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Break into the bar business – and stay there

Firefly_Daniel Sofo

How time flies. It has now been 12 years since my baby and all-consuming obsession, Firefly in Neutral Bay, took shape. More than a decade on, Firefly has not only endured but thrived and, in my humble opinion, it’s one of the best bars and restaurants on Sydney’s North Shore.

The bar scene can be a cruel mistress. It doesn’t matter if you have a great idea or a dream concept – it can be loved or dashed. To some, success might appear to be the ‘luck of the draw’. There are, however, guiding principles you can apply that I am confident all successful bar owners will nod to.

Apart from the actual ‘doing’, this advice was not cobbled together last minute. When I began mentoring at Firefly in 2009, I realised I had some very talented young managers with big dreams and I felt a strong obligation to do as much as I could for them.

I knew their time with me was limited and they would be soon ready to go in their own direction. So, I set about thinking more deeply about sharing information with them and structuring my time in a way that would maximise information sharing. It went beyond the manager/employee thing. I was mentoring.

I, myself, have benefitted from this approach. Mentoring keeps you focused on your own goals and values, and leads to a more enlightened team. People work for money, but great people live to learn.

I tend to mentor high achievers and you have to put them in a place where they can do bigger things – often outside of my organisation.

The following advice is the result of a lot of considered thinking in this area, so I hope you take something from it. I am sure you have a great idea for an even better bar, so here are some insights to put things into practice.

  1. Mistakes are part of the deal

Firstly, I would highly recommend you make some mistakes on someone else’s dime before you start your own venue!

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers proposes that we need to apply ourselves to a task for around 10,000 hours to be really good at it. Put into context and that’s four years of 50-hour workweeks. I tend to agree with this.

Start tallying some of those 10,000 hours working for someone else and without the burden.

We are all human and make mistakes. Sometimes a minor setback can feel like a crushing defeat and I take it personally, too.

Bear in mind the mistakes I consistently witness include:

  • Seachangers who’ve had some wins in a completely different industry, want a change and believe they can run a bar/restaurant because they eat out a lot.
  • overcapitalising.
  • Not investing in people first and everything else second.
  1. Relentlessly focus on your ‘Why’

Your One Thing. You should have this as we speak and if you don’t, then you are already behind.

What are you so passionate about that you must open your own bar or restaurant, despite there being an abundance of restaurants and the sombre reality that, statistically, you are likely to fail?

Start with your Why. Can you look at yourself in the mirror and clearly articulate a burning desire to start your own bar or restaurant and why that venue will be amazing? If so, you’re half way there. The other half is unrelenting commitment and sheer hard work.

Whenever I face a set back I remind myself of Why I began in the first instance. I know the only way I’ll quit is if I have to re-evaluate the Why. And that rarely happens.

  1. Hospitality = people

How are you going to attract, train, and retain great people?

If you excited about what you want to do, then there is a good chance you can get others excited too. Communicate your vision expressively, and connect them to your Why.

Keep a mini dossier on your key people with simple goals and learning outcomes. Schedule regular catch-ups and keep conversations focused on the goal to help momentum.

Conversations should be a healthy combination of big picture ideals and fussy detail. There is no one correct style, just keep things rolling forward.

At the very least, staff should leave each conversation just a little bit more informed/challenged/inspired/educated than they were at the beginning.

  1. Sell yourself

How are you going to tell the world about your great venue?  If you’re not a marketing genius who will you hire that is?

Make sure you reserve some form of marketing budget and have a plan in this discipline. Your great bar can become a lonely place if nobody knows how special it is.

Apart from having  a passion for great food and beverage, to succeed you have to master a diverse range of skills. Effective communication, conflict resolution, leadership, accounting and numeracy… and certainly marketing and promotion.

The old saying ‘if you build it they will come’ may have been true once but no longer. Now you have to build it, and tell the whole world about it. Every day.

  1. Be honest with yourself

Hospitality is a beast like no other. It’s not a job. It’s a vocation, a way of life and potentially all-consuming. Objectively assess your level of commitment and notion of hard work. Being a restaurant owner is physically and psychologically tough.

On the flipside, you are directly responsible for moments of real happiness  for your guests and no two days are the same. There is never a moment of boredom. There are so many pluses, but be prepared for the whole picture.

  1. Find your niche

A small bar doesn’t have to be all things to all people. It won’t make you distinct or stand out, and you probably won’t be rewarded for your lack of audacity. Find your niche and excel at it.

Our own distinguishing feature is what we call the Wall of Pinot, which took about three years to materialise and features 95 producers of Pinot Noir. The Wall didn’t start out as such an ambitious project but customer demand evolved it.

About the author:

Dan_Sofo 150 150Daniel Sofo is the founder and owner of Firefly, a restaurant and bar in Neutral Bay, Sydney. Having first established the wine bar in 2004, the seasoned hospitality expert is one of the original pioneers of the small bar concept. Daniel is equally passionate about Pinot Noir and the hospitality industry.