I first met Seb last year, after one of my first gin-tasting events, just before he opened Bad Frankie in Fitzroy. This pioneering bar was the first to stock only Australian spirits, wines and beers, not to mention a bar menu entirely made up of jaffles!
This interview, with one of the nicest dudes in the business, is long over-due!
How long had you been in the industry before opening Bad Frankie?
About 14/15 years. I did work experience at a local sports club when I was 17 and went to England at 19 where started learning about mixed drinks.
I started getting into cocktails at Trinity (Canberra in 2001). At that time there was probably only 15 cocktail bartenders and we all knew each other. We were all learning together at a time when mixology was beginning to really take off.
Then I went to Edinburgh to work at Tigerlily. When I came back to Canberra I worked at Penthouse Bar and Parlour wine room before moving to Melbourne to work for Suntory. My time at Suntory was good fun and I got to know a lot of people in the bar industry.
So you left Suntory to open the bar?
Yes. if you work in hospitality the dream is always to open your own bar. I wanted a place that I could love and enjoy working in. It wasn’t so much a money-making plan but something I had a passion for.
Why an Australian bar?
As you can see I’ve done a fair bit of travelling. In 2011 we went to the States. I drank bourbon in Nashville before heading to Mexico to drink tequila in Tequila. What I love is about travelling is the local recommendations. While I was in Nashville all I wanted to do was get cowboy boots, go to a Honky Tonk and have the best time drinking local beer or local bourbon. People were recommending bourbons and when we asked why they liked that one, it would be because they had a relative working there. I loved the connections.
When I came back to Melbourne I was thinking “oh wouldn’t it be great to do a bourbon bar or a tequila bar” but I knew I wouldn’t be true to myself if I did that.
I have a broad Aussie accent and I’m proud to be Australian. I noticed the trend for Aussie spirits and then the idea for an Australian bar came to me.
Would you say that was a risky choice? There weren’t that many spirits around then?
We had seven gins and a few whiskies. Definitely not as much as there are now!
Did people think you were crazy?
It took me about 3 months to talk Ellie (Seb’s partner) around and when you tell people it’s an Australian bar they think of Walkabout (Australian themed bars in the UK). It took us a while to figure it out how it would look.
Sally Holborn, our designer, and I would come up with all these ideas and then we’d run them past Ellie who would often say “no too Australian or too ‘Ocker’”.
I wanted people to understand more about Melbourne history and culture. I wanted the decor to have a connection to my heritage.
Seb points out a few images on the wall:
There are a few family shots. That’s my mum’s side of the family in about 1963. That’s my pop on his bike in about 1912. I wanted to do that. If you are going to own a bar it might as well suit you. It’s like my lounge room!
What was the biggest challenge?
There were 3! No money, sticking to a budget and finding a space.
I found both convincing people it was a good concept, and then getting the idea in my head down on paper, very hard. I did 50-60 hours a week for a year trying to get the bar off the ground and from where we started to how we ended up is just unbelievable.
There were lots of hits and misses. It took 3-4 months alone to figure out our the name and identity. (You can find out more about why the bar is called Bad Frankie on their website)
How has the Australian spirits industry changed since you opened?
Obviously, the volume of Australian spirits available now is so much greater. The customer is also more aware and they are really keen to get involved and learn more about Australian products. In the beginning it was a little more difficult.
We spend a lot of time sitting down with the customers and talking to them. I think people can sometimes be nervous when they walk into a bar, especially if it’s somewhere new to them. They often call for a drink they usually have as it makes them feel safe.
We want people to feel comfortable, so we take some extra time. We ask people what they like and just get them smelling, tasting and trying the spirits. We just love what we do and we love talking about Australian products.
If a customer never tried Aussie gin before what would you suggest?
We usually take over a selection of 6 and get them to smell them as that’s what most people like about gin, the smell! We like to give people as many options as possible. When suggesting a drink, we ask them what people they usually order. Alcohol percentage plays a big part. For example, If they drink beer, we give them a G&T. If it’s wine we’ll give them a martini, but maybe diluted a little.
With our gin flights we offer tonic and water and I have nothing against people watering down their drink. It opens up the flavours more.
I don’t want people to just like Australian gin, I want them to have a favourite Australian gin.
How do you see the Australian distilling industry developing? Do you think there is room for more?
There is heaps of room for more products. If it’s people doing their own thing with passion and love, they don’t need to sell massive amount. It’s like any small business.
Are you tempted to go into distilling yourself?
No! We’ve talked about some Bad Frankie products, but the thing I like best thing is talking about other people’s stories and the stories behind Australian spirits are fantastic.
We’re happy. There’s a little bit more work to do here, but I’m happy in my lounge room. Of course I’d love to open two or 3 bars other bars, but the reality is it would take me away from doing what I enjoy, talking to people.
The lovely guys at BAR/D UP shot this great film of Bad Frankie. My thanks to them for allowing me to share it!
Bad Frankie 141 Greeves Street, Fitzroy Vic 3065