Andres Walters is the bar manager of Sydney rum and cocktail bar The Lobo Plantation, and Kittyhawk, a new venture from the same team, inspired by the liberation of Paris at the end of the Second World War. He also runs the online hospitality equipment company barGEEK. We caught up with Andres to get some insight on running multiple venues, building a good team and selecting the right drinks for customers.
Tell me a bit about your background and how you came to be involved in the opening of Kittyhawk.
I started off with an apprenticeship as a chef in a kitchen but I didn’t really like that. When I turned 18 I was lucky enough to get a job with a family friend who owned a little local pub. They took me under their wing and I ended up in a sort of supervisor and manager role there, which gave me a great step into the industry.
Then I did a real estate traineeship for a year but didn’t really love that too much, so I went back into the world of hospitality. That was probably about 12 years ago now. Since then I’ve worked in every type of place – fine dining restaurants, clubs, pubs, cocktail bars. I also did a bit of consultancy for a few years before I went overseas.
When I came back to Australia I wanted to dabble in the sales and rep side of the industry. It was something I always wanted to understand, but after six months I realized I wasn’t really into it. So after that I got together with the guys opening The Lobo Plantation. It’s been open just over three years, and now we’ve launched Kittyhawk as well. In the midst of all that I also started an online cocktail equipment store called barGEEK, selling high end variety bar equipment like hand-blown mixing glasses and good quality shakers.
It’s still early days with Kittyhawk. How are things going so far?
It’s brilliant. We always set ourselves targets and goals to achieve and I suppose the first one was the one that pays the bills, the financial goal. That was definitely met within the first week, which was a great thing for us. It obviously makes the owners very happy and takes a bit of the stress off our shoulders as well.
"For us it’s about attitude... You could be the most knowledgeable person in the world but still have a bad attitude."
When you open a new venue you will always discover a few things you’ve forgotten, but we’re lucky to have really good staff so we’ve managed. We’ve been able to attract the high calibre of people we need to pull off a venture like Kittyhawk. It’s a rather large venue, so we’re paying a lot of attention to detail, doing the things you would expect to find in a small bar – but we’re doing it in a venue with a capacity of 175. You need very skilled people to be able to pull off every little facet of the business.
As I’ve said, you can never open a venue and do it 100%. There are always a few things you need to work on, but they’re just minor things so we’re happy.
You say you’ve picked quite a good team. What would you say that you look for when you select bar staff?
For us it’s about attitude. It doesn’t matter how much you know per se. You could be the most knowledgeable person in the world but still have a bad attitude. If you’re rude to a customer, that’s probably the worst thing that you could do because they’re essentially not going to come back.
A lot of the training is handled in-house. We’ve got a few people on board who have worked as trainers for several companies. When we look for people, we look for the attitude because we can help train you to get you where you want to be. Obviously experience is really helpful. We do look for people who have had supervisor or management roles before, but who are willing to step back and relearn in order to concentrate on the cocktail side of the industry.
You are managing two venues at the moment – The Lobo Plantation and Kittyhawk. How have you handled the change from managing one venue to managing multiple venues?
I run both bars, so my role is essentially as second in command to the owner and general manager. I think when it comes to managing multiple venues it’s just about acknowledging that you’re going to be taking on a lot more work, choosing the right people to have underneath you and being able to clearly delegate down. You have to come up with a system that is foolproof, quite transparent and simple to run. When you’ve set everything up accordingly it’s very easy to delegate to other people and to show them how to use that system, whether that is ordering, staffing or writing rosters. Then you can move on to setting up the next venue.
And how much time roughly do you spend in each venue?
At this moment in time, it’s one day a week at Lobo, and the rest of my working week at Kittyhawk. Because Lobo’s already established, we’ve got a team of managers and bartenders over there that are quite skilled, know what they’re doing and have been there for a little while.
"We’ve tried to provide a creative environment for our staff. I think that’s why we’ve been able to attract the really good staff members that we have."
Kittyhawk is a larger venue and we’re focusing a lot on it so that we can get our style of service right. Our attention to detail when it comes to cocktails is something that we pride ourselves on, ensuring that everything is consistently made the same way. I’ve spent a lot of time at Kittyhawk since it opened. But as Kittyhawk gets into the motions and gets a bit of rhythm to it, I’ll spend a bit more time back at Lobo.
I was reading that you’ve got around about 900 spirits at Kittyhawk?
We’ve got room for about 900 spirits. Unfortunately when you’re building something at that capacity, it does come down to the budget. So at the moment we’re only sitting at about 650. We still have two more rows to fill on a 12 and a half meter bar. Obviously we can’t buy everything in the world if we don’t have the money to pay for it. But with the space that’s available behind the bar, and depending on the size of the bottles and the available budget, we should get up to 850 or 900 spirits.
If someone asks for a spirit recommendation at the bar, what’s the kind of process that plays out?
Well at Lobo we have about 260 rums on the back bar. So we encourage everyone to drink rum. When we train the staff, we teach them about introducing people to rum and helping them figure out what they want to drink. Some people like sweeter things, some people like something a bit more peppery.
At Kittyhawk rye whiskey is our hero spirit, so we try to concentrate as much as we can on rye. Obviously if someone hates rye, we’re not going to force it upon them, but when people do ask for a recommendation and they’re open to suggestions, that’s probably on top of our list. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the customer and what they want to drink.
With barGEEK, is there something that is a big seller or that you’re proud to sell?
That’s a really hard question to answer because with barGEEK I think it’s a personal thing, depending on what the bartender likes to use, or a look that the venue is going for.
At Kittyhawk the fitout is luxurious 1940s French so we’ve used a lot of brass and gold finishes, and that led to buying gold cocktail equipment. A trend we see is that something might be really, really popular for about six months and then for some reason it just stops selling. It may stop selling for three months and then start selling again for another four or five. It’s quite an odd thing.
I’ve just got one last question. What would you say matters to you most in your work?
In our style of bars, it’s the customers that you get to meet and the things that you get to do. That’s what excites me and gets me going and doing the ridiculous hours that we do.
For instance, we’ve just decided to custom design a bit of glassware for Kittyhawk. We’re lucky that we can allocate a lot of time to experimenting and taking on little projects that you probably wouldn’t get to do in other bars. We’ve got a prep kitchen downstairs where we can play around. It’s creative people that get into the cocktail side of bartending, and if they’re not creating, not thinking of what’s next, they can get bored and move on. We’ve tried to provide a creative environment for our staff.
I think that’s why we’ve been able to attract the really good staff members that we have. There’s always something happening, there’s the opportunity to be creative, and you’re not stagnant in your job.