WORDS BY BEN DAVIDSON
I first met Sven when he was managing and bartending at the Peppermint Lounge in Sydney’s Potts Point. In the ensuing 15 years since then, he has become one of the most awarded and accomplished bar operators in Australia. He’s a man of impeccable style and grace and has a keen respect for pomp and circumstance. But behind the scenes, he’s a freethinking warrior, a disciplined businessman and a dedicated father and husband.
I sat down with him recently to ask him the secrets to his success.
BEN DAVIDSON: Tell us about your childhood and how that laid the foundation of who you are today?
SVEN ALMENNING: (Laughs) It’s hard to draw lines between my childhood and who I
am today, seeing as I grew up in a family of teetotallers and my adult and professional life has revolved around booze. My grandfather was the president of the local temperance society, and I don’t think a single glass of wine was consumed in our house when I was a kid.
That said, I grew up with my Mum and sister, and had to learn how to be self-sufficient quite early on seeing as there was very little money to go around. I worked all kinds of jobs from an early age, and more or less paid for everything I wanted or needed from the age of 13.
If anything, I think coming from a relatively poor family by Norwegian standards meant that I learned about financial responsibility early on, something which might have influenced my entrepreneurial streak later in life.
BD: What was life like, growing up in Norway?
SA: Norway is a pretty awesome place to grow up. Everything is clean and safe, and you’re never really left wanting for much.
BD: You were in the Norwegian Navy. How did that experience shape you as a young man?
SA: I think the whole process of qualifying for the Norwegian Naval Academy and the experience of working as a naval officer had a huge impact on me and played, perhaps, a bigger role than anything else I’ve done in shaping who I am today.
The navy taught me a lot about my strengths, as well as helped me identify my weaknesses. It also provided me with the funds that allowed me to travel the world as a backpacker for a year, which is how I first came to Australia.
BD: What brought you to Australia and what was it that made you decide to call Sydney home?
SA: I first arrived here as a backpacker in 1997, and absolutely fell in love with the place and the people. I travelled around on the Oz Experience and stayed in a tent for most of the trip, but would also stay in hostels. Some places I’d be able to offer bartending services in exchange for free accommodation and food.
I then returned to Australia in 1999 to study journalism. I made some amazing friends during my time at university here, including my now wife, Amber. Although I left in 2001 to open my own bar in Spain (something which did not eventuate), I returned again in 2002 and have stayed here since.
BD: What was your first bar job that made you think, “I can do this”?
SA: I did a bartending course in Hawthorne, LA (remember the diner from the opening scene in Pulp Fiction? That was Hawthorne Diner), but my first job was at a joint called Margaritas in Auckland, NZ. I mostly bar-backed there, but soon got a gig at a place called Ole, on Ponsonby Road. I was hired as a waiter, but quickly graduated to the bar. From there on, I was hooked.
BD: What lead to the transition from bar manager to working for brands?
SA: This is definitely a longer story than this format permits, I think. In short, I realised that the companies who were advising liquor brands on their on-premise promotions and activations had little to no understanding of how bars and restaurants actually worked, nor did they understand the products they were promoting. I’ll venture to say that this mostly remains true to this day.
I was then able to position myself, and my business, Behind Bars, as a specialist agency that only worked on brand building for drinks brands. Initially, a lot of this took form in terms of events and training, but we also did a lot of copywriting and strategy work, and eventually developed several campaigns that ended up going global.
BD:Your company, Behind Bars, was a leading consultancy business in Australia, was it difficult to have to wrap that up?
SA: To be honest, it was fantastic to close that company down finally. Some of the circumstances around it were less than fun, but overall, both Amber and I felt it was time for us to exit that company and try something new.
We’d planned to hand the business over to our staff for them to own and continue to run it, and I think the fact that we were unable to do this is the greatest regret I have with regards to how Behind Bars eventually closed.
BD: Was it a long-time goal to have your own bar? When were the seeds of Speakeasy Group sewn?
SA: I think most bartenders harbour a dream of one day owning their own bar. I’m no different. I’d had the idea/concept for Eau de Vie for a long time before it finally happened.
We were looking for a space to host Diageo’s WORLD CLASS competition and came upon a venue close to our office that had closed down sometime earlier. After some fierce negotiations with the landlord, and after having walked away from the deal at least once, we were able to secure the space and get to work opening our first bar.
There was never a plan to expand to more than one venue, however when Greg Sanderson decided to move on from Behind Bars after four or five years with us, we decided that we’d like to open a bar together. Hence Eau de Vie Melbourne, and thus the Speakeasy Group became a thing.
BD: Your latest venture, Mjølner, has become one of the hottest places in town. What convinced you that Norwegian Viking chic was going to be the next big thing?
SA: (Laughs) I had NO IDEA this place was going to be as crazy busy as it has been. To be honest, when we open a venue we don’t try to guess what’s going to be the next big thing. We just want to open fun and cool venues that focus on delivering great drinking and dining experiences for our guests.
Obviously being a Norwegian myself, and with my twin sons being named Odin and Loki after the famed Norse Gods, I have a fairly strong connection with Norse and Viking history.
The idea seemed out there, but when Greg, Russ and Amber all thought it sounded dope, I was like, “Yeah! Let’s do this!” It was, and remains, a huge gamble, but so far so good.
We’ve even decided to double down on this crazy idea, and are opening Mjølner in Melbourne in early 2018.
BD: What’s your current take on the bar and spirits industries globally? Now that there are so many people doing amazing things, where do we go from here?
SA: Big question! I think the so-called ‘craft spirits and distilling’ industry is going to eventually have to own up to the fact that most producers are creating a rather sub-standard product, yet charging a massive premium. This is something I think consumers and bartenders will eventually catch on to.
As for bars, I hope we’ll continue to see more and more bartenders opening their own venues.
BD: What’re some of the key elements in your life that have contributed to your success?
SA: Without Amber by my side, I’m not sure I would have been able to do anything. She’s my rock and has been next to me for every major decision, and every win and struggle. Being able to work with my wife has been amazing, as she understands why I am working late, why I have to travel and why I take the risks I do.
There is also no doubt that we have been extremely lucky in attracting great people to
our business. Without all the amazing people who contributed with their knowledge, skills and passion to both Behind Bars and the Speakeasy Group, we would not have enjoyed the measures of success we have to date. Chief amongst all these legends, of course, stands Greg Sanderson who now is my business partner in the business and runs the Speakeasy Group.
I am also sure that a healthy measure of good luck and fortunate timing has played a more than significant role.
BD: What are you, currently, most proud of?
SA: I think the fact that we have managed to find ways for our managers to move into co- ownership of our venues perhaps is the one thing I am the proudest/most excited about.
BD: What’s your routine to maintain a good ‘work / life’ balance?
SA: This is rather easy. I try to be ruthlessly efficient at work. I feel a lot of people treat their work-hours a bit too leisurely and, thus, continuously run out of time.
I manage my diary with military precision and only take meetings two days a week. Appointments are kept to 30 minutes maximum, and I schedule in time for answering emails etc.
Finally, I put a lot of trust in my fellow team members. It is my genuine belief that the majority of the people who work in the Speakeasy Group are great at their jobs and I, therefore, trust them to do the right thing. This means I don’t have to micro-manage or waste time supervising people who are already doing a smashing job without me interfering.
A great team, and the ability to trust them, really is key to achieving balance as a business owner.
BD: What is the one thing about the world that you wish you could change?
SA: I want to change a great many things, but think that a LOT would be achieved if we could stop religion and the big business agenda from influencing politics and politicians. The world would be a very different place if politicians truly governed according to the best interests of the people at large, rather than pandering to religious and business interests.