You can’t build an empire alone, says Matt Clifton

Manly, on Sydney’s northern beaches, hasn’t always been known for its top hospitality. That has changed in recent years, and that’s down to smart operators like Matt Clifton. Clifton owns Donny’s Bar — which was nominated this year for Best Live Music Bar — and has recently opened Woolshed.

We asked him a bit about how he got into the game and what he’s learned.

What’s the attraction of the bar business for you?
What’s not to love about being around and meeting new people all the time, while providing a space where they are all enjoying themselves. It’s not just the booze and food side of the business, it’s the attraction of building something that you are proud of, and the added bonus is if other people actually like it too.

Can you tell us a little about how you got into being a bar owner?
I’ve worked across many bars, restaurants, clubs, and hotels in my time, and learnt from all of them. There is a certain part of you that always wants to have your own bar, with your own style. For me it was all about learning from the operators out there now, [those] who are continuously pushing the boundaries, and not only delivering a great product, but educating at the same time. The family have always been in hospo, and I wouldn’t have believed I’d do anything else. I love it.

Tell us a bit about Donny’s and Woolshed?
Both of them were inspired by my own travels and where I grew up. Growing up on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, and spending years in NY gave me a love of old industrial charm; and mix that with a passion for live music, you get these two unique spaces. Donny’s was an interesting blend of a NY loft mixed with old world industrial fittings and fixtures. And the Woolshed went even further towards the farm side, with a lot of raw and recycled materials used. With the focus on craft beer and whisky, sitting at the Jarrah tree slab bar, drinking a whisky out of a jar, it’s a small hidden gem in the heart of Man Town [Ed: that’s local slang for Manly, by the by].


How have you evolved as a business operator since the beginning?
A hell of a lot. Being a younger operator, it’s always hard to escape the fact you are somewhat naïve at the beginning, thinking you know more than you actually do. The most important things are to learn and surround yourself with people who are better than you. Granted, there were mistakes made, but that’s how you learn and become a better operator. If you really want something, you just have to believe and accept that the road is not always a straight direction to the top. To understand the business, you need to understand your customer. Until you figure that out, you’re setting yourself upon a very stressful path.

What excites you about the Manly food and drink scene?
Manly is continuously evolving and introducing great diversity within the industry, while developing itself as the entertainment hub of the northern beaches. Over the past few years Manly is getting some amazing new drink and dine venues popping up. There are some great operators on this side of the bridge, and it’s great to be involved in the growth of Manly.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Anything exciting on the cards?
There are a few things in the pipe at the moment. The events side of the business is growing rather rapidly too. With VANFEST, a regional based music festival in Forbes, kicking off again this December with a well rounded lineup, and SANDFEST, an acoustic beach festival, popping up somewhere soon aswell. VANFEST will attract 10,000-plus on a roadtrip out to Central West NSW for the weekend, for a full camping, extreme sports, and music experience. Exceptionally grateful to have the Australian government, Channel [V], and 2Day FM in support this year.

Outside of the festivals, I love the northern beaches as much as I do the country, so there could possibly be something popping up very soon. You will have to keep your eyes peeled.

What mistakes have taught you the most important lessons?
We all make mistakes, that’s a very real part of business. Learning from those mistakes and not making them again, is the slow process we all take. But it’s always important to take on advice from others, and listen to your customers. If you give them deaf ears, it’s a very fast spiral downward.

Are there any local or international bar operators that you admire? Why?
There are heaps of them. But a couple that I do follow closely and aspire to would be; The Houston Bros. in LA, The Swillhouse boys, Applejack lads, and of course Justin Hemmes. All four operators have something in common; they all look to push the envelope on food and drink style and venue creativity. They are all very smart operators with fingers continuously on the pulse.

The Houston Bros in LA especially with all their very unique and bold visions. I love people who push boundaries on imagination and create something real that people can relate to while at the same time educating people on what they think they want.

What advice would you give young bartenders who want to open their own bar?
Don’t do it! Nah, if you are passionate with what you do, and you’re business savvy, then it’s all about being smart with location and offering. Align yourself with like-minded people who can bring something different to the table. You are not going to build your empire by yourself, so build your team. And always ask bloody questions; I wish I had asked more questions, I probably wouldn’t have made half the mistakes I did.

Today’s food and drink industry is incredibly competitive. With so much choice in the market, customers’ expectations are through the roof. A normal little run of the mill bar or restaurant is not going to cut it
any more.

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