How one bar operator is fighting the good fight against bartending burnout

Jared Merlino, at Kittyhawk in Sydney. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Sydney operator Jared Merlino had a big 2017. He was coming off the back of opening both Kittyhawk and Big Poppa’s — at the same time — midway through 2016, bringing to three the total number of bars under his umbrella. And in November last year, Merlino walked away form the 2017 Bartender Magazine Australian Bar Awards with a wins Big Poppa’s and The Lobo Plantation, as well as a trophy for himself for the Bar Operator of the Year title.

We got in touch with Merlino last month to check in and see how things were going, and wanted to find out more about what he has been doing to address one of the big issues for the industry this year, namely, the wellnesss — both mentally and physically — of the people who work in this industry.

How’s the last 12 months gone since we last caught up?

At the end of last year we finished everything we needed to on the second level, upstairs. It’s the event space for us; across the group there’s no real space that we could use
for events, so it was always intended to be finished
off and used in 2017.

The demand for events in the area was high, and
being able to offer the same product that we do
downstairs up here, and have people have their own level is great. For that size, people love being able to have their own unique event space.

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So it’s been a big year?

It’s good. I don’t think I really realised how big it was about to go, and how busy it was going to be. The two [new bars] have been busy, and all the staffing that goes with that. It’s big but it;’s good. We’ve got a great team — Toby Hiscox is here at Kttyhawk as general manager, Mary White’s the general manager over at Lobo Plantation. It’s been a big 12 months, a big learning curve, but everything’s been good.

What’s the biggest learning you’ve had over that time?

How important people are to your product, how important staff are. I tried to push shit up hill a few times, tried to make square pegs fit into round holes; you want to believe in people and push people but sometimes you have to stop and step back and say, you’re not doing that person any justice trying to make them fit into a role they don’t fit into. It’s about trying to find the right position for the right person. All the people that I’ve had have been amazing, it’s just that I might have had them in the wrong position. So there’s been quite a bit of shuffling in the last 12 months, especially in the structure of the businesses. Now, we’ve got a GM of each venue, so they’re accountable.

It drives ownership. One of our key values is, ‘drive it like it’s yours.’ Treat this bar like it’s your own. I’m across all three, but when there’s a head of each venue and there’s juniors that report to them, they can concentrate more and own their outcomes better. That’s been the big change, with [group bars manager] Andres Walters stepping away, we’re not replacing that group role, we’re making the teams stronger. It’s been the big learning for me.
Are you looking for another venue?

Yeah everyday I’m looking around — I don’t why. I really love that part — it’s the risky part, but it’s the part where you can create and shape and do creative things. I love looking at a space and thinking, ‘what can I bring into here?’

There’s a conversation around having a sustainable career and looking after oneself which has become important — what are you doing to address that for your team?

For me, when I travelled for nine weeks for our honeymoon, just stepping away from work, focusing on myself and reading a lot and you know, spending time away from the venues and hospitality for a bit, I felt re-energised. There’s so much burnout. Around that time we heard about Jeremy Strode passing, and there’s just so much of that in our industry.

We’ve never really spoken about it, no-one ever wants to talk about it — the burnout rate in our industry is huge.

And I started to see it in my team, a few times. People just give up — they still come in every day but they give up because we work ridiculous hours, at the opposite end of the day to everyone else, and drugs and alcohol and everything is readily available to consume. We work in that environment constantly. And it’s hard, even for myself, to keep that in check.

So the whole idea was I came back fresh and ready to make some changes. The whole idea behind Be Better was, we started that conversation for people to be able to go with it. Be Better is about, one day a week, for an hour or two, we get together and do something physical. We started with personal training sessions over in the Domain, last week there was cricket down at the beach. One, it’s good for the team to bond outside of this space; two, it’s good for all the team in the three venues to spend time together, and doing something that doesn’t involve drinking. It’s sort of our default in this industry, let’s catch up and go for staffies and sit at a bar and we drink shots and get hammered. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love that. But the way that the teams have taken up [Be Better], and how much they’re enjoying it, they love it.

Some weeks we have more than others, it can be hard to get people out on a Wednesday if they’ve worked Tuesday night, but I think if you don’t make it so challenging it can work — we had a couple of PT sessions which were full on, but last week we scaled it back to a casual game of cricket at the beach. Everyone gets out, has a swim, has a bit of enjoyment. It’s more about concentrating on spending time together, getting out in the sun, and doing something physical.

That’s the physical side of it, in terms of career, do you have a plan with that?

The other side of it was the mental health side, and the life planning side of it. The idea behind it is that  we want to build careers and not jobs; I want hospitality to be a career, like it has been for me. And it has been so good to me, because I always have thought of it as a career.

At the tail end of last year, a good friend of mine is a life coach; we got him in and we looked at, the first thing, the CEO of you — how you hold yourself responsible, how you time manage and things like that; then we did sessions built around goal setting and reflecting on the year past. I want to get to a point where once a week or fortnight, in these life planning sessions,  you stop and think about where am I going, what am I doing, and how the company can help that happen. We don’t often stop and reflect and sit down. A lot of us just do the week, get exhausted, go out and get hammered and get back at it again. I want to stop the burnout, and though I might not be able to stop it personally, the more tools people have, the better.

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