Bubble guns, disarming guests and play-fighting – how Maybe Sammy delivers the world’s best service

Mark Sansom - 08/10/2020

Australasia’s highest-ranking bar has the best hospitality in the global bar scene, according to The World’s 50 Best Bars Academy. As they are given the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award 2020, the team behind Sydney’s Maybe Sammy spoke with 50 Best to reveal the service secrets behind delivering the ultimate guest experience and some exciting news about the future

Ahead of the announcement of The World’s 50 Best Bars 2020 on 5th November, 50 Best is revealing three very special pre-announced awards. Today marks the first – the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award – which will be followed by the Campari One To Watch on 15th October and Altos Bartenders’ Bartender on 22nd October. Following that will be the reveal of the 51-100 list on 29th October, before the 2020 virtual ceremony the week after.

Maybe Sammy, the Sydney bar which placed No.43 in the list last year just nine months after opening, is the winner of the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award in its inaugural year. Each member of the 540-strong 50 Best Bars voting Academy was asked to name the single bar where they received the best service experience in the voting period (which this year ran from January 2019 – March 2020) and Australia’s leading bar came out on top.

Watch Maybe Sammy’s video in celebration of their win

“When I got the call to let us know we’d won the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award this year, it almost felt like I was frozen in time,” says Martin Hudak, one of Maybe Sammy’s co-founders. “It was a Friday night so we were super busy, but I managed to call Stefano [Catino] and Andrea [Gualdi] outside and we all started hugging and jumping around on the street. The guests must have wondered what the hell was going on.”

Hudak’s bouncing buddies here are the lynchpins for the bar’s success. Catino runs the front of house, while Hudak himself and Gualdi work the bar. All European exports to Australia, they found a welcome in Sydney, where the local produce is rich and nightlife some of the best in the world. 50 Best asked some quickfire questions about their adopted new home and how they deliver the pinnacle of service.

What does hospitality mean to Maybe Sammy?

Stefano Catino: For us, ‘hospitality’ is not just a word; it’s at the heart of everything that we do. It’s what we’re thinking about from the moment we wake until we finish our shift. It’s the centre of our universe.

Martin Hudak: It’s something that you cannot touch or feel. It’s somewhere there around you; a feeling, an emotion – like love. You know it’s there, but you can’t put your finger on it. And it’s really up to us as to how we can transfer this feeling to our guests. It’s one thing creating amazing cocktails with the ingredients that we are lucky enough to work with, but hospitality is the extra thing that is given from the heart and can be the difference between a good and great bar.

Andrea Gualdi: I agree. I think hospitality for us is based on a philosophy of empathy – the happiness of the guests translates into happiness for us. It's not really an effort; for me it comes with the pleasure of being behind the bar.
Andrea Gualdi, Stefano Catino and Martin Hudak - the team choreographing Maybe Sammy's award-winning service

You are becoming famous for your use of toys in the bar. How does this fit into the hospitality ethos?

SC: When my daughter was born, I was spending a lot of time in toy shops. I didn’t buy any toys for her as she was young, but I kept getting things for Andrea and Martin. The first was our bubble gun – when they got them, they were like a pair of kids playing around. It was brilliant to see. It showed us that we all have the same mindset and we want to transfer this element of joy to the guests. Sometimes people want to come to the bar, have a chat and not be disturbed. When this happens, we’ll just deliver their drinks with a couple of toys and then leave. It’s the perfect ice breaker to show them that we are here to interact, should they want it.

MH: As we get older, we forget to play, forget how to have fun. When we were kids, nothing made us happier than bubbles, right? That’s the kind of thing we need today. Bars become so obsessed with things that aren’t important and can become like a church or a very restrictive space. Some lose the element of enjoyment and relaxation. We use these toys to break barriers between us and guests. Our bar is full of marble, very sleek and polished – the toys help to disarm and make people relax. It makes a nice contrast as they see us with our ties and double-breasted jackets, but we’re smiling and messing around the whole time.

AG: Yes, but you can only do this when you are absolutely sure the quality of everything else is 100%. To be able to be frivolous, fun and disarming, we need to be confident that our programme is perfect and every element of service is faultless. We have guests who arrive and don’t know what to expect when they see us fighting with bubble guns behind the bar. Then at the end of the night they leave and are like ‘what the hell just happened?’. It’s all about providing something that they don’t expect, but delivering it with class and style.

How do you feel about the cocktail scene in Australia?

SC: It really is fantastic and I would not be surprised if we saw a greater number of bars from Australia on The World’s 50 Best list this year. There is a lot more freedom with the bar scene here in Sydney than in other places I’ve worked, such as London. The economy remains very strong here and people are happy to spend their money on a bar experience, so we are really seeing the bar operators push the boundaries of what is possible. Luke Whearty is doing magical things with flavour and Matt Wiley is a complete expert of service.

MH: It’s a great place to go out and enjoy yourself from day to night. The coffee culture is really strong and this blends into the nightlife.

What are your favourite ingredients to work with?

AG: It’s amazing here – you can find a wildly diverse range of products the whole year round. Some of the wildflowers and herbs I’ve discovered have really opened my eyes. For me, it would have to be strawberry gum or sandalwood; the woody elements from Australia are amazing and I love to incorporate these into cocktails, but strawberry gum gives a great sweetness and aroma.

MH: Coffee, coffee, coffee! The coffee culture here really resonates with me and I love to use it in drinks, but I’d have to say my favourite ingredient is lemon myrtle. It’s the smell of Australia for me, it permeates my house and I find it very Zen, very peaceful. I haven’t designed a cocktail with it yet, but I can see it working very well in a Martini, or a Sour.

SC: It has to be geranium. It reminds me of home in Italy when I smell it here. It is in its wild form here and can be used to make some delicious drinks.

The bar's most popular drink: the watermelon-based Dunes

How has Covid-19 affected the bar business in Sydney?

AG: Right now, we are ok. When we first opened after lockdown, guests were very cautious but the government handled it very well. The perception of risk has come down a lot because everyone is behaving very safely. We have half the capacity than we did before, but we have noticed that people are spending more on nights out.

SC: Yes, because people are going out less, they spend more when they do. The spend per guest isn’t quite double, but definitely at least 25% more. We’ve seen the same in our pizza shop too – the capacity has halved, but we are making the same money that we were last year. Australians are big travelers. They like to go to Europe, to America, but right now they’re all stuck here, so we’re getting a lot of Aussies coming in on weekend breaks who are prepared to spend and enjoy themselves.

MH: Exactly. We’re really focusing on our regulars and trying to create new regulars. Now we aren’t seeing as many international travelers, we are giving extra emphasis on the local crowd. In terms of our service, we’re spending more time at the table having conversations with them, learning about where they are from and explaining what we do. Having a lower capacity has really helped us be able to do this.

What’s next for Maybe Sammy?

MH: We have two very exciting things in the pipeline. The first, we have been planning since we reopened after lockdown. We noticed that people are going out earlier in the day and maybe drinking a little less, so we want to be able to accommodate them. This also plays to our strengths, where we have a lot of knowledge around things like aperitivo and coffee. We have our sights set on the city centre for a new, more casual all-day space. We’ll be serving low-ABV cocktails in smaller portions, quality coffee and lunch-style food. We hope to open it in January next year.

SC: The second project is one we are super buzzing about. Since we made the The World’s 50 Best Bars list last year, we have been getting a lot of calls from people approaching us with collaboration proposals. We are working with a big hotel group to launch a bar on the top floor in the heart of Sydney. We’ve designed the concept and it’s going to be a spin-off of Maybe Sammy and Maybe Frank and will become number three in the series. It’s great because we’ve been allowed to do our thing and it’s great to have the support from a major brand that clearly trusts us.

The World’s 50 Best Bars virtual ceremony will be open for all to watch. Please join us on 5th November on our Facebook and YouTube channels at 3pm UK time, where we will be streaming the event live to the world.