‘You’ve got to influence people, you’ve got to sell them an idea.’ Phil Gannon on building a hospo career

Phil Gannon is something of a legend around the Sydney bar scene; you may know him from his previous life, standing on the doors at Frankie’s until stupid o’clock in the morning making sure you and your bartending mates had a good night. Of late he’s been working for The Sydney Collective and most recently relaunched the Imperial in Erskineville, just in time for Mardi Gras.

But back in the day, he was something of a mentor to Dardan Shervashidze, the now co-owner of Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern. Here, Dardan gets Gannon talking about the lessons he’s learned over the years. Their chat follows below, lightly edited for, you know, clarity, and to protect the identities of the innocent.


Interview by Dardan Shervashidze


So Philip, what’s going on? I haven’t seen you in a while.

What have I been doing? I’ve been running five venues, pretty successfully — everybody’s welcome — since I left Frankie’s. I took a foray into multi-venue stuff which was something I’d never really done before, and was an exciting, challenging time. It took a while to get in but you know what they say, keep on learning, keep on living. I actually just made that up.

I’ve kind of changed how I approach things, which is good. Most recently I just had the soft launch of a life time at The Imperial, in time for Mardi Gras. We opened that iconic gay bar, got some glitter on, and just bent over for the weekend pretty much.

I walked by that a few days before I called you and it still looked like a construction site?

It was a building site at 7am Friday morning, and it was a venue at 5pm on Friday night. You know, a good bunch of builders, and Fraser [Short] one of the many things he’s got is a great eye for details, the venue looks and feels amazing. Dave our chef really killed it, we were lucky that, you know, it’s an inner west thing and it’s got a lot of history so staffing was not as hard as it can be.

How’d our story get started? I always called it the bad joke: the Irishman, the Scotsman, and the Englishman that were living together.

Well, how far back do we want to go? In 2005, myself and Toby Hilton were living together, and Lewis [Jaffrey] moved in, and we had many parties. Then the boys went to Swillhouse, I was at Merivale, left Merivale and then went to Frankie’s. It was fucking awesome. One day Toby called me out of the blue and said, “I’ve got a new manager for you, he’s coming from The Baxter Inn. He’s got no real management experience, his name is Dardan-whatever-his-name-is.” Dardan Shevchenko [sic]? I don’t know who the fuck that is.

Which is to this day my name on Facebook, which has caused me some issues.

Toby filled in the blanks, said “He’s a lot of fun, he can drink, and he can play Hang Tough.”

Which is an important game.

And he’s a champion at that. So Dardan came on and I got this gangly, loose, inked-up, loud-mouthing heavy metal-listening, swearing manager, who turned out to be one of the best managers we had. There were a few kinks to iron out obviously, a few bits and pieces to get in to practice.

No-one’s perfect Phil.

You live to learn — wait, I said that already, right? I came on to Swillhouse at the time where they hadn’t quite formalised the process and the structure of how it all worked. Whereas I came from a very structured, process systems-driven background. It worked out really well, I got to learn a lot about customer service from Dardan and what I took from him was, my attitude changed from being “I’m the boss” to “OK, I’ll embrace everything and be your friend and just tell you when you need to do something.” Whereas what Dardan got from me was, this is what actually things cost and how we’ve got to price them.

What I got from you was the back of house, this is how things actually run. What I learnt from you was all the shit that I needed to know — dealing with the police, dealing with the council, being mindful of how important that RSA register is, keeping that shit tight. As well as managing your stock, the whole back of house concept that I’d had no real experience with. 

It’s important. Police will shut you down. But if you’re organised and look like you’re doing the right thing — which we were — if you show them you’ve paid attention to it they’ll think, okay, these aren’t just cowboys. They’ll tick the box and go on about their business.

You know you’ve got me out of shit just dropping your name? We were having a shit house Saturday, it was the first Saturday that we hit capacity. We short staffed two staff, our glass washer broke, that night was when they turned up to check our RSA register. I’m sitting there thinking, now they turn up? I get the register, he’s flipping through it, and he says, “this is good.” I say, “Yeah man, I worked with Phil Gannon — if it wasn’t good he’d kick my arse.” It’s almost like he closed the register and said, see ya later!

That was Keystone and Cargo bar, if our shit wasn’t together we were definitely going to get in trouble so you learn very quickly. That was the start of my relationships phase, where you understand that they’re super important. So relationships with the police are important, relationships with OLGR (the Office of Liquor, Gaming & Racing) are very important, and then it was Swillhouse where I realised that yes, those are important, but actually the most important relationships are staff, first and foremost, and then your customers who deal with your staff on a daily basis.

I took that from Swillhouse, and it was very refreshing — that it wasn’t all about systems and procedures, ticking boxes and doing checklists but how are your staff going?

Human beings.

Yes, like are they okay? Can I give them some help? If I can’t, I’m in trouble. So that was eye-opening, it was also fast and loose for a long time.

Fast and loose is a good way to describe that.

I don’t know if I miss getting to bed at 10am every day of the week, but it was fun for a while. What else?

Fuck I don’t know.

This is where you should have had a list of questions, been prepared. Have a shit, this will help. This is one thing I know about Dardan, if in doubt, get him a little bit twisted.

It’ll always work out, hey.

Some moderate intoxication. I’ll have a little half shot because that’s how I roll.

So what’s next for the cannon Gannon?

I don’t know, this multi-site role was amazing. There was a really good crew of execs, it’s good to get a handle on how that works.

Just so we’ve got it on record, which group do you work for?

Oh, The Sydney Collective — I finish up in five weeks. Offers all taken! But it’s been good to get an insight into that multi site venue where you’re not there, you don’t have control, you don’t see, touch, feel everything, it’s not like I walk in and say you have do this — you’ve got to influence people, you’ve got to sell them an idea or a dream and say, wouldn’t it be great if we could make heaps more money by doing this, and how do we go about that? You take them on the journey.

That was the hardest part of my job, it took me six months to realise that I couldn’t just go around anymore telling them this is how you do this — you’ve got to sell it to them, until they get it and it clicks like a lightbulb.

I firmly believe that staff are the biggest asset that you have.

100 percent.

You pick your team, but you need to be pretty ruthless with your team; you can’t just go, ‘oh, he’s great, maybe if I put some time into him.’ You’ve got to give it a timescale. A lot of managers think that hiring people for personality and then teaching them is bullshit, you need to hire people with skills. You don’t. Bartending can be hard, but it’s teachable, and that’s where a lot of venues fall down is when they become quite transactional. You give me money, I give you booze. Whereas it needs to be, ‘hey man, how are you? What kind of booze can I sell you?’ And that’s when you start working for the venue properly.

Managers often walking around worrying about the legal things — get it organised, get it squared away, so then you can focus on your people. At the end of the day, as annoying as it sounds, they’re your ambassadors.

It’s important, these guys [my staff] essentially embody everything I believe.

You go around different bars, and you find a group of mates working, and all of a sudden it’s family: you’re out all the time, that’s when the best bars work, everyone’s out together and everyone’s on the same wavelength and the same vibe. And it can work to a detriment as well, if management don’t look after it; like if someone orders a Midori and milk and the bartenders turn around to each other and snicker. Obviously a Midori and milk is not an ideal combination, but guess what? If I want to spend my money on it, it’s my life. Little things like that are the best way to look at a bar. Are the staff engaged? Are the staff talking to me, are they happy? That’s what I judge a good bar on.

A bar is not somewhere where you walk in and you have to tell the bartender exactly what you want, there’s no service there, there’s no hospitality. You just feel like another number, and that is not bartending. That’s not how you do it.

And numbers are important. You can’t just buy it for two dollars and sell it for five, you’ll run out of business. You need that balance.