Operator Profile: Owen Westman & Paul Fitzsimmons

In the April issue of Australian Bartender we put Owen Westman and Paul Fitzsimmons (l-r) from the Collection Bar, Melbourne under the spotlight.

Interview by Edward Washington
*The boys answered together where there is not a name attributed.

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


Owen. Every day is different. Repetition frustrates me and I can honestly say that every day in the bar business keeps me entertained. There’s also a freedom in it. There’s not really any rule to what’s acceptable or expected and you can have a lot of fun with that. It’s a creative outlet that can support you financially.

Paul. Meeting new people. Being surrounded by people who are having fun.

How did you get involved in the bar industry?

Paul – It was a part time job to get me though while I was studying. My father was involved in hospitality overseas but I don’t think that was my real reason.

Owen – I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought bartending looked pretty fun and would allow me to travel and work so I went for a job as a bartender at a nightclub. They gave me a job cleaning.

Tell me a little about your businesses?

We actually started the business a few years back to run nights in other clubs. We weren’t overly successful at that. And it kinda took a back seat. We held onto the business name though and used it to buy our first bar in 2010, the Collection. The Collection is a tapas and cocktail bar in Richmond on Bridge Road. We have an extensive cocktail list and a lovely Italian/Spanish tapas menu with a Creole twist.

How have you evolved as business operators?

I think if you asked most bar or restaurant owners what it was like when they first got their first bar, they will tell you it was quite a shock to the system. All of a sudden you have nobody else to rely on and you feel quite alone. The freedom that you find to be able to do everything your own way is at the same time very daunting. It’s not unlike travelling alone in a foreign country without knowing the language. But over time your self-confidence starts to build and your belief and trust in your own decisions become stronger. You get a little gutsier and I think this is when your own style and expression really start to show in your business.

How do you continually develop your creative ideas?

In a bar it’s about trial and error constantly to keep things fresh. And research. Not necessarily in what others are doing. The Internet can be a great tool. For one instance our Bathtub Gin Punch was an idea I had one night at the bar. I thought there must be somebody somewhere that makes miniature bathtubs for some purpose. I spent days looking on the Internet and I found some at a business in the USA. You’ll be able to find what you need to produce your ideas if you spend the time.

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

With drinks I like to keep things as natural as possible. Fresh fruits and quality liquor are the best base for a good drink. Mother nature offers the best inspiration. Somewhere along the line our ways of eating and drinking lost its was a little and people forgot about little old nature. When did grenadine become dyed red sugar syrup and why does sugar have to be bleached? In most of the tacky old sugary drinks of the past there is hidden a solid foundation for a good drink. Those bright red hurricane glasses that hang around the necks of tourists on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, filled with flavoured syrups of unidentifiable fruit interpretations found there way onto our menu in the form of the mary street hurricane. I just replaced the passionfruit red syrup with fresh passionfruit puld, grenadine and fresh lime juice. It’s one of the biggest sellers on our menu.

Most of this can be translated into food as well. I had an idea of what kind of food menu I wanted as well but needed a chef to bounce off to achieve this. His passion for Italian food and my obsession with Creole seemed to blend quite well and I think we’ve come up with a menu that at the very least you wont find in any similar form in any other Melbourne restaurants.

What excites you about the Melbourne bar industry?

Melbourne has always had a cool, underground, incognito style to it. It seems we’re getting a lot more real casual style to service and going out in general. I like that. Going out for food and drink should feel casual.

Also on a more national scale its great to see some cool Australian liquor products appearing. It’s something I loved during my time in the US (experimenting with a plethora of local spirits) and there’s some really lovely and uniquely Australian stuff coming out.

Do you have any concerns about the future of the Melbourne bar industry?

I mainly hope that people remember that creating a good cocktail list and stocking a lot of crazy ingredients is only a very small part of the battle in this industry. It’s a service industry and that can’t be forgotten. But with the amount of talented and motivated people here I’m not really that worried.

Where do you both see yourself in 5 years?

We would like to work on another venue some time when the smoke clears over here. Not sure what it will be yet. Also getting our ingredients line business up and running is coming up. We are in product testing right now to start selling some of the syrups and things we use here in the bar.

What’s the best thing about owning your own bar?

The freedom to what you want to do. And there’s a satisfaction in seeing people enjoy themselves in a venue you created.

And the worst?

We don’t get to sleep much anymore.

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

Owen – I really admire the way the owners of Bourbon & Branch, Rickhouse and Cask operated over in San Francisco. I remember seeing Brian Sheehy give a speech at San Francisco town hall when they were trying to add another tax to alcohol that would have increased the cost of booze by up to 30%. He was a very politically involved bar owner and this was probably one of the reasons he was so successful.  We could probably use a little help like that here in Australia.

How important are staff in operating a successful business?

Staff are the most important part. These are the first people your customers meet and will form the basis of everybody’s opinion of your bar. We’ve been pretty lucky to have a great team fall into our lap. I guess you are the main influence on what staff you will have too. If you treat your staff right and you’re a down right straight shooter you will invariably surround yourself with like minded great staff.

How much input do your staff have in your business?

Owen – I’m very much of the mindset that a business that can cater to many people has to be the product of many minds. I don’t want Paul and I to have to be the only ones working on menu’s and operations. There’s a lot to do, probably too much for two people.  I encourage all staff to experiment with different recipes for the cocktail menu during quiet periods. I’m more than happy to pick up a receipt if a bartender comes in with something they think we could use. We were allowed the same freedoms at the bars I worked at and saw how beneficial it was to those businesses.

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

Make sure it is something you want to do. This sounds silly but owning a bar is not the only option in moving on from a bartender position.

What are your Top 5 tips for running a successful bar business?

  1. Don’t try to do everything. Nothing is less appealing to a customer and being served by a bartender/owner who’s grouchy because they haven’t had enough sleep.
  2. Take in as much advice from others as you can but don’t feel you have to use it.
  3. Keep on your game, don’t drink too much you need your mind.
  4. Get your hands dirty. Nothing will make your staff happy to take care of the less glamorous tasks than knowing you’d do them yourself.
  5. Enjoy it, having a bar is really fun.

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