Porteño group’s Mikey Nicolian on the state of the Sydney bar scene and working bloody hard

Interview by Andy Ratcliff, andrewjohn@me.com

Mikey Nicolian is our operator of the month. Mikey has come a long way from the shores of the United Kingdom and has since won several accolades and the hearts of many Sydneysiders. Mikey currently runs both Bar Louise in Enmore and Continental Deli in Newtown.

You’re certainly not new to hospitality but tell us about how you got involved in the business of service and what made you want to make a career from it.
I come from a family of bartenders in that both my older brothers were working in London bars, bartending and making names for themselves. When I was 17, one of them needed a glassy and someone to collect ashtrays (showing my age there), and I’ve got an obsessive personality, so I think any job I took on at that stage of my life was full of energy and motivation. I was going to throw my all into it. I was lucky enough to work with some really great guys who were passionate and skilled at what they did, so it drew me in.

Continental Delicatessen Newtown

Tell us about how you got involved with the Porteño group. What made you want to be a part of the company?
I initially landed in Melbourne and lined up a job with a restaurant that was opening a bar, while I was waiting for it to open, I’d come close to running out of money and my mate in Sydney offered me his couch to sleep on, when I got here and he took me to his work which was Porteno, on Cleveland street at the time. It was so beautiful there, I was taken aback, and they were looking for a bartender, so I decided to stay put.

What’s special about hospitality in Sydney is owner-operated venues, and this was the case at Porteno; it was and still is the coolest mother fuckers I’d ever seen working their arses off to make their dream venue come to life, which really drew me in. Once I’d started, there was no looking back, really; I think we all knew early on I was going to be sticking around for some time.

What does your role entail with the group? What’s a regular day look like (if there is such a thing in hospitality)?
So, I’m now essentially an operations manager at Continental Deli and Bar Louise and a drinks consultant for the Porteno precinct on Hold Street.

It feels weird to say because my background is service, whether that’s from behind the bar, maître’d or even in a section or polishing glasses. It’s what I love and who I am. But what my job really requires and involves is that the functions are all ticking the way they should be, i.e. are the managers training the staff, is there appropriate staffing, are the teams happy and excited to come to work and put pride into everything they do? Is the best-selling item on the menu the best GP on the menu? Pretty much everything that needs to be taken into account for a business to be viable.

Bar Louise Enmore

I’ve had the pleasure of dining with you several times. You seem like you have your finger on the pulse of what’s happening around town. What are some of the key issues facing hospitality operators in 2024?
Key issues facing hospitality this year!? I think we’ve already faced them all in 2021/2022/2023, haven’t we? Look, I think we’re on the up as an industry; Sydney already feels more alive than it has in previous years, and it’s still early days, which is great.

For me, though, if I had to focus on one of the struggles of Sydney hospitality small operators, it’s a lot of hospitality media. Where small operators used to get the support and attention from media platforms with huge followings, that love and attention now celebrate grand dining rooms and soulless venues (all be it with hard-working individuals within them) that already benefit so much from buying power and having deep pockets. If we keep heading in that direction, then the future of the Australian identity of food and drink will be doing something not as good as somewhere else in the world: shaving truffle on top, putting it on a gold platter and saying it’s better than the original.

“My only real skill, the only thing that got me to where I am today, I think, is working my arse off. The guys I work with lead by example, I’m obsessive, I was never going to shy away from following suit and we just clicked in that sense.”

You’ve also just returned from an overseas holiday where you got to experience some amazing restaurants and bars. What are they doing that we aren’t? How do Australian venues stack up with overseas ones?
The best of Australia is up there with the best in the world, particularly in terms of produce and mixed drinks, where it can’t compete is history, heritage and soul.

Unfortunately, that’s just built up over time… (when you travel, Google the oldest bar in town, not the best… trust me on that) no amount of money we throw at venues will make our venues feel like, say, Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas or Snake & Jake’s in New Orleans. So if we focus on what makes Australian hospitality great (small owner-operated venues), then in time, we will not just have our handful of venues that are as good as the rest of the world but be toe to toe on many, many fronts.

In your opinion, how does an aspiring youngster work their way up to your position? Is it education? Is it working for one operator for years or should they go out on their own?
Working for the right people is one part, I was fortunate that I fell into a bar job with amazing guys but that’s only part of it, lots of people have come and gone with these guys. I don’t know how popular this answer is going to be… my only real skill, the only thing that got me to where I am today, I think, is working my arse off. The guys I work with lead by example, I’m obsessive, I was never going to shy away from following suit and we just clicked in that sense. Oh, all that and obviously not being an absolute cunt!

Where do you see the hospitality landscape going in 2024? Especially in the now (very busy) precinct on Enmore Road.
Hospo landscape in 2024, I see people finally starting to drink and dine later into the evening. For the last couple of years, with the lock-out laws, I think we really started to see the long-term effect on our culture; first sittings are great, and second sittings could be dire even on weekends. This year I see that changing, late night venues cropping up that everyone is getting behind them will hopefully encourage us to book in for dinner at 8:30 and go out after… it would be great for Sydney.

Thanks for speaking with us Mikey!