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Applejack Hospitality co-owners Hamish Watts and Ben Carroll.

The duo bringing small bar culture to the beaches

It’s odd to think that just a few years ago, Sydney wasn’t known for its small bar culture. Pubs and large-scale venues reigned supreme – but thankfully, things have changed.

Yes those well-patronised pubs are still there, but with a smorgasbord of small bars dotting the city, Sydneysiders are now spoilt for choice.

Early adopters of this trend were the duo behind Bondi Hardware, Ben Carroll and Hamish Watts. Since their original venue opened in 2011, the pair has added The Botanist in Kirribilli, and SoCal in Neutral Bay to their lineup.

“When I first got back to Australia after living in the UK, the small bars scene here was still in its infancy, but starting to gain momentum. So we saw an opportunity really in that market, with the casual end of dining as well, and it was all of these combined factors that made us want to move into it,” Hamish tells Dynamic Business.

In a city dominated by major corporate hospitality groups, it’s no small feat to open a number of bars – and be successful at it. One key element of their success is their combined many years of experience working together in well-oiled venues.

“Ben and I met when we were working together at a large hotel group, we were both working in the service end of things – so the staff training, front of house procedures, the bar service and the range that the venues had – we were really used to working closely together,” Watts says.

It was also this experience of working for others that motivated the friends to try their own hand at running an independent business. “Working for a larger group, we realised we felt a bit stifled and limited creatively by what we could actually do or things we could change.

“So through that, and with all the things we’d learned along the way we wanted to put it into effect, and apply it to something of our own, which we felt we couldn’t do in our previous roles,” Hamish says.

Being in business with a mate has been great fun, but just the same as with any business partnership, Hamish adds that it’s been essential to firmly divide their roles.

“Back when we had just the two venues, I was predominantly looking after Bondi Hardware because I was there a lot when we first opened up and also living over that way, and Ben was more instrumental in the launch of The Botanist. We found we weren’t so much ‘competing’ but there were elements of us crossing over, and treading on each other’s toes,” Hamish says.

“Since we’ve grown, we’re really working to each other’s strengths. Ben more looks after the administrative side of running the venues, and I look after managing the kitchen teams, food direction, the cocktail lists, and more that side of the business. We can always offer our input and make suggestions and make sure that we work together, but it’s also important to make sure we have room to breathe within our own responsibilities, just the same as in any business environment.”

In a well-watered market such as Sydney, where there’s always a hot new place to go, the duo play close attention to food and drinks trends. They also believe that offering consistently good service is in itself a market differentiator.

“We try not to be too ‘what’s hot’, and that sounds a bit strange, of course when you launch you want to be the hot new thing with all of the PR and media coverage, but over the time the most important thing is that you consistently offer a quality service that’s not too fussy or over-thought,” Hamish says.

The location choice of their establishments has also been very carefully calculated. Personally knowing each area well, Hamish says they’ve looked to bring a breezy, casual and relaxed environment to each location.

“We chose Hall Street in Bondi specifically because it’s a nice sunny strip, it’s home to some great cafes, and it’s not down on the main tourist drag. Beyond that, we also chose Bondi because we felt it would be a good launching platform for a brand – the area has seen some very successful launches, and there’s a bit of a feeling that because Bondi is such a well known location, if you can run a successful business there in a tough market you’re seen as ‘earning your stripes’”.

Alongside this, and operating outside of the CBD, Hamish says council-related bureaucracy has counted as a challenge. “Council related stuff is always a big one, and you’ve got to really learn what you can and can’t do when you first get into business. Like anything I suppose there are of course constraints and restrictions, and you’ve just got to make sure you’re across that.”

Another challenge has been maintaining consistency and high staff morale across multiple venues. Having gone from one venue where it was easier to motivate staff, the pair says it’s essential to instill passion in their managers, and for this to flow down through all layers of staff.

“We make sure we’ve got good people, and we ensure we give them our full support and allow ourselves to be away from the business. There’s nothing worse than hiring good managers to help you run the business, but then being the owners who are stifling them and not giving them the space to be able to run it as they’d like to as well,” Hamish says.

With the goal of reaching five venues in five years, Hamish says things aren’t likely to slow down for the pair anytime soon. “Perhaps one day, 30 years from now I’ll be living up somewhere north of here and just doing like a good food, owner-operator venue. But for now I love it and enjoy it so much. Hospitality is where I’ll always be, and we certainly intend on being around for a very long time.”