This is the outside of the Belgian Beer Cafe in Kingston.
It has new owners and the new owners have sent Jazz’s brother in law, Leon Johnston, down to manage it. This is Leon taking an order out to customers.
We went along to talk to him about the challenges of running this bar here in Canberra. The recording of the interview for those who want the whole thing is online
At 6.30pm on the second of January there was a surpising crowd of 20+ people in the bar which we thought was pretty good going for the time of year, although when we came to think about it the Belgian Beer Cafe (hereafter to be known as the BBC) isn’t the sort of place that figures in the skinflint, north-side centric, student crowd’s calculations.
During the course of the interview staffing kept coming up as a key issue. Leon made the interesting point that the bar industry is particularly unprofessional with career paths few and far between and the staff mostly transient. For the BBC, with an upmarket clientelle, a complex premium product made up of 35 varieties of Belgian beer, and a little known cuisine, staff have to receive a lot of training (which is expensive) before they’re up to speed.
For example; the glasses of the gratis beer we received had to be run through the special glass rinsers before use.
And the beer menu is both complex and detailed.
Unlike a lot of employers in the industry Leon is willing and able to pay extra to keep quality staff, but also pointed out that payroll is a major cost for a bar and controlling it is a key part of the job.
One of the written goals of new management is to make the BBC Canberra’s go-to bar (iconic even) for young professionals looking for a good night out with a good meal.
While the company which imports Belgian beers into Australia is responsible for organising Belgian bars throughout Australia, and supervises the initial fit-out, it isn’t actually a franchise. Each bar is individually owned.
Leon enthused about his barrel room which he says is one of the best he’s worked in during his eight+ years in the bar industry.
It looks a lot classier at the other end of the lines.
By the time we spoke to him Leon had just survived taking over a bar under new ownership immediately before Christmas and the New Year. I was amazed to hear they’d managed to get through that period without needing security on the door. Having a premium product at premium prices does wonders for the clientele. (While there is no formal dress code Leon would like you to feel free to dress nicely.)
Where the clientele reduces security and service of alcohol issues it does, however, make customer service standards a key concern. For the prices being charged a good time has to be delivered hassle free. To this end Leon plans to have weekly mystery visitor surveys coming through, a frequency which would give most workplaces conniptions. He listed complacency about customer service as the key risk to the business. In terms of maintaining staff standards he prefers to put it in terms of “redirecting” rather than “cracking the whip”.
Having said all that, he’s loving the Kingston crowd with their mix of education and high disposable income (without being big money and the issues that comes with it).
When asked about advice for those thinking of starting their own bar he recommended they reconsider. He also suggested that it was best to make the inevitable mistakes with someone else’s money by working in the industry before trying to open a pub of their own.
At the moment Leon’s working an 80+ hour week as he’s unwilling to let go of his baby before he’s got everything bedded down. However, like all good managers, he sees a key part of his long term role being making himself replaceable. In the future he hopes to be able to cut it down to a 50 hour week.
For all the long hours and occasional ugly moments he does, however, wax lyrical about the joy of seeing a big room full of happy people that he’s responsible for. Plus he does have a chef handy to make him lunch.
* RiotACT receives no inducements or considerations to produce business profiles (although in this case we did get two free glasses of beer and Jazz is the brother in law of Leon). If there’s a local business you’d like to know more about email firstname.lastname@example.org with their details and why you think they’re interesting.
The feed for podcatching the audio of this and future Business Profiles (~30mins) is http://the-riotact.com/wp-rss2.php?cat=46