Five Minutes With: Sven Almenning

Sven Almenning is the man to speak to if you’re interested in Australian bar culture.

Sven Almenning is the man to speak to if you’re interested in Australian bar culture.

After more than two decades in the hospitality industry, and with multiple businesses to his name, Almenning owns the Speakeasy Group: five venues spanning Sydney and Melbourne – including past ventures such as the highly successful Behind Bars, a drinks industry consultancy he ran until 2014.

We spoke to Almenning about how his company remains at the top of its game; the still-contentious issue of lockout laws in Sydney; and where he thinks hospitality and drinking venues are headed over the next few years.

 

Great people the heart of great venues

Currently, the Speakeasy Group operates Eau De Vie in Sydney and Melbourne, Boilermaker House and Mjølner in Melbourne and Mjølner Sydney. 

While his business acumen is certainly well-honed, Almenning believes it’s the people working alongside him that make the biggest contribution to success in business.

In fact, he’s committed enough to the principle of staff having ownership of their roles that he quite literally offers it to some of them.

He says, “We have a lot of processes in place that help us manage the business, but primarily we rely on having great venue managers that treat each individual venue as their own.

“In some cases [this] means that the managers have an actual stake in the business as well.”

 

“We also have a group Bars Manager who is in charge of quality control, training and drinks development, a Speakeasy Group head of whisky, who manages our inventory of whisky across all bars as well as our consumer whisky tasting and internal whisky trainings, and a marketing and events manager.”

 

The art of teaching critical to success

In his late teens, Almenning joined the Navy in his native Norway. He departed in 2002, and although he’s grateful for the experience, he knew he wasn’t destined for lifetime service.

Almenning says, “The military taught me a great many things, perhaps most importantly it made me very aware of my own weak points as a person and as a leader.  

“It also taught me a thing or two about good leadership, and about the art of teaching, and this has been a huge help in my professional career. Being able to transfer what you know to others is hugely important as a business owner.”

Education in hospitality is so important to Almenning that his latest venture centres around just that. Ananas, set to launch soon, is an online training platform born from past experience as an educator during his Behind Bars days. It offers venues an easy platform to manage staff on-boarding and internal training.

Almenning says there are but few recognised and credible certifications available to the industry as a whole—something he would like to change.

“It takes a lot of knowledge and skill to be a true industry professional,” he says.

“I am hoping that the platform I am building will help provide much needed education to those who want to work in the industry and perhaps make a career out of it.

 

‘My views on the lockout laws have not changed’

It’s difficult to discuss the business of alcohol in inner Sydney without touching on the controversial lockout laws which were introduced in 2014.

The laws, brought in to reduce alcohol-related violence in the CBD and Kings Cross, are something about which Almenning, given his livelihood, has very strong views.

Almenning believes the laws’ introduction was rushed, the logic flawed, and the only impact they’ve had is to drive nightlife out of those once-thriving areas.

He says despite more recent relaxation of the laws, which now allow small bars to serve straight spirits after midnight, his opinion on the issue hasn’t changed and the industry’s businesses, as well as patrons, continue to suffer.

He says, “My venues are luckily still busy, but not nearly as busy as they once were. We’ve witnessed Sydney’s nightlife take a massive dive.”

 

What’s next? Embrace the ‘imaginary world’

Australia’s drinking venues have seen big changes over the past decade or two. Almenning has opinions on what we’ll see next, and they include the idea of total escapism.

“When I first arrived in Sydney nearly 20 years ago…venues did not use their drink offering as a way of standing apart from the rest, instead it was all about the fit out, or the music. Today, the big macro trend is that bars are seeking out niches in terms of their offerings – we have gin bars, rum bars, whisky bars and of course specialist cocktail bars.”

He believes further development of the niche trend will continue, with more venues specialising in single types of spirits, and basing offerings on interesting themes.

Almenning says, “When I proposed we open a Viking-inspired venue, with the fictional superhero and Norse God of Thunder, Thor, as the ‘proprietor’, I definitely received some strange looks. However, no venue we have launched has ever received such warm reception from day one [as Mjølner].”

He adds, “I think we’ll see many more venues of this type.

“Not necessarily themed, but venues that focus on escapism and creating a unique atmosphere for their guests where food, drinks and fit-out all work together to transport guests to an ‘imaginary world’.”

 

The big takeaway for empire-builders

Almenning’s most sage advice to business owners is to “recognise greatness in others.” “I want to surround myself with people who are better at what we do than I am, and I believe when you look at the people in our business you’ll find a great number of people who are better at this than I am.

“I am just lucky to have them on my team.”

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