Operator Profile: Grant Collins
Renowned bar manager, published author, and expert bar consultant Grant Collins has an international reputation for creating award winning bars all over the world. We sat down to chat about his experiences and his new gin palace venture, The Powder Keg.
The founder and Managing Director of international bar consultancy company barsolutions, Grant Collins, certainly knows a few things about running a successful venue. The Brit began his career in the US in the early 90s, working at TGI Fridays, before returning to his hometown of London to manage Zander Bar, which scored London Cocktail Bar of the Year in 2000 before Collins himself was awarded the prestigious UK Bar Manager of the Year the following year.
A brief holiday in Australia had Collins fall head over heels in love with the Aussie lifestyle, so uprooted his life and relocated to what was, at the time, a slightly barren bar scene.
“When I first arrived the bar scene was in a huge post-Olympic lull without any real direction, and extremely behind the leading cocktail hubs of the time – London and New York City,” he says. “The liquor ranges stocked in bars at the time were so far behind the times that I found it quite hard to create many drinks that I had been making in London. The premium spirit market that was thriving in London was pretty well non-existent in Australia, so it was a big culture shock to say the least.”
Determined to carry on in the same manner as he had in London, Collins took over the Water Bar at the W Hotel in Woolloomooloo in 2001. His fresh approach, influenced by the international bar scene led to the Water Bar scoring a spot on the prestigious ‘One of the Top 10 Bars in the World’ list published by Conde Nast Traveler magazine in 2005.
“At the Water Bar, we initiated many protocols that are now standard practice across the industry in Australia. Although, at the time, many thought we were off our heads,” he says. “We removed Bundy from the speed rail, made our own syrups, squeezed our own juices and garnished drinks with fresh ingredients and good ice.”
Collins’ drive to succeed landed him an incredible 18 awards on behalf of the Water Bar in a little under five years as drinkers flocked to the venue for the Grant Collins premium experience. So what exactly does that experience look like? According to Collins, the trick is in the detail – nothing is left to chance.
“We nail the basics with great staff, great service and a great product, for the ultimate experience,” he says.
It may sound simple, but it is the little things that can take the most time and energy to get right – and they are often the aspects that get neglected. Just one example of Collins’ attention to detail can be found at his latest venture, The Powder Keg. Responding to what he flags as a “big push from the public to begin specifying ice styles”, there are three options available behind the bar to cater to punters’ burgeoning interest in the area – ice-chipped, block and regular ice.
“[The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given] was: attention to detail is key,” he says. “It really is the small things that make you stand out. I have always tried to focus on all the little things – much to the annoyance of my team.”
According to Collins, one of the biggest challenges currently facing the Australian bar scene is that details are getting lost in the quest for the next big thing.
“I have found that sometimes the basics are forgotten,” he says. “Some bars have let drink and service standards drop a little in the quest to be quirky and different.”
Not that he has anything against quirky and different – in fact he maintains that diversity is a major strength of the Australian industry – so long as the concept has meaning, depth and consistency to back it up.
“Many bars in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane are unique and original,” he says. “While this has only really happened in the last three to four years, there are a lot of bars that are really trying hard to be different.”
In Collins’ opinion the dire state of the industry in Australia has changed “beyond recognition” since he first landed on the scene, and he believes that the country more than measures up against the more mature scenes in the northern hemisphere.
“Fast-forward 10 years and you now have a bar scene across the country that is right up there with London, New York City and San Francisco,” he says. “Bars like Baxter Inn, Shady Pines and Bulletin Place have really broken the mould on how Sydney bars should – or could – be run and set up.”
As a world-leading consultant Collins is expected to be across all the trends coming through the industry and how they can be applied to both new and existing venues. For 2015, he says that the drinks trends to watch will be quite varied.
“Look out for flavour matching – like what chefs do – to create a matrix of tastes,” he says. “Older style aperitifs, bitters and digestives will continue to be popular, and sherry and cognac will both be making a comeback.”
When quizzed on which bars to keep an eye on in the coming 12 months, he names “fantastic” venues Earl’s Juke Joint, The Baxter Inn, Lobo Plantation and Bulletin Place – and, of course, The Powder Keg.
Travelling around the world in his role as a consultant through his firm barsolutions has seen Collins involved in some of the most renowned bar openings around the globe. Here in Australia he was at the helm of the ground-breaking Zeta Bar at its opening in 2005, with his expertise leading to the bar clocking up 18 awards in just four years after opening, including the ‘AHA Cocktail Bar of The Year’ in its first year of operation. His name is also all over bars in the US, China, Japan, India, Singapore, and Thailand – including the multi-award winning Ku-De-Ta in Bali. As such, it’s a little difficult for Collins to pin down just one as the highlight of his career.
“Mainly I’m happy that I’m still enjoying the industry after 16-plus years,” he says. “Travelling around the world, opening venues in Boston, New York and Seattle, as well as consulting for other bars have certainly been highlights too. Opening Zeta and The White Heart in Sydney was been pretty special. All these achievements were made even more special by the amazing characters I have met over the years.”
Writing his first book, Mix It Up, is also up there on the list. The stylish tome covers everything from experiment cocktail recipes and interesting food bites, to homemade tonic water and DIY flavoured syrups, cordials and foams. All with Collins’ signature flair and attention to detail, naturally.