Benjamin Hickey & Naomi Palmer: we chat with the power duo behind The Roosevelt

Operator Profile: Benjamin Hickey & Naomi Palmer

Jono Carr sits down with this power duo behind Kings Cross favourite, The Roosevelt

Photography by Christopher Pearce

Sitting in a vibrant alleyway in Sydney’s Potts Point outside Dear Saint Eloise with an Americano in hand I had the chance to sit down with some good friends and have a candid chat about a few things. Here is a very condensed version of how Ben and Na came to own their first venue and keep it going for 4 years. One of the things that I have always liked about the venue is that you walk in and have that sense of history and then get affronted by a wall of Whisk(e)y and then that private dining room with the poker table that lifts off to reveal a dining table with an ice bucket in the middle.

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For those who haven’t been there, can you describe what The Roosevelt is all about?
Ben: The Roosevelt is all about the experience. It’s a cocktail bar with great food that operates on the same site of the nightclub that Abe Saffron (notorious Kings Cross Crime Lord) had in the late 40s and 50s. In its current day, it has a great cocktail list, strong whiskey collection and awesome staff.

Ben, how did you get started bartending?
Ben: Like a lot of the people at the time I was at university and bartending worked around that schedule, by the end of the degree I was going to Uni to justify bartending. So, I was working in a local in Glebe that had a cocktail bar upstairs and then nightclubs, then cocktail bars and the like.

“Our venue relies on the guests’ experience so a huge part of it is the staff and making sure they are happy, it’s the most important thing and everything else is there to support that. Staff are by far number one.” – Naomi Palmer

What’s your current role, and what does it entail?
Ben: So, Naomi and I are the Owner/Operators of The Roosevelt and are hands-on, so we do almost every service as well as split the back of house roles like HR, maintenance, banking and operations. I worked there as a manager under Tom Price (GM, Baxter Inn) until I took over and then later the opportunity arose to work for ourselves.

How far along in your career did you make the transition from venue manager to owner?
Ben: About two-thirds of my career so far.
So how long have you owned the joint?
Na: We took over the venue in 2017 (so Ben would have started there) around 2014.

What do you think are the skills that are needed for a bartender/manager to move into ownership — is there a different way of looking at things?
Ben: *laughs* Laissez-faire? From bar manager to venue to owner, I kept the same ideals. As the owner, I had a greater understanding of the financial implications of those management decisions and the bigger picture.
Na: Our venue relies on the guests’ experience so a huge part of it is the staff and making sure they are happy, it’s the most important thing and everything else is there to support that. Staff are by far number one.

When you decided to take over ownership it was a joint decision. Naomi, you were in a quite different profession and jumped straight back into the industry:
Na: not forgetting the Goldfish days (A long-closed Kings Cross institution); I loved serving you all at 3 am.

How can we forget? I think it’s the first place I tried Campari. Warm as a shot, at 3 am. So how do you tackle the running of the venue, do you split certain roles?
Ben: Big decisions are obviously joint made, some day-to-day tasks you break up
Na: BOH we split certain roles, He does invoices, and I do payroll, for instance, things like that. Front of the house I generally host (look after the door and take bookings) whereas Ben will work the functions on the night.
Ben: lately with the lack of staff I am back on the bar like a rusty bike.

When you walk into a bar, what are you looking for?
Na: He’s going to say ‘Lights, music and ambience’.
Ben: Generally, when I’m going out, I’m looking for a good time with friends so I try not to be critical but by nature, I am looking around so when that crack in the armour shows it can all fall.

You have an incredible Whiskey collection. How do you choose what goes into the cabinet?
Ben: Whisk(e)y is delicious.
Na: I get the invoices and we do go to Japan a lot. So, we fit anything that can fit into our suitcases and if they don’t, we buy another suitcase, within customs allowances.
Ben: We source what we can while travelling otherwise we must think about what people who come to our venue want to drink and what they will pay for.
Na: Whiskey is something we do alongside cocktails, wine, and a good meal so it isn’t our only focus but I’d love more of them. For those who do come in, we need to cater for them and have a good offering.
Ben: “Most whisk(e)y’s we are pouring are between the $20-40 mark that guests recognise because they are either cult brands of whiskies they know and love from independent bottlers then have a range of things that we can engage with and show some unique bottlings or cool quirky offerings that they haven’t tried before.

Through 2020 you stayed current during a lockdown, what drove that and how did you make it work?
Ben: We decided on day one, not that we knew how bad or long-lasting it would be to stay closed, we reverted to an entirely delivery service, even having a photoshoot in 3 days done.
Na: it wasn’t only a financial decision; we had a lot of international staff that didn’t get any support from the government, so we wanted to look after them too.
Ben: If we only hired Aussie’s then we could have all had a (forced) holiday but as most of our staff were international and didn’t get government assistance we decided to keep them going. So we divided up what we got as nationals and what we earned from off-trade to make sure that when the Roosevelt did reopen we could do so as a team; with that core team. If we didn’t have them then we wouldn’t have the Roosevelt, so we all got paid a liveable amount, but we all survived.

It was a decision of doing anything to keep the staff alive but also the business going – that makes a lot of sense, how does that relate to business in 2021? How has it changed you?
Ben: As much as it was a horrible time, in some ways it was helpful across social media it gave us a new story to tell. Something about bars is they all try to tell the same story or spruik their venues in a similar light and there are only so many ways to showcase a new drink. We are all talking about the same thing all the time on social media. We got the chance to something new that were people genuinely supportive and wanted to help us and have a dining experience delivered to their own homes,
Na: We are incredibly grateful especially all those friends who bought Sunday roast just to see us through a mask. Obviously, it was terrible, and we never want to go through it again, but we got to tell a different story.

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