We chat to key management of one of Melbourne’s, and Australia’s, most professional hospitality outfits, to find out how they run multiple highly successful venues.
Cutler & Co., Marion Wine Bar, Cumulus Inc. Builders Arms Hotel, Meatsmith, Supernormal, Gimlet, Morning Market and Handmade Events; a neighbouring bar is planned for the CBD’s award-winning Gimlet mid-2023 and Supernormal is opening in Brisbane in late 2023/early 2024 — the list of venues under Trader House keeps growing.
Much has been written about each business that sits under the banner of Trader House, owned by Andrew McConnell and Jo McGann, but what and who is the common thread making those businesses tick?
The answer is a powerhouse team of committed hospitality management professionals who lead by example on every level and nurture a culture that weaves a compassionate and thoughtful thread through each individual business.
“Our culture is one of excellence,” says Trader House general manager, Chris Handel, “and I think what helps is that there is no outside influence. The people who own and run Trader House are true hospitality people. I know that’s not uncommon, but I think that’s significant.”
He adds, “Andrew is a chef-by-trade, I’m a waiter by-trade and Leanne [Altmann, Trader House Beverage Director] is a sommelier by-trade. We now have other skills and experience, as well as life-experience, and I feel we can offer insight and opportunity to an up-and-coming Chef de Partie or new waiter or someone who wants to learn about wine because these have been our career paths.”
The name Trader House, by the way, was inspired by the unique buildings that house the venue. From a metalworks factory, to rag trade warehouses, and two sites that are home to Victoria’s oldest pubs - the businesses are located in some of the most historic merchant sites in Melbourne. Hence, Trader House.
But it was well before the name was locked in, in 2019, that the group’s culture was already evolving, due to a commitment to consistency in training staff at all levels. Cameron Maher, Trader House front-of-house manager, oversees the quality, staffing, and profitability of the restaurants, especially the front-of-house teams.
“Consistency is a huge focus. I believe much of this comes down to systems and training,” he says. “From language standards when greeting a guest, to the way to present and serve a bottle of wine, we have a way of doing things that we believe represents good service.”
Trader House Beverage Director, Leanne Altmann adds, “we are in the fortunate position that we receive applications from dedicated people who have made hospitality their career, but our comprehensive training also means that we can recruit people who have the right attitude but lack skills. It's important to have the senior staff at each venue with the same clear understanding of standards and expectations, so that they can ensure a consistent approach with their teams.”
On joining Trader House, all staff are provided with an extensive induction pack which includes the company mission and values, the history and timeline of the company and an overview of the culture. “This gives an insight into how we’ve gotten to this point and what our vision is collectively and for each individual business. More functional information such as company policies and the ‘how to’ documentation is also provided at this time. This sets the standard and makes it very clear what our expectations are,” says Cameron.
Feedback is also clearly a critical factor in maintaining standards. Management aims to speak on matters in real time, giving constant feedback, guidance and coaching on-shift. This is reinforced with two way performance appraisals every four to six weeks, for all staff, so there is, what Cameron describes as, an incredibly open dialogue. “These appraisals also include goal setting and development plans and have helped to shape our systems and standards. Feedback is actively sought from staff who have their say in the way our businesses operate.”
Leanne uses three key streams of wine training across the restaurants that are adapted to the specific needs of service in each venue. The level of knowledge that is demanded by the guests or the beverage program will change in each venue, and within that, she does some type of coaching or education every day.
“The wine and bar teams at each venue run training sessions outside of service that are specific to their offering. The focus changes regularly, and is a combination of product knowledge and processes,” she says.
The second stream of training, the in-service coaching, is the most important to Leanne. “This is where we put theory into practice, coaching the soft skills of service - things like turns of phrase, movement, workflow - and reinforcing the standards of service, guest recognition and product knowledge. This happens in service, every day.”
The third and most formal stream is the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses, of which Leanne is a Certified Educator. She has been running Level 2 and Level 3 in Wines for Trader House employees since 2017. Team members from many different parts of the business - chefs, butchers, guest services, managers - join waiters in extending their systematic tasting ability and their general understanding of wine.
Group head chef, Ben Pollard adds that consistency and culture are “really big in all our kitchens, there are no egos. Of course, we believe there are ways to work but our approach also has to be nurturing - that is extremely important to us.”
Maintaining a nurturing environment in some of the city’s busiest kitchens is challenging but Ben says their recruitment, training and appraisal systems are a pivotal part of staff retention.
“There’s a phone-screen initial interview, about 30-45 minutes of 60-70 questions and then, depending on how that goes, another interview with a senior chef, followed by a trial in the kitchen. We have monthly appraisals and base our kitchen staff on a buddy system, there’s always someone looking out for another staff member,” Ben says.
More broadly, Trader House runs structured internal management training and specific mental health and well-being training. The management training is a program developed and delivered by the senior management team and includes sessions dedicated to recruitment, people and culture, financial reports and marketing and commercial viability. This training is open to all employees (650+ in number) and attendees are paid for their time to attend these sessions.
This commitment, with focus on training and open dialogue with staff, is equalled by the love and passion the team have for giving their customers a wonderful experience, at any Trader House business a guest may visit.
“I love that people who don’t know who Andrew is and may not know the relationship between the venues, still recognise there’s something familiar in the businesses they visit,” says Loren.
“Regardless of the style of the venues, our core principles remain the same. We aim to greet the guests with warmth, keep our focus on quality, ensure consistency, and always remain genuine and authentic,” Leanne says.
Cameron adds, “A couple of key values resonate with our venues. It's all about humility, generosity and being engaged in what we're serving. This also extends to the food; it’s about simple things done well. Great produce, simply prepared with a balance of flavours and textures.”
Of the food and the thread through each venue, Ben says, “Each place has its own vision. Where the thread lies is that the same ethos of quality carries through each business in terms of produce. I love working with the produce that we get and talking to producers daily.”
Staff are encouraged to be 'informed yet informal', to be prepared, have the answers, know their product, but look after guests without pretension. It’s the teams’ job to make sure guests feel welcome and cared for.
“Everyone is welcome. We extend the same care to a solo-diner having a quick lunch as we do to the business celebration drinking endless bottles of Champagne,” Cameron says.
The culture and narrative of Trader House will be expanded when Supernormal opens in Brisbane in late 2023/early 2024.
“We’re going to need to recruit a team of about 30 people to run the operation in Brisbane,” says Chris Handel.
Chris knows it will take commitment and time, “Some of our best and brightest will go up for a lengthy period of time to set the foundations and to align our values, this is something we take very seriously.”
It's the first time the group is opening interstate and managing expectations will also be part of the challenge. “There will be people who want a ‘Melbourne experience,’ says Chris, “but there’ll be people who want it to be tailored to Queensland, so we’ll be dovetailing those and plan to meet a lot of those expectations.”
By maintaining their inclusion and connectedness, as well as their consistency, we don’t doubt Trader House will meet all those expectations and more, for many years to come.