this month’s Operator Profile.
When you first opened Black Pearl, what was it that ruffled a few feathers in the area?
“It was very café focused in the area, and so when people came in and saw couches, chairs and tables and wood-lined walls it was a bit fussy for them. Ten years ago doesn’t sounds like a long time, but in the spectrum of one street it’s a long time to see the evolution of the customer.”
Were you doing cocktails and offering the same thing you do now?
“We we’re. My sister and I were behind the bar with mum in the kitchen and my brother. Everything is very molecular now, using soda siphons etc. But back then it was just about offering a good, fun cocktail. Bartending today is still about showmanship, but being sophisticated – it’s very serious.”
How have you evolved as business operator over the last 10 years?
“Well I had to get a computer and they made me get a new phone! However I don’t like to lose the ‘old way’ of operating, everything today is about email and text message but I still like to sit, discuss and agree on things (like contracts). My handshake is my word.”
What are your tips for running a successful bar business?
- Be hands-on
- Stock control
- Maintain integrity
- Be aware
What mistakes taught you the biggest lessons?
“Well I have probably made a few, but my perception of a mistake is completely different to the next person. At the end of the day with the amount of staff we have at Black Pearl, and the input they have, it is hard to make mistakes as the responsibility is shared by all. We have 12 opinions on most decision, large and small.”
What excites you about the Melbourne bar industry?
“The relationships between the bars here is what makes it for me. Going out to see what other people are doing is great and having people come here and see what we’re doing.”
Sydney is undergoing substantial bar growth at the moment, is Melbourne’s scene diluted with too many bars?
“No I don’t think it’s diluted, Melbourne is big on the ‘regular’. By regular I mean the clients that live within the immediate 2km circumference of your business. We get people who come here, but won’t go into the city. All the city businesses get the corporate crowd, but we don’t get them here. There’s enough customers for all the business out there at the moment.”
“The small differences in business are what make the big differences. That’s an ethos I’ve always lived by.” Natasha Conte, Black Pearl & the Attic, Melbourne.
What trends are hot in Melbourne at the moment?
“Soda siphons, foamers, Punch bowls – if I have to hear about another Punch bowl! At the end of the day, the consumer will never really ask for a drink with a foam on it – those things are directed by us, that’s our job. But once they hear the siphons go off and see the foams etc they say, ‘what’s that?’, and walk away with knowledge and an experience. You’ve got to keep people talking about your business. If they’re not talking about it you’re in trouble.”
Do you travel? How do the Melbourne bartenders compare?
“Melbourne bartenders are up there with their knowledge, passion for learning and skill.”
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
“Still here hopefully and that my business is successful. Not necessarily just financially successful, but that I am still enjoying it.”
Are there any local or international bar operators that you admire?
“Jim Meehan, definitely. He’s such a cool bloke and he’s just grounded. He’s done a lot in such a short timespan.”
How important are staff in operating a successful business?
“Staff are the most important thing, and it’s all about relationships. I want to be able to work with someone for 12 hours and get along with them. There’s nothing here (Black Pearl) that’s made just by me. I’d be ignorant as a business owner if I said ‘I know what everybody wants’. The boys must have a physical input in the business where they claim ownership. Without that ownership I just have someone who comes in here and clocks on and off.
You’ve also got to try to maintain [consistency and innovation] even for the staff. Not getting rotations is important. I always get asked, ‘why is it that nobody leaves Black Pearl?’. Being a family owned business is the root of it all – that’s the consistency.
What advice would you give young bartenders who want to open their own bar one day?
“Be open to other people’s thoughts. Some bartenders can be quite, ‘this is what I want to do’, but you’re serving a customer and not you. You always must keep you eyes and ears open and maintain a physical presence in the business.”