‘Praise in public; punish in private.’ Sven Almenning’s tips on running and managing a venue

Sven Almenning at The Business of Bars during Sydney Bar Week 2017. Photo: Rachel Baird

Last month we brought you the first in this two part series, based on Sven Almenning’s talk at the Business of Bars Conference during Sydney Bar Week 2017. Last month was all about what you need to do before you get to opening the doors on your shiny new bar — this month, we share Almenning’s advice on managing staff and the venue once the doors are open.

It’s advice wannabe bar owners ought to pay heed to; Almenning is a man not short of success in the bar game, with his Speakeasy Group adding another venue to their stable, Mjølner Melbourne, just a couple of weeks ago.

You don’t need to be the big dog — just go and hire the best people you can

Almenning isn’t afraid to be the guy in the room who doesn’t have the answer — he says you need to drop your ego, and “hire the best.” It’s the key to having a relaxed life outside your bars after all.

“Don’t be an insecure motherfucker,” he says. “Someone commented on this earlier, he said, ‘Man, you’re the most relaxed bar owner I know. How?’ Because I hire people who are way better than me.”

Almenning says it’s as simple as recognising what you’re good at and sticking to it — and perhaps letting go of past glories.

“I can’t go behind the bar at Eau de Vie and make the drinks the way the guys at the bar at Eau de Vie can make them,” he says. “When I was a bartender, I was a fucking good bartender, be clear about that, but I was not that good. I could make ‘em fast, I could flirt with the girls, I could add shit up in my mind, sweet. But I can’t do all the stuff that bartenders today can do, right? I don’t feel threatened by it. When I hire a manager, I want that manager to teach me stuff; if the manager can’t teach me stuff then I want to find a different manager. That’s just how it has to be. Some people like to be the kingpin, and stand out, and be the man — be the boss. I do not get off on that.”

For Almenning, being the boss doesn’t mean knowing everything — it means constantly learning from the people you employ (you just need to make sure you’re employing the right people).

“If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong fucking room.,” he says. “You never want to be the smartest person in the room. Hire people who are better than you, who have knowledge you don’t have, hire people who have experience that you don’t have. And once you’ve done that, trust them with it. Why hire people who are that good, who are better than you, if you’re not going to listen to their advice?”

Trust your smart people to make smart decisions

So you’ve got smart people working for you, their experience complements yours, and now you need to make decisions. Well, for Almenning, if someone else is the expert he’s happy to trust in their expert opinion and have them make the decision.

“It’s very rare for me to have a conversation with my team where I will force my view through, unless it is in one of the few fields in the business where I feel that maybe I do have the most experience,” says Almenning.

“But there’s very few parts of our business now where I feel I should be making the decision. I normally feel that I’ve hired someone who knows this shit better than me, so why the fuck am I wasting time on it? Just inform me of your decision, and I’ll back that shit up if I can afford it. That’s how it works.”

That’s why Almenning doesn’t skimp on costs when it comes to staff.

“Pay extra for good staff. If you’ve got to pay extra, fucking pay extra, you know? Good staff are hard to find, especially if you try to open something in Sydney now. They are so hard to find.”

Public praise, private punishment

Now that you’ve got the key people, and business is underway, Almenning has one rule which he took away from his military days.

“I used to be a navy officer back in the day,” he says. “You can tell that one of my problems in the navy was that I wasn’t military enough, right? But one thing I did learn, and one thing I think is important is this: Praise in public, punish in private.”

It’s pretty simple: the days of humiliating staff really ought to be behind us.

“If someone deserves to get slapped around a little bit, not literally, but they need a talking to, pull them aside, into the office and say, hey you can’t give away free drinks,” Almenning says. “But don’t announce it in front of the staff. It is very hard to earn back the respect, and in the end if you’re the manager or you’re the owner, there is an us and them scenario. You want the wall to be as low as possible and as thin as possible, but there is still the wall there. And every time you do something nasty towards them, the wall gets a little bit taller and it gets a little bit thicker. You get to a point where the wall is all the way up and they’re on one side and you’re on the other? I wouldn’t want to have that business.”

The corollary to this is that if you’re going to praise your staff — and you should for a job well done — then you might as well make it count.

“Sending them an email saying ‘Oh my god, you’re amazing, thanks so much for your hard work’? That doesn’t help. Having them in a meeting, you say, ‘Oh my god, you’re amazing,’ you’re giving them bear hugs, a kiss on the cheek — nah. You know what? Get all the staff together. Tell them in front of all the staff: ‘You know Freddy here? He’s a fucking legend — he crushed it on the weekend. This guy came in on his day off, he was sick as fuck, he did twice what the rest of you did — this guy’s a legend and I’m buying him dinner.’ But praise the shit out of them, make them feel good, for working hard for you so that you can go out and buy a Porsche. They’re helping put money in your pocket, so when someone works really fucking hard, give them praise.

Don’t be a dickhead boss

This one is a pretty simple twist on the golden rule: don’t be a dick.

“There’s a great book called Great Leaders Eat Last — and my subtitle to that is don’t be a dickhead boss,” says Almenning. “For me, if you’re going to be the owner of a business, you’ve got to behave a certain way, right? I have a rule: I eat last. If I want get a booking at Mjolner, I’m not taking a 7pm booking, I’m not taking a 7:30pm booking — those are busy times, I’ve got paying customers in there. If I rock to Eau de Vie Melbourne and there’s a halfl an hour wait on the door, I’m waiting half an hour. I know its my bar. But I’ll still wait in line. I’m not going to be a dickhead boss — I’m not going to jump ahead of the line, and ask staff to serve me before they serve others.”

The math here is simple: you want people to do their best for you, and it’s hard to do one’s best for a dickhead.

“You don’t want to be that owner,” Almenning says.  “If you are that owner people won’t give their best to you. They’re not going to care.”

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