Story by James Bradey, owner and operator of Liquid & Larder Group (Grandma’s, The Wild Rover, The Gidley & Bistecca) in Sydney
I’ve been in the hospitality industry long enough to actually have had a day, back in the day. I worked at some truly iconic venues; the names of which bartenders still recognize today. What I truly believe sets these venues apart is not just the product consumed, but the experience they have when they are there.
These days, there are so many ways for people to spend their hard-earned cash. It’s more important than ever that venues deliver the best version of what they are trying to achieve. This means they need to ‘read’ their customer and give them ‘their’ desired experience.
It’s amazing how many places I’ve been into over the years that forget they work in this industry. My advice? Stop being a dick. At the end of the day, you’re a bartender, so enjoy your surroundings and make those who patronise your venues feel special!
I am all about the experience. I drive this in every detail of my venues. Why should you listen to me though? I am mostly, as those who know me would attest, an opinionated, grumpy, old man! But I do have genuine passion for hospitality and design which delivers amazing customer experiences. And there is no better industry showcasing this than ‘hospitality’.
“I don’t care about awards, who the chef is or how fancy the fit-out looks. The first thing I look for is ‘do they do what they say on the tin’? If there’s a sign out front which says “we play loud, shit music and serve warm beer”, I may not actually want to go inside, but once I’ve actively made that choice and provided the venue lives up to their side of the deal, happy days!”
I’ve worked at iconic venues over the last 20+ years. Trailer Happiness and Mahiki in London. The Opal Lounge and Tigerlily in Edinburgh. Running venues in the Cross… but I’d rather not talk about those!
I’ve worked as an interior architect, consulted, been a BDM, won awards, worked for training companies like Behind Bars but, most importantly of all, I’ve always pushed myself and not been afraid to make mistakes… of which I have made many!
I’ve listened and learnt from those I worked for and have genuine enthusiasm for what makes a great venue tick. And after enjoying a bit of success and a few failures of my own, I thought I’d share some wisdom with you all.
So what do I look for?
I don’t care about awards, who the chef is or how fancy the fit-out looks. The first thing I look for is ‘do they do what they say on the tin’? If there’s a sign out front which says “we play loud, shit music and serve warm beer”, I may not actually want to go inside, but once I’ve actively made that choice and provided the venue lives up to their side of the deal, happy days!
The second thing I look for is providing genuine hospitality while delivering the customer’s desired experience. It’s not rocket science!
When we first opened Grandma’s in 2010, people looked at us like freaks when greeting them with a modest ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ Like ‘what on earth are you doing talking to me?’ But this made our guests ‘feel’ part of the experience. It gave them the sense of belonging and familiarity Grandma’s is all about.
Thirdly… Passion! Are the staff engaged and do they enjoy being at work?
Giuseppe Cipriani, talking about Harry’s Bar Venice in 1958 said, “To serve someone is to love, is to offer something of yourself, selflessly to better their experience”. And it’s the same deal now. What really makes a venue tick is the atmosphere created by the people in the venue and this starts with the staff.
Let’s be honest, working in a bar is and should be bloody good fun! Easiest way to tell if this is the case? Staff in the venues, engaging with regulars, on their days off. The very first venue I ran in Edinburgh, The Opal Lounge, had a shift which finished at 2am. This meant you had a power hour before other venues closed at 3am. But none of the staff, myself included, ever left to go somewhere else. Even after a brutal, 12-hour Saturday shift serving “Vodi Red Bull Pal”, I would get changed, find my favourite regular and get stuck in. I genuinely didn’t want to be anywhere else and customers could feel that energy.
The fourth thing I look for is design. Great design not only allows customers to be transported to another time or place, it must also have function and purpose. After years working in bars which looked good but were not overly functional, I decided to pursue my first passion and study Interior Architecture. I was lucky enough to work for an amazing architect in London who specialised in bars, restaurants and hotels. What he taught me was good design is the same as a garnish on a cocktail: it needs to enhance the drink… not just be pretty.
The bars, restaurants and hotels I love push boundaries and deliver truly amazing experiences through design because they don’t pigeon-hole themselves. They dream big, think about their design and make sure it evokes a feeling; whatever ‘vibe’ they’re
Almost there! Now, I may be a grumpy old man, but just because you aim to be the best dive bar doesn’t mean your toilets have to smell like piss. Give a fuck and clean your bloody toilets! Take some pride in your place of work.
Finally… Do all of the above, all day, every day.
Consistency is hard; it’s not sexy or creative or exciting, but it is essential. This is what makes a venue an institution. It’s why people talk about Bayswater Brasserie or Black Pearl with such fondness after so many years. Because they receive hospitality, and they deliver it every fuckin time!