How Jared Merlino rose from the dish pit to owning 3 of Sydney’s best bars

Jared Merlino 1

After opening The Lobo Plantation, Jared Merlino and has since opened Kittyhawk and Big Poppa’s — and now has three Sydney venues kicking goals despite the doom and gloom of the lockout era.

Sam Bygrave sat down with him to talk about how he got to be where he is today.

SB: I heard you’re a country boy, is that right?
JM: No, I was born in Sydney, but I traveled up and down the coast when I was growing up, so I moved and went to 16 different schools all over the country up and down the east coast. I had my final two high schools in Sydney, so I’ve been back in Sydney since I was about 15.

The family just kept moving, I was a bit of a little shit. It was an eventful childhood.

So how did you get your start in hospitality?
My sister used to own Minx. She started Minx Gentleman’s Club on Pitt street, she was doing that when I was 17, and just as I turned 18 she asked me if I wanted to come replace the kitchenhand for a day at a gentleman’s club and that was the best idea she’d ever proposed.

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I went in, and I was working in the kitchen doing kitchenhand, kitchen helping for about six months, and then moved out to the bar and when my sister sold it I decided I wanted to move across and work with Merivale. I was with Merivale by the time I was 19.

It was a big turn of events for me; for the last three years of school I studied pretty hard and did pretty well at school, turned myself around and made sure I got good marks and whatnot. And then, going into the hospo lifestyle, I’d never really been around that, drinking and doing all that.

Yeah, it was an eye opener, but it was good fun. It was the days of Tank and Merivale was just starting to boom and yeah it was pretty exciting. We used to finish Friday night and go down to Tank with all the girls and party til six in the morning and as a 19 year old, you can imagine how fun that was.

So you were with Merivale for a while?
Yeah, nine years.

Which venues were you at, did you move around?
I was everywhere. I started in events, and then I moved down to main bar in Establishment as a barback, and barbacked in Establishment and wanted to move on to the bar and they told me: males don’t work the bar at Establishment. I was like, OK, I’ll do anything I can to get on to the bar and work. So I moved down to Tank Stream bar at the back, and was sort of barbacking and pouring beers here and there when I was allowed to. From there I got to know John Franks, who was the GM of the group at the time, and I was at school with his son. His son came home one day and said he was in school with this guy who was in Merivale and started to talk to his dad about me. His dad didn’t realise I was studying business management at UTS at the time. So John Franks approached me and asked me if I wanted to go into management, [and] moved me across to the Wynyard Hotel. I was at the Wynyard Hotel for a year and a half, it was absolutely not where I wanted to be at that age. I thought I was going to be a rockstar and be a manager up at Establishment. But as he said, you don’t want to be one of these managers who swings his keys, you want to be one of these managers who learns as much as you can from a venue. Wynyard was that. You had to run the accomodation, you had to run the pokies, you had to run a restaurant that was a small kitchen with one chef that did 180 meals at lunch, and you had to run a bar — all these things, you learn the cellar, you learn as a manager to do all these different things at these little pubs. It was great.

After that I was moved back to Establishment to be a manager at the main bar, where I was told [before] that I wouldn’t be a bartender. I was there for a year, then I stuck my hand up and said I wanted to manage the new Ivy Pool Club that was about to open. Yeah, of course I wanted to go up there. By 23 I was up at Pool Club, I was part of the opening team up there. I was with them for six years running that.

What was it like when Pool Club opened?
It was huge. It was mind-blowing to see that open in Sydney. The other side of Ivy opened first, then Pool Club was the second stage, and it was the VIP, and it was this and that. Looking back now, it was quite ostentatious and quite wanky, but it was something great to be a part of, to see Sydney embrace something that wasn’t part of our culture at that time.

It was completely different.
Yeah and look those first two, three summers were amazing because we managed to maintain it to the level we wanted to. We had a great management team, I was working with Dee Ryan at the time, and David Clifton, and as a team we were a very solid management team; we had some great bartenders come through, Lewis [Jaffrey, Merlino’s partner in Big Poppa’s] came through and worked at Pool Club with us — a lot of people who are now into the small bars, and into the small bar scene had to come through those bigger companies back then because The Baxters, The Lobos and all these places didn’t exist yet. It was fun for those first three [summers], the last three I was holding on looking for what I wanted to do next.

Jared Merlino
So you went from Merivale to opening The Lobo Plantation — how did that next step come about?

I was itching to get out of Merivale and do something of my own for about the last two to three years of my time at Pool Club, but I didn’t want to do it hastily, I didn’t want to jump out and do it and do the wrong thing, .

Was it always your goal to go and do that? Because you said you’d studied business management.
Yeah my goals was always to own and manage venues. That was always my dream, from the day I started with Merivale, it was to break away and start something when I had the time. I’d been trying, I’d been speaking to people, financiers and stuff, since I was about 26. I started to talk to people. But there just wasn’t the opportunities back then when I was 23. About three years down the track, when the laws started to change and these venues started to become available, you sort of started to see people my age having the ability to do it.

I came across a post on Facebook by Mark Ward, he’d put something up saying he was doing some consultancy for a venue that was looking for a GM and a part-owner, and I sort of just jumped at it. They were talking about doing a rum bar, didn’t really have too much direction at the time, and but I had the ability to come in, put some direction in, and help build it from the ground up. Met Michael Hwang and Eddie Levy, my partners in Kittyhawk and Lobo, and sort of went through the whole process, which was really eye-opening.

[Council] blocked our licence at one point, they said we had to go in front of the lord mayor and the councillors and plead why we need another licence in the city. But again, it was another good experience; I get up in front of the lord mayor and say, “look, this is where I come from, I come from a large venue background where there are assaults, where there are issues. These smaller bars are the way forward, we don’t plan on having these issues because we’re not over-watering people, we’re not getting people absolutely hammered like these bigger places.”

And she [Clover Moore, Sydney’s lord mayor] was leading the charge.
Yeah, she stood up in that meeting and was like, this is exactly the type of person we need opening venues, this is where we need to be going, and it was quite refreshing. Then she had the support of the majority of the board that time, so we ended up getting the licence, and we pushed through and ended up getting Lobo open in mid-2013.

Jared Merlino 3

What was that experience like? This is something you’ve been working towards, so what did it feel like to finally get to that to goal?
You’re running on adrenaline, and you’re trying not to acknowledge any of that fear that’s in the back of your mind at that point in time. You’ve stepped away from something — like, when I left Merivale, I stepped away from being offered a position that was more senior, and I took on the risk of starting something that was unknown with two people I didn’t know, with a band of people and bartenders that weren’t really known. So yeah, it was scary. And there is a lot of fear in people not turning up, not walking down the stairs. But you’ve just got to focus on what you know, on what you know about product, and what you know about experience up until that point, and just put it into play. It was a lot of work, you’re on the ground — especially with your first one. Anything new, and with Kittyhawk now, you’re on the ground, and you’re there and watching every single experience and interaction. I was literally there six days a week for the first year [at lobo], whilst we went through several different managers, and we went through different bartenders. We tried to really form our solid team, and it did take us 18 months to get to that point.

Yeah, what’s that like, because you start with a team, and it took a while to get your settled team but once it was there, it just rocketed away.
Exactly. Look, Dre [Walters] who’s now been with me as the bar manager of Lobo and now group bars manager, was about 18 months down the track after several other managers. But once you do find that, you got to find a way that you click together, you need to understand each other. Dre had been there since the beginning, so Dre’s been with me for the whole three years, but been the bar manager now for two years now. It is difficult, trying to find those people that you work well with, and they need to know I have a pretty regimented way that I run a business. There’s a lot of systems, and a lot of recording and reporting. People need to buy into your culture and what you’re trying to build, and with any new business there’s people who think they want to be a part of it and then they see that there’s a lot of work involved, [and] want to step away. But then you have people who actually buy into it and realise that if you want to run something of this size and this detail, it takes a lot of time and effort. Dre and Paige [Aubort], when I found them and we got on the same page; that was when we really started to kick goals with the business.

With Kittyhawk, just walking around before, there’s a level of detail in here. How much involvement do you have in the design process, because there’s little things you don’t notice unless you know.
Kittyhawk is something I’m extremely proud of because I was here from day dot — the concept came from my mind. With Lobo, the boys had already came up with the name and the back story and stuff, and that they wanted it to be rum, etc, etc. I wasn’t there from the initial thought of starting a venue. When we came across [Kittyhawk] and I came up with the idea of basing it around Liberation Day, and the name, then I got in here and did the demo with the guys and stayed on ground for the six months building it. So every detail in here, every measurement, every colour, every pattern, was something that I was across. When you see it operate now, and when I see it operate, and I look at certain things in the venue, you do realise how much goes into building something with this much detail. It was six months on the ground every day, while building Big Poppa’s at the same time.

I obsessed over things like the depth of the chair, the angle of the back of the chair, the height of the chair — all these little things we work with our builders and designers to get it exactly right.

Can you lose yourself in the detail? How do you stay on track — when do you say, ok, that part’s done?
I think there was a couple of moments there where I should have been doing that, because I look now, and when the lights go down and everyone is in here, there’s things that I obsessed over that no-one ever sees. I think the next time I do it, I won’t obsess as much, because there is a lot that gets lost. Like during the day, you do see it, of a night-time sometimes you don’t see it. It can be hard to pull yourself out sometimes, but again it is those things that bring you back to a venue. It’s those things that I’ve always loved about Merivale. I went to Charlie Parker’s the other night, and it is a phenomenal venue; he works with the best architects and the best builders, but it’s still amazing, because a lot of it comes out of his mind.

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