Q&A with Frank Hannon-Tan, Co-Founder of Mother Vine, South Australia’s No. 1 Wine Bar.
Recently awarded ‘Best Wine Bar’ in South Australia, Mother Vine has given Adelaidian wine lovers something to get excited about with its substantial range of high-quality wine – sourced locally and from individual producers alongside more well-known names.
As part of our ongoing Behind the Kounta series, we chatted to co-founder Frank Hannon-Tan, about how Mother Vine grew from concept to award-winning wine bar in just three short years.
How was Mother Vine born?
Michael, Pablo, David and I knew each other from the industry and became good friends over our shared passion for great wine.
In my restaurant before, I noticed more and more customers choosing to buy one glass of high-quality wine over two mediocre ones – this was the case for a lot of business customers who were looking for something to really enjoy with their dinner, but couldn’t afford to overindulge because they’d have to get up early the next day.
The issue for them was, if they wanted a good glass of wine, the only place they could go was the pub where the wine lists, glassware and staff knowledge was average at best.
We often discussed the need for a wine bar in Adelaide but licensing laws made it impossible to open one back then; obtaining a liquor license meant you had to spend considerable amounts of money fighting pubs over the license conditions, and even if you won, there were onerous regulations to abide by thereafter.
The regulations then wouldn’t allow customers to walk into a bar without the obligation to sit down and eat, which defeated the purpose of a wine bar entirely! Luckily, in 2014, the liquor licensing laws were changed and we jumped at the opportunity. We opened Mother Vine in early 2015 and have been trading well ever since.
What’s it been like going into business with three other partners?
In a word, it’s been great! We all get on well and knew each other before starting Mother Vine, which made the whole process smooth sailing.
The best thing is, we all have a keen interest in wine from different parts of the world; Pablo in Italian wines, Michael in French. I have a broad interest in wine myself and David holds a ‘Mater of Wine’ qualification.
Collectively, we all have experiences from our other hospitality businesses that we brought to the table, but most importantly, we’re all passionate about our shared vision.
At the start, we all had a vision which varied somewhat, and this process had to be worked through to ensure the wine bar wasn’t a mish-mash of ideas, but rather, had a unified look and feel, and ultimately, offered a unified experience.
To improve the way we collaborate, we use cloud-based systems which offer full transparency and up-to-date data, so we all know how the business is performing at all times. We then met to discuss ideas and changes when needed.
How have the new licensing rules affected the bar scene in South Australia, and how have you dealt with the changes?
The explosion in businesses operating with the new Small Venue license has been a boon for the City of Adelaide. Combine this with the new Adelaide Oval and you have a real catalyst for change; the city has become more vibrant as a result.
Of course we weren’t the only ones with the idea of opening a bar and now there is a lot of competition around. However, we’ve stuck to our niche and stayed true to our vision. We could have expanded outside of this, but instead we’ve continually reinvested in improving our wine offering. It hasn’t been easy but I’m proud to say we haven’t taken any shortcuts.
In 2017, we won the Restaurant and Catering Australia Awards for Excellence Best Wine Bar in South Australia, which tells us we’re on the right track with our business decisions and investments.
Looking back, what was the best investment of time and money during the early stages of getting set up?
The concept of a wine bar is different to your standard sit down restaurant and we wanted to communicate that in the way that the space was created. So we hired Ryan Genesin, an architectural designer who pulled our more prosaic needs and created a unified design umbrella that linked all our requirements together.
Over the years I’ve realised how important someone like Ryan is when setting up a new venue, and I believe good venue design is the newest and most important element that has emerged in hospitality over the past five years.
Can you describe the venue design process?
I knew a few architects outside of work and asked for some recommendations. From there we interviewed a few different options and went with Ryan in the end. He knows how to create spaces that people love to come back to and has a passion for understanding how people commune and socialise.
Because there were four of us with varying tastes and ideas, our first task was to create a mood board that everybody liked. Ryan pushed us as a group to make decisions and agree on the most important elements. From this, we reached a unified vision of a wine bar that we were all happy with.
After this, it was a process of balancing the space to suit the business’ needs and predicting and optimising the space for how the customers would use it. Ryan was also involved during the building phase to ensure the final output was en pointe.
Were there any surprises or elements that didn’t work as well as you had envisioned?
There were a few small elements that didn’t end up working as well as we thought they would, but that was more to do with people using the space in unexpected ways.
We had an idea and a concept of how we thought the space would work best, but once you start to fill the place up, people use it in a more organic way. This meant that some elements which we felt were well thought out didn’t really come to fruition.
It’s just the evolution of space, you can plan and optimise, but ultimately if people don’t want to sit in a certain way, they just won’t. Having said that, overall, it worked really well for us and was definitely a worthwhile investment.
What has been your best investment since you opened, and what makes the wine bar successful?
The number one thing we invested in is good quality Reidel glassware. We also bought a Coravin system which allows us to serve more expensive bottles by the glass and still keep them ‘fresher’ for longer.
We also continually reinvest in our cellar so we have an expansive wine list that is always growing.
Everything we do is about offering the best experience to our customers.
From hiring staff with solid wine knowledge, training them to provide great service, to building a well-curated selection of wines and a well thought out food menu as an adjunct to the wine experience – it is our focus on the entire customer wine experience that differentiates us, and it’s what I believe generates repeat business, and a good reputation for us by word-of-mouth.
How do you determine which wines to have on the menu?
David and Pablo are the main drivers of our wine program, which is carefully curated to suit our varying customers. They’re always looking for different kinds of wines from all over the world, but more specifically, they look for interesting Australian producers to appeal to interstate and overseas travellers as well as regional and international wines that appeal to locals.
We make sure we have classic examples of wines from different regions so people can bring their guests from interstate and around the world, and ‘experience Australia’ through wine.
What events and partnerships have been successful for you?
We’ve done quite a few street parties on Vardon Avenue, and four to five times a year we partner with other venues in the area.
Our most successful collaborative event is probably our Melbourne Cup function for 300–400 people. For that we partner with local fashion, prestigious automobile and Champagne brands, and it’s always a great day.
What are some issues or opportunities you’ve encountered in the past three years?
We do have a lot of competition, but the majority of them tend to be more spirit- and beer-based so that isn’t really an issue for us. We’ve not only managed to cement our reputation in the industry but are also located a little away from the rest of the main bar scene so it shouldn’t impact us too much. Our offering is rather unique.
Social media has been really important for us and it’s been the main avenue we use to communicate with our customers. Once upon a time in hospitality, you would pay for an advert in the local magazine once a week to let people know what you had on. Now you spend that $500 on someone who can take good photos, create good content and communicate with your customers more directly.
One issue we are currently facing is The Royal Adelaide Hospital moving locations – with that we’ll have to try and generate new business from elsewhere and make sure we continue to be at the top of our game in attracting new customers to our venue.
What would you say are your key learnings over the past few years?
There is a lot of hard work to be done in order to realise a vision and there are long periods where you may have to fund things yourself while building up the business.
I’ve also learned that your initial gut feeling on something is really important. It’s easy to compromise and rationalise why it might make more sense to do things a certain way, but when it comes to determining a really good product – if you feel something is right from the beginning, it usually is.
Have there been any mistakes that you’ve learned from?
If I’d realised how important food was going to be I would have put in a bigger kitchen!
In reality though there aren’t really any mistakes, just learnings. I don’t think we’ve done anything majorly wrong in the business. We’ve made errors in judgment, but that’s just because we wanted to try things out and they didn’t work.
How do you determine what goes on your food menu?
We have a great chef in the kitchen, Adrian Bernardi, who is creative and adventurous with his menu.
My business partners and I are well traveled and constantly suggest dishes from experiences we’ve had elsewhere, and Adrian is great at researching and experimenting with these ideas in order to successfully add them to the menu.
How have you boosted business on nights that are a bit quiet?
Every two months we have a ‘wine options’ night which is a really big industry event. It’s a really social evening and we get a lot of interest from both winemakers and the general public – it can get very competitive and it’s a lot of fun.
We also have jazz on Sundays. This has been strong and brings in a different clientele for us.
Where do most of your new customers from and what do you do to encourage repeat visits?
Most of our new customers discover us from social media and sites like TripAdvisor. South Australia has a great reputation for wine and travelers go searching for it. We’re also in a little hub which is known for wine and that helps with walk-ins. Among the locals, word-of-mouth is very strong for us.
When it comes to building loyalty, I’m a strong believer in good customer service. It’s the really simple things, like greeting them and saying goodbye and thanking them when they leave.
To me, there’s nothing worse than having a good time at a venue and floating out without any of the staff acknowledging you. These small elements are like the brackets of hospitality, everything else in between relies on good personality, great knowledge and a strong sequence of service that adapts to your customers’ needs.
What does the future have in store for Mother Vine?
Our intention has always been to get to a point where Mother Vine is the go-to place for a fun, yet serious wine experience. It is a process and we are in the thick of it.
Being successful at this will strengthen the brand and that may result in other opportunities, but for now, we’ll continue to work hard at building and maintaining our reputation for high-quality wine and service.
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