Many of Sydney’s best bartenders and bar owners have either come from or had some sort of saucy fling with industry monopoly, Merivale. Someone like Mike Enright was responsible for the seamless delivery of some of Merivale’s best bars and now owner of one of Sydney’s busiest bars, Barber Shop on York St. Dan Cramsie of Baxter’s, Andy Calderon of O Bar, Jared Merlino of Lobo Plantation, George McLean of JB & Sons, all did their time at Australia’s largest hospitality group, among many others.
Maybe it’s Justin Hemmes. Maybe it’s the Ivy. Maybe it’s the fact this hospitality vending machine is pushing out more bars faster than your Catholic relatives do children. Whatever it is, Merivale’s relentless drumbeat of acquisition and tally of real estate is a sore point for some. It could be argued that they don’t value the same ideals and therefore don’t share the same greater vision as owners and operators of small bars around Sydney.
But a corporation does not necessarily reflect the people whom keep its wheels turning. Personally, the keys to my happiness are held by whoever’s behind the bar, or the bottle shop, or the beer bong, regardless of who writes their pay cheque. But still, I wanted to know why this stigma exists and whether there’s much truth behind it.
Recently, Toby Marshall – Assistant Venue Manager & Head Bartender at The Paddington – let me bother him about his thoughts on his employer and the overall execution of one of Merivale’s latest venues. What he told me about the way himself and Sam Egerton removed marketing and contracts from the design of the cocktail menu, might just flip your views on those tied to this industry heavyweight for good.
Meet Toby Marshall
I’ve known Toby for about five years and he has always been a welcome face to spot across the bar. Growing up, he worked in various venues around Manly while I on the other hand, drank at them. I’ve always seen him as incredibly considered, hard working and those that work around him have a palpable admiration for him. He has an insatiable appetite for culture and experiencing life.
A bar back, barista, bartender, bar and restaurant manager, effectively Toby has walked in all the shoes, probably reason for his vastly realistic perception of the hospo realm. A chat with Tobes will always resonate deeply with you, whether it be across the bar, over a beer or down at the beach; he has a fundamental understanding of people and a philosophical way of marrying lifestyle with his values, reason and language.
“My philosophy around hospitality is to be genuine: if you’re a clown be a clown, if you’re chill, be chill. But above all when you’re talking to people, be genuine. I don’t care how good you can stir a cocktail – people are here for a drink, man.”
From Manly to Merivale
Before The Paddington, Toby did a long stint at underground bar, Palmer & Co, but he admits that he didn’t come to work for Palmer & Co or for Merivale – he merely came to just work in the city.
“Hospitality’s a funny industry. You fall into it, become passionate about it and then all of a sudden you want to make a career out of it. By the time I came to Merivale I was ready to work, to really work, I’d already identified my holes and what I wanted to improve on. I didn’t come to manage, I just wanted to bartend.”
He admits he’s had a charmed entry into the company. “Those that work at Merivale have an element of freedom because of the reputation, because at the end of the day we do come through with the goods.
“I do see the stigma that exists around Merivale. Simply put, it’s a corporate company and if you’re not ready for that challenge or that pace or maybe you’re not even familiar with that concept of the corporate industry then there could be some friction.
“When it comes to Justin, well he’s a very interesting character, he’s OCD to the max and lives in a different world, but he’s really good at recognising talent across the board.”
“Don’t get me wrong, you work hard but you work hard for a reason. You wake up every morning your inbox is full but it’s how you position yourself on that and it’s about how you balance your life and the company’s not going to do it for you, but neither would any other major company.
“A lot of people that have that negativity around Merivale is because there isn’t that initial understanding or expectation of what is going to be involved.”
Product of our drinking environment
It is no secret that we are products of our environment to a vast degree. We are constantly exposed to social and economic influences that shape our worldview. Why is it that the most expensive bottle of Champagne is deemed the best and we so willingly accept this? Why is the bottle on the back shelf whose name I can’t pronounce better than something on the first shelf?
Toby highlights to me that we are all marketed to and this is not mutually exclusive to just consumers but also bartenders.
“When someone comes up and asks for a Jack Daniels, many will often go ew, but really think about it, what’s wrong with Jack Daniels? You as punters are influenced by marketing, but so are bartenders – we are heavily influenced to say what we do and don’t like.”
“As bartenders we spend our lives studying drinks and brands and history – but does the average punter really give a shit? Of course not, they just want that experience we always talk about”
Removing the marketing effect
When I asked Toby about their cocktail menu at The Paddington he explained that himself and Sam went into it not wanting to hide behind anything. They wanted to have a classic list that spoke for itself and was “the actual best it could be”. But what does that mean?
“When you walk up to a bar and you order a Negroni, is it actually the best Negroni that bar can produce?
“You’ll either get Plymouth, Beefeater or Tanqueray and it’ll either be Martini Rosso, Antica Formula, maybe Dolin or Cinzano – but are these the best and when you ask for a recommendation at the bar – is that actually going to be the best?
“We wanted to take the marketing effect out of it. So we blind tasted 40-50 different versions of our classic cocktails, invited staff, chefs, and various guests to taste them and rate them. We trialed a whole bunch of different spirits with different combinations to get the best tasting cocktail.
“The measurements and agreements we now use were actually the number one pick after 40-50 blind tastings. And believe it or not, some of the cheapest stuff came through.
“We often think the best tasting thing is the one that we are told is cool. If only we could listen to ourselves more than those around us”.
After listening, watching and tasting myself, I can’t help but wonder if The Paddington’s cocktail list isn’t a greater metaphor for the industry’s perceptions of Merivale itself and whether certain shared views would be different if the name and marketing was removed.
At the end of the day, for Toby his role at Merivale is about being hospitable, not just being a bartender, and the cocktail list at The Paddington truly speaks to that philosophy. His intentions are to teach, train, mentor, and construct creative environments for others within the company to begin to think and feel the same way.
And, if the industry trusts its future on inclusivity, then surely there’s nothing wrong with that.