Anton Forte is a boss in the figurative and literal sense. He's the co-owner of a slew of excellent bars in Sydney which (unusually for Sydney) are very cool without being aloof. I slunk into a booth at Baxter's Inn one morning for a ginger beer — and to talk about why mixing a good drink doesn't necessarily make you a good barman.
Pop quiz, barflies: What do Ramblin' Rascal's Tavern, Tio's Cerveceria and Earl's Juke Joint have in common?
If you're still scratching your head, it's this: All are owned and operated by former Swillhouse bartenders. If you're a little rusty on your local bar knowledge, Swillhouse is a kind of collective noun for the triumvirate of bars owned by Anton Forte and Jason Scott: Shady Pines Saloon, Baxter's Inn and Frankie's Pizza By The Slice. (In fact Shady’s was, once upon a time, to be christened ‘Swillhouse’ but authorities vetoed the name because of its association with excessive drinking.) These bars have the distinct sense of being beloved by the many who have descended their stairs -- and seemingly of being the training ground for the proprietors of new characterful drinking dens.
Forte is the kind of guy you’d enjoy working for, even if you did harbour dreams of running away to start your own basement bar. Larrikin-like in humour and laidback in demeanour, you wouldn't guess he runs a veritable booze empire. But naturally hospitable and strongly opinionated in what makes a good bar, it's a logical fit.
He started in hospitality at 17 for a river cruise company, “mainly as a kind of shit-kicker”. He may not have felt the highs of service there, but in his next job behind the bar at a pub, he was inspired: “I wanted to become a hospitality legend because I met a guy there who was really cool,” Forte says, with a hint of bemusement. “He was always hanging out with hot chicks and he worked at a nightclub. He was just cool; really handsome and tall and well-spoken and went travelling. He was just really cool...” Forte pauses. “Maybe he wasn’t that cool in retrospect. But he was patient, and I learned a lot."
“What I really fell in love with, too, was the connection with people: when you’re serving a person there’s some kind of trust. You can just chit-chat and gibber, and express yourself in a way you can’t with someone on the street.”
Forte is emphatic that he always knew he'd start his own venture; it was merely a matter of when. Working with Scott at the Victoria Room led to post-work drinks at joints around Sydney (he cites the long-gone Baron's as a venue which “eclipses any venue of any time, including our own”) where they’d kick around ideas until eventually these gained too much vigour and momentum to ignore.
And so, with such lauded service at his venues, what are the most important things he looks for in his staff? “Personality and having a good work ethic. Those are the two things you can’t teach anyone,” he answers. “You can teach pretty much anyone how to make a vodka, lime and soda.”
"You should treat people equally. Be egalitarian,” Forte continues. “Sometimes you walk into a bar and the bartender’s only paying attention to a hot girl or guy, and they’re ignoring some suits or older people who aren’t perceived as cool. And I hate that. I think if you’re all-inclusive that’s being hospitable. Making people feel like they’re part of the joke, they’re part of the team."
The ethos applies whether you’re behind the bar or entering it: Swillhouse venues have an enduring notoriety for their ‘no queue jumpers’ policy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an old mate, a celebrity, ridiculously hot or in desperate need of a drink. (Forte doesn’t even seem able to distinguish celebrities from any other customer, when I mention off-hand that for a very long time I didn’t know who Katy Perry was he responds in earnest, “Is that the one from Dawson’s Creek?”) They’re serious about offering indiscriminate good service.
Forte sees an advantage in his staff who want to graduate to their own ventures: “It’s a ballsy move; it’s hard work. If we can get people that have that mentality, that are ready and willing to do their own place, it means that they’re going to have great hospitality, be hard-working and have attention to detail. They’re great attributes.”
“We were them five years ago,” says Forte, of his staff. “We always try to guide people if they want to do a venue. If not, that’s cool as well, not everyone wants to; but we like to have some kind of career progression too… any information we have, we give.”