Q&A: Dynamic duo the apples of the Sydneys hospitality scene’s eye

This week we chat to Ben Carroll and Hamish Watts, who founded boutique Sydney-based hospitality group Applejack in 2011 and who now currently operate nine venues across the city, including a three-venue “precinct” opposite Wynyard station in the CBD which houses recently opened restaurant and bar, Bopp & Tone and hole-in-the-wall café June’s Shoppe, with breakfast and lunch venue Hester’s due to open later this year.

ISB: Why did you decide to make the shift to becoming business owners in the hospitality industry?

BC: Hamish and I had been working in the hospitality industry for quite some years before becoming business owners. Working for other people and companies was instrumental to our decision to take the leap. We had seen how other operators worked, decided what we liked and what we didn’t like, and we kept coming back to the same conversation of how aligned we were with how we would run our own business. We saw the synergy between our values as a sign and an opportunity to create something that represented us, put our personal stamp on an industry we are so passionate about, and hone in on what we love about hospitality.

ISB: What inspired you to open nine different restaurant-bars rather than open just one?

BC: Besides the ongoing thrill and excitement of bringing people together (staff and customers), it is also the addiction of creating new concepts and challenging the fast progressing industry. Hamish and I love being surrounded by talented and driven people, and we’re lucky to have many of these people working for us. The more restaurants we open, the more incredible people we get to work with. It’s very rewarding (and fun!) having a big crew striving for your same goals.

ISB: Why is it important to you that each venue has its own “character”, as opposed to just having them operate under one brand?

BC: The hospitality industry is evolving quickly. Having your own defined personality and uniqueness has never been more important. I put the restaurant explosion down to international travel becoming so easy for our customers (being exposed to global hospitality trends), reality cooking shows and other brilliant Sydney hospitality operators continuing to push the boundaries. It is scary and exciting at the same time.

Creating personality and identity through our brands is a key part of Applejack, it helps us standout in a busy industry

and gives our customers something to relate to. It also allows us to bring our own creativity, personal experiences and sentiment into our work. For example opening a restaurant dedicated to our grandfathers was always on our bucket list, and now it’s a reality with Bopp & Tone. It’s an extraordinary feeling.

ISB: What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting the venture off the ground, and how did you overcome it?

BC & HW: We clearly recall our two major hurdles: firstly cash – no banks would loan money to two unknown guys who had big dreams of opening their first business, so to overcome this we begged, borrowed and scratched together enough money to fit out our first venue. Fortunately, our cashflow was positive from day one, otherwise I’m unsure if we would be here today!

And then legalities relating to the use of the premises and liquor licence – initially we wanted to open a bar, but the council had different plans forcing us to focus on food as the primary driver, even including a condition on the licence that ensured all customers were seated at all times with a meal. We had to adapt to succeed…and just like that we became restaurateurs!

ISB: Where do you see Applejack Hospitality developing in the next couple of years?

BC & HW: Our love for Sydney will see the next five years focused on growing the business in this amazing city – tweaking and fine tuning our existing venues The Botanist Kirribilli, SoCal Neutral Bay, The Butler Potts Point, Endeavour Tap Rooms, Bopp & Tone, June’s and Table Sixty; and planning for further growth. We started with the goal of five restaurants in five years, we have reached this goal and plan to grow at a similar rate over the next five years. A key driver for us is our people, and with this comes the goal of becoming one of Australia’s best Hospitality employees, which will see a lot of resources put into this space to ensure our people are growing with us.

ISB: And, finally, what is the biggest lesson you’d share with others aspiring to set up their own businesses?

BC & HW: People ask us if Applejack’s success has come around due to luck or hard work, our response would be hard work creates luck.

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