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Ollie Margan on building a bar’s brand

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made us all miss many a milestone, as events are cancelled country-wide and celebrations are adapted to lockdown and restrictions. 

One such milestone that Adelaide operator Ollie Margan was supposed to mark this year was the sixth anniversary of Maybe Mae. While the bar wasn’t able to throw a big event with its patrons, Margan noted the positive was being able to reflect on a great journey, and said: “It was obviously a little bit bittersweet, but a fantastic milestone.”

The past six years have not only been one of growth for the business and everyone involved, it’s also been an evolution where the bar has found and maintained its brand. In looking back on the success, we went back to where it all started with Margan, and his learnings over the years. 

“I always grew up around food and wine and drink. My father’s a winemaker and my mum’s a restauranteur, and they started a business covering both of those things when I was four years old, so there’s a level of predisposition to the industry,” Margan told Bars and Clubs

Working in the family’s winery and kitchen, then going on to travel the world and work in wineries along the way, Margan had initially decided to become a winemaker and started studying to become one. It was while he was studying that he picked up a job in a restaurant to pay the bills, eventually transitioning from the kitchen to learn more about wine and mixed drink service. 

“After about 18 months working at a restaurant called Press in Adelaide, they were opening a bar which was the first small bar in Adelaide, and an offer me a position there. So I moved over to Proof, and then after just shy of a year they were opening another venue, which was going to be a very cocktail focused bar, and they asked me to be involved. That bar was Maybe Mae,” Margan said.

“I guess I kind of fell into it accidentally, but as I said I’m sure I was slightly predisposed to end up where I have.”

Margan said this backstory of how he came to be at Maybe Mae meant that he often went his own way and didn’t try to recreate things from prior experiences. With the Adelaide bar scene just starting to find its cocktail culture, Margan said he was open to inspiration from everywhere, testing out elements to see what worked well and how. 

“I don’t really have some great story of working in amazing establishments and having these mentors or anything like that. I did have to work out the way that I wanted to do things myself,” Margan said.

“Looking back on it, I think part of the success is the way that it happened. I think I put a lot of pressure on myself – I was very acutely aware of how little experience and how little I really did know about that side of drinks. I did know a lot about booze and products, and had done a lot of work with my palate through other avenues… So I kind of knew what I wanted to achieve.

“I think that not having those classic mantras drilled into me allowed for the product that we developed and created to be a lot more tailored to our local audience, as opposed to, ‘this is how they do it at Milk and Honey,’ or ‘this is how they do it here’, we built our own way of doing things. I think that’s allowed us to be quite unique in what we do and it’s created an identifiable brand, which, not really consciously knowing at the time but looking back on it now, I feel like that’s a really important aspect to have to gain you because it’s such a competitive marketplace.

“There’s so much available information, that it’s not difficult to create a really good drinks program, but it’s difficult to create a really identifiable drinks program. And that coupled with the way that we’ve designed our service model, with elements of restaurant service, bar service and a whole array of different influences, as an amalgam to form something that we think is pretty identifiable as us.”

Having that identifiable ‘brand’ for the bar is something that Margan described as an evolution of slow tweaks in line with trends, the developing hospitality scene in the area, and customer tastes. 

“There’s an element of knowing what you know but also knowing what you don’t know, and keeping a really open mind to where influence can come from,” Margan said. 

“If you look back at when we first opened versus what we are now there, it’s two incredibly different bars, but by the same token, I couldn’t really identify a particular day when it changed. So for me it’s this slow evolution… when we opened, the sort of the dialogue around cocktails was people just discovering the Negroni. And now, we’re doing drinks with ferments and rotovaps and all that sort of stuff. To take the same customers from a point of that exposure to drinks, to a point where they’re supporting something that is a lot more ambitious, a lot more technical, a lot more challenging, means that I think we’ve gone about things the right way. There’s been an organic evolution and we haven’t lost people along the way.”

Maybe Mae’s established and identifiable brand, along with the team’s commitment to organic evolution, was partly behind why the bar chose to avoid the takeaway and bottled cocktail movement that took hold during lockdown. Things were changing so quickly in terms of what was allowed and how, and the uncertainty of a lot of factors combined for Margan to choose not to go down that path.

He said: “We thought of investing time and money into a business concept that would be very short lived… there’s a bit of uncertainty around that. The second thing is, I put a lot of faith in the decisions we’ve made for that business in terms of building that brand over the last six years. And for me, if I hadn’t landed on that being a viable concept in those six years, what made me think that it was going to be: A – super successful, and B – be able to be pulled together in a really short time frame to a level that I was going to be happy with?”

There was also the fact that Margan wanted to give Maybe Mae staff a chance to stop, hit pause and absorb what was happening before they worked on something new for the venue. And even after that, the initial focus was internal, strengthening what they had within the bar to be able to re-emerge on the scene in a way that would help the business, its staff and its brand.

Now, Maybe Mae has reopened and this position has paid off to the point where Margan can think about helping friends and colleagues in Melbourne. You can read more about this initiative here.

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